Climate Change in light of the recent floods in Pakistan
“There is insufficient data to say what will happen to the Indus,” says David Grey, the World Bank’s senior water advisor in South Asia. “But we all have very nasty fears that the flows of the Indus could be severely, severely affected by glacier melt as a consequence of climate change,” and reduced by perhaps as much as 50 percent. “Now what does that mean to a population that lives in a desert [where], without the river, there would be no life? I don’t know the answer to that question,” he says. “But we need to be concerned about that. Deeply, deeply concerned.”
In light of the recent disastrous floods that have crippled our country, I can’t help but think of the future and what it will hold for us. Most of the world has started guarding against climate change and we are all looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint, but do we in Pakistan really understand how this coming doom will affect us? Do we know what we should do to prepare for it? Do our politicians even understand the complexities of this problem? I think it is time to think about these questions, to understand what climate change will mean for us and to start planning for the future for the future.
The recent floods have followed, with uncanny precision, weather patterns predicted by the Global Circulation Models (GCM), which calculate possible future scenarios based on changes in the climate. The Indus Basin, our only source of freshwater, depends heavily on the glaciers in the western Himalayas. These mountains act as water reservoirs holding the freshwater and releasing it over time. These glacial reservoirs constitute the base river flow in dry periods when there is no rain; hence when these glaciers deplete, we will be left with a reduced base flow in our rivers leading to an increased water shortage in our already water-stressed country. These glaciers are now at the mercy of climate change and that does not bode well for the Indus Basin, or consequently, for Pakistan. Based on the global climate change models that have been developed by climate researchers worldwide, predictions are that the glaciers will retreat for the next fifty years, during which time there will be an increased flow in the rivers. The glacial melting will occur simultaneously with flashier rainfall and this combination will be disastrous for the Indus basin which already faces problems due to flooding and drainage. This pattern will continue for the next few decades, after which due to the depletion of the glacial reserve there will be an alarming 30-40% decrease in the flow of the River Indus.
The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses ten Global Circulation Models (GCMs) to predict the outcomes of climate change. Nine of those models predict a high precipitation rate, which means increased rainfall, and only one predicts a decrease in precipitation during the summer monsoon. Curiously enough, it was this outlying model that was chosen to predict what the future holds for India and by extrapolation, Pakistan. The analysis revealed a decrease in the number of rainy days, but an increase in extreme precipitation events. This means that the already volatile summer monsoon pattern will become even more complicated. As we have seen in the recent floods, volatility and unpredictability in the South Asian monsoons can wreak disastrous havoc. These floods should be treated as a serious wake-up call. We really need to start thinking about the future and undertake planning for more flood and water scarcity management.
Somehow, we, in Pakistan tend to focus almost exclusively on the here and now, neglecting predictions for the future. The recent floods, however, are a thing of the present, and when we look at the weather patterns that were followed by these floods, climate change predictions suddenly become more immediate, more serious and extremely alarming.
This summer, due to historically high temperatures, clouds carried much more water than expected. In addition, due to low pressure systems in the region, clouds arising from the Bay of Bengal disgorged the bulk of their water content in heavy quantities in Pakistan’s mountainous north. This resulted in flash floods as the water made its way down through uncountable ravines and gorges in the Northern Areas which join the Indus and its major tributaries before flowing down through the KP province and Punjab to Sindh. The Arabian Sea monsoon system, taking a more northerly path and disgorging in the Suleiman ranges, led to flash floods in Baluchistan. The resulting waters flowed into southern Punjab and Sindh. We all know what happened after that. Floods unlike any other in the history of our country, water flows that have broken century-old records, over 1500 people dead, 20 million people affected, 4.25 million acres of crops including cotton, sugarcane, rice and maize, destroyed, millions of houses washed away, major oil depots shut down, major link roads like the Grand Trunk (GT) road and the Motorway inundated, entire villages washed away…I could go on and on listing the calamities brought forth by these disastrous floods.
This climate change ‘prediction’ definitely seems to be coming true. The unreliable monsoon is becoming even more uncertain and we are seeing increased rainfall, (as was predicted by nine out of the ten global climate change models), occurring in a concentrated fashion. In the coming years, water flow from the glaciers will keep increasing as our precious store of freshwater melts and makes its way into the sea. If all this is true, then we are surely headed for disaster, since any disruption in the flow of the Indus will be catastrophic for Pakistan. “The Indus water system is the lifeline for Pakistan, as 75 to 80% of water flows to Pakistan as melt from the Himalayan glaciers. This glacier melt forms the backbone of the irrigation network in Pakistan, with 90% of agricultural land being fed by the vastly spread irrigation network in Pakistan, one of the largest in the world” Dr. Muhammad Irshad, Executive Director of Global Change Impacts Studies Centre in Pakistan.
In what way can Pakistan prepare for this changed and unfamiliar climate?
I cannot stress enough the importance of ‘harvesting’ the increased run-off due to glacial melt. As such,dams should be a crucial part of our agenda. Managing this water wisely over the coming dry years is also imperative. In comparison to the Murray-Darling and Colorado rivers, which have a storage capacity of nine hundred days, the Indus Basin has a capacity of a mere thirty days. Investments will need to be made to store water in small (rainwater) dams, and larger dams, in both surface and groundwater reservoirs. Conjunctive water management (management of both ground and surface water supplies) will have to be implemented. In addition to this, strategies and policies must be changed to ensure that the ‘harvested’ water is used for existing or historical demands and not to bring additional land under cultivation as we will need this water when the flow of the Indus system reduces. Instead, we should bring into practice conservation techniques especially in managing the vast amounts of water we use for
agriculture. A lot of water is wasted while being transported through canals and irrigating farmland, as we still largely practice flood irrigation. To summarize, a more flexible and adaptive management policy will have to be adopted in this coming era of variable climate, where there will be more floods and more droughts. New infrastructure and management policies that are equipped to deal with this erratic climate regime should be put into place before it is too late.
Lead image by Oxfam International (source: Flickr)