Pakistan is in the midst of an unprecedented natural catastrophe with large parts devastated by floods. 33 million people, which is 1/7 of its population, have been affected and 1,100 have lost their lives. One-third of the country’s land is flooded. Pakistan knows all about downpours, but this year it has received the highest rainfall in at least three decades. What has hit Pakistan is a double whammy of flash floods.
Over the weekend, which brought another torrential rain, government officials said the death toll had surpassed 1100 and water had inundated up to a third of the country.
The main fuel for these catastrophic floods is rain. Summer is monsoon season, and this has been particularly wet and wicked, perhaps made worse by climate change. But there is another culprit behind the recent devastation: melting glaciers and snow.
A scorching summer, where temperatures consistently hovered above 45 degrees Celsius throughout May, played a role in the more massive downpours. High temperatures mean that warmer air can hold much more water, about 7 per cent more moisture content per degree Celsius. Some areas of Pakistan like Jacobabad and Dadu even saw temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius.
All of this additional moisture then falls in torrents. The country has seen rainfall 780 per cent above average levels this year. Baluchistan and Sindh have seen a 400% increase in average rainfall leading to extreme flooding. At least 20 dams have been broken in the country.
Melting glaciers in Pakistan
Pakistan’s rains are being “stimulated by climate change,” US climate scientist Jennifer Francis was quoted by the AP as saying. Pakistan is seeing daily rainfall that is three times higher than the national average for the last three decades. The monsoons are also never that long. The country may see another downpour in September.
Pakistan is home to more than 7,200 glaciers, more than any other place outside the poles. Rising temperatures, linked to climate change, are likely to cause many of them to melt faster and earlier, adding water to rivers and streams already flooded by rain.
“We have the largest number of glaciers outside the polar region, and this affects us,” Pakistan’s climate minister Sherry Rehman told the Associated Press. “Instead of maintaining their majesty and preserving them for posterity and nature,” she said, “we are seeing them melt away.” Scientists linked the heat wave to the climate crisis. One study found that climate change made a heat wave “30 times more likely.”
The heat wave wasn’t the only weather-related disaster to hit. After the scorching heat wave, Pakistan experienced the second driest April in six decades. In July, deadly monsoon floods claimed more than 530 lives and left roads, bridges, homes and schools in ruins.
Due to rising temperatures, glaciers in the northern Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa regions of Pakistan are melting rapidly, adding to the 33 vulnerable ice-dammed lakes already formed, creating more than 3,000 lakes. About 33 are considered to be at risk of bursting, putting about 7.1 million people at risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). These sudden events can release millions of cubic meters of water and debris, leading to loss of life, property, livestock and the livelihoods of remote mountain communities.
In addition to swollen rivers causing flooding, Pakistan is at immense risk and has been hit by another source of flooding due to melting glaciers. Pakistan has the largest number of glaciers in the world outside the polar region.
In extreme heat, a phenomenon called glacial lake outburst floods causes more water to flow from the Himalayas into Pakistan. This has caused a double whammy of flooding in Pakistan, which is “considered the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change,” a Lahore-based climate scientist noted.
Pakistan saw a similar flood catastrophe in 2010 when nearly 2,000 people died.
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