How floods in Pakistan are linked to climate change

Pakistan has more glaciers than anywhere outside the polar regions

Devastating floods in Pakistan are a “wake-up call” to the world about the threats of climate change, experts have said.

The record-breaking rain will wreak havoc on any country, not just the poorest nations, a climate scientist told BBC News.

The human impact is clear – another 2,000 people were rescued from floods on Friday, while ministers are warning of food shortages after almost half the country’s crops were washed away.

A sense of injustice is strongly felt in the country. Pakistan contributes less than 1% of the global greenhouse gases that warm our planet, but its geography makes it extremely vulnerable to climate change.

“Literally, a third of Pakistan is underwater right now, which has exceeded every limit, every rule that we’ve seen before,” Climate Minister Sherry Rehman said this week.

Pakistan is located in a part of the world that bears the brunt of two major weather systems. One can bring high temperatures and drought, like the March heatwave, and the other brings monsoons.

The majority of Pakistan’s population lives along the Indus River, which swells and can flood during the monsoons.

The science linking climate change and stronger monsoons is pretty simple. Global warming increases air and sea temperatures, leading to more evaporation. Warmer air can hold more moisture, making monsoon rains heavier.

Scientists predict that average rainfall in the Indian summer monsoon season will increase due to climate change, explains Anja Katzenberger at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

But Pakistan has something else that makes it vulnerable to the effects of climate change – its vast glaciers.

The northern region is sometimes referred to as the ‘third pole’ – it contains more glacial ice than anywhere in the world outside the polar regions.

Glacial ice in Pakistan

Glacial ice in Pakistan

As the world warms, glacier ice is melting. Glaciers in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions are melting rapidly, creating more than 3,000 lakes, the UN Development Program told BBC News. About 33 of them are at risk of a sudden eruption, which could release millions of cubic meters of water and debris, putting 7 million people at risk.

The government of Pakistan and the UN are trying to reduce the risks of these flash floods by installing early warning systems and protective infrastructure.

In the past, poorer countries with weaker flood defenses or lower quality housing were less able to cope with extreme rainfall.

A bridge destroyed by a glacial lake eruption

Glacial lake eruptions are already destroying infrastructure

But climate impact scientist Fahad Saeed told BBC News that even a wealthy nation would be overwhelmed by devastating floods this summer.

“It’s a different kind of animal – the scale of the flooding is so high and the rain so extreme that even very strong defenses will struggle,” explains Dr Saeed from Islamabad, Pakistan.

Map showing damage caused by monsoon rains

Map showing damage caused by monsoon rains

He points to the floods in Germany and Belgium that killed dozens of people in 2021.

Pakistan received almost 190% more rain than the 30-year average from June to August – totaling 390.7mm.

He says the Pakistan Meteorological Service did a “reasonable” job of warning people in advance of floods. And the country has some flood protection systems, but they could be improved, he says.

People with the smallest carbon footprints suffer the most, says Dr. Saeed.

“Victims live in mud houses with almost no resources – they have contributed almost nothing to climate change,” he says.

The floods have affected areas that don’t normally see this kind of rain, including southern Singh and Balochistan districts that are usually arid or semi-arid.

Yusuf Baluch, a 17-year-old climate activist from Balochistan, says inequality in the country is exacerbating the problem. He remembers his own family home escaping the 2010 floods.

“People who live in cities and from more privileged backgrounds are less affected by floods,” he explains.

“People have a right to be angry. Companies are still extracting fossil fuels from Balochistan, but the people there have just lost their homes and have no food or shelter,” he says. He believes the government is failing to support the communities there.

Dr Saeed says the floods are “absolutely a wake-up call” for governments worldwide who have pledged to tackle climate change at successive UN climate conferences.

“All this is happening when the world has warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius – any more warming than that is a death sentence for many people in Pakistan,” he adds.

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