How climate ready are we?

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

imageOn a brief visit to Pakistan this week I noted that the recent floods have left deep impressions on the country’s policy and political leadership. They spoke about the scale of devastation, human suffering and the massive challenge of rehabilitation. They also noted, interestingly, that in their view there was a link to climate change.

The world can shape the debate on climate link in two ways. One, it can argue endlessly about the scientific veracity of the link between human-induced climate change and the floods in Pakistan. It is difficult to establish long-term trends because data on the future does not exist. Past trends are no longer the barometer of weather changes happening today. So naysayers can dismiss the impacts easily. That is why climate change, with its uncertain science and even more uncertain impacts, is a game made for polluters. It is difficult to pinpoint cause and effect. It is easy to deny liability.

Two, the world can agree that even if a single event—like the Pakistan floods that drowned a fifth of the country— cannot be ascribed to climate change, there is no doubt that a link exists between such events and climate change. Science explains clearly that climate change will mean more intense and variable weather events, from rainfall to cyclonic typhoons to intense heat and cold. What happened in Pakistan is part of the emerging chain of such events of changed weather.

The Pakistan meteorological department’s data shows the country received 200 to 700 per cent more rainfall than average. Rains came in cloudbursts in ecologically fragile mountainous areas and led to natural dam bursts and floods downstream. Rains were incessant leading to more floods and greater devastation.

In Pakistan when I was reading about and listening to discussions on floods several questions swirled in my mind. I wondered if the country had a system to manage robust forecasting to inform its people about coming disasters. Did the country have the governance abilities to reach its flood-hit people and help them cope with the devastation? Did the country learn any lessons from the scale of the floods to change its water management strategies? I wondered if Pakistan or any other country could indeed cope with or adapt to the changed climate.

The discussions suggested that the country’s meteorological department had information about the possible rain events and it did inform policy makers. But could the system foresee the scale of the disaster? Remember there is no written code for such events in these uncertain times. The other open question is if the weather information the department generated, with all its uncertainties, could be communicated clearly to the people who risked rain, landslide and flood. Yet who can predict whether people, even if told to evacuate, would indeed leave their homes and possessions? These are communities that cope with adversities daily. They would not even have a memory of a disaster of such a scale. This was not an annual flood; this was a deluge.

So how should Pakistan and other similarly affected countries—like most of India—develop a robust system of weather forecasting and disaster information? And can they?

How will the country provide immediate relief to millions rendered homeless? Every flood and drought result in a spiral of poverty and destitution. Every disaster destroys years of development.

Pakistan is no different. The country’s media is full of reports on how government will reach people. The country plans to transfer Pakistani Rs 1 lakh (roughly Rs 50,000) to seven million households in two installments for rebuilding lives. It hopes to do this through a smart bank card, which will identify the affected and reach the funds to them. But already reports show the beneficiaries are poorly identified, money is inadequate and not reaching the people. This is not new. All disasters are disasters of poor governance and inabilities to fix delivery systems.

The question is: how the system of disaster relief can be reengineered for an even more vulnerable world? Can it work in extraordinary times, when it fails in the ordinary?

Then there is the issue of better flood management. As I have written earlier in the context of similar disasters in India, we need to relearn land and water management strategies. Pakistan, like India, has much to learn—from not building habitations in flood-vulnerable areas to channelising river water instead of taming rivers within embankments that invariably break or just do not work. But will it learn, and learn fast in a climate variable world?

The answers will determine our future.

—Sunita Narain

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  • Also other parts of the

    Also other parts of the worlds have to deal with more extreme weather conditions, for instance Europe (where I live). To my opinion, the most succesful strategy is a combination of measures:
    - keep the rain as long as possible where it falls, so avoid water runoff and erosion-sensitive situations, and don't deforest the land
    - enough space for water transport by rivers, so avoid building projects near rivers and improper canalization projects
    - built sufficiently high dikes, to avoid flooding in very extreme situations

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Mam, Read ur article n


    Read ur article n numerous such articles on issues relating 2 climate changes due 2 human activities like carbon emmissions, deforestations, dam building etc...

    I clearly understand the idea behind such articles, but i have a query 2 such things..........

    mam, do v hav any sort of data on history of such things like to whether there have been such floods in that region prior to 1600 ad ie before the advent of steam & petrol engine...??? )

    2.there was an earthquake in early 1900's in kangra which was very hi may b 7 or 8 on richter scale. was it due to deforestation..???

    3.Indian history & our Hindu relics talk about floods in all major river systems of India historically. were they also a part of some human activity..???

    4.western scientists have proved about a sea (tethyes) that was at the place (now himalayas). what were the reasons 4 its extintion..???

    I dont want to counter your views, but just want 2 bring your kind attention to the fact that when v r trying 2 prove something & blaming some1 for it, v must b having full knowledge about it. I work 4 my planet & do appreciate ur work. Mam, if u have any of the data on some of the above said or some related things, pls do make me aware of it....
    as no doubt, that diesel/petrol/carboon emmissions must b killing earth, but it may also be due to the natural evoloution process encompassing the history of the humans & the earth..

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Why is it, even now,

    Why is it, even now, politically incorrect to mention the p-word: population, as the single cause of magnifying the impact of natural disasters ? Its becoming increasingly clear that any disaster, man made or otherwise, will continue to have proportionately wider/deeper impact when humans are determined to occupy every square inch of this planet. For any given natural calamity, the proportion of people being affected have increased exponentially with population. And it will continue to do so when population exigencies force the lesser privileged to occupy even river beds, knowing fully well a single year of excess rain will cause untold misery. God has no choice but to resort to calamities of increasing magnitude to create a level playing field for nature and other species still left on this planet.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Have we perhaps made mistakes

    Have we perhaps made mistakes and can we perhaps learn from China, which suffered similar floods but far less damage.

    Where there are so many people seeking fertile land to assure livelihoods, it will be difficult to keep the flood plains unpopulated. So we need to manage the flow of water as well as the flow of people.

    To do that, we need to be able to store flood waters during extreme rainfall periods, and release them gradually.

    This is not theory, this is what China built the Three Gorges dam for. It is why they lose millions of Yuan in electricity production because they lower the water every year so that it can help to store the flood.

    In our desire to retain natural rivers have we ignored the needs of our people and failed to build the dams that could have protected them? Do we need to acknowledge our mistakes and rethink the positive contribution that dams can make for sustainable human and environmental development?

    Or will we be making more unrealistic prescriptions that leave people vulnerable to future disasters, whatever their origin.

    And there is a positive side to the floods which we have not heard about. The falling water tables of the Punjab have been significantly recharged, giving us some breathing room to make sensible decisions.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunitji, It is an

    Dear Sunitji,

    It is an interesting coincidence of floods both in Pakistan and Andhra Pradesh.

    Global warming and climate change are big issues for which we have no ready solutions.

    In the short term flood management is a good option.

    Build check dams wherever possible and useful on all the streams that feed the rivers and tributaries and divert excess flood water for local needs of irrigation and drinking water. This helps flood prevention to some extent and utilizing flood waters fruitfully.

    I presume China successfully prevented rains during its olympics by shelling moist clouds with silver iodide shells before they reach the venue. If possible we may apply that technology. Let us see if we can not induce rains, we might be able to prevent rains selectively.


    P.Nukiah Chetty

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply
  • Thank you sunita for your

    Thank you sunita for your article about floods in pakistan.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 10 years ago | Reply