Climate change’s role in Pakistan floods demands resilience

Scientists have said that analysis by World Weather Attribution which stated that climate change had exacerbated the level of flooding in Pakistan flooding highlights the need for the world to become more climate resilient.

The study found the devastating impacts were driven by the proximity of human settlements, infrastructure (homes, buildings, bridges), and agricultural land to flood plains, inadequate infrastructure, limited ex-ante risk reduction capacity, an outdated river management system, underlying vulnerabilities driven by high poverty rates and socioeconomic factors (e.g. gender, age, income, and education), and ongoing political and economic instability.

It added: “First, looking just at the trends in the observations, we found that the 5-day maximum rainfall over the provinces Sindh and Balochistan is now about 75% more intense than it would have been had the climate not warmed by 1.2C, whereas the 60-day rain across the basin is now about 50% more intense, meaning rainfall this heavy is now more likely to happen. There are large uncertainties in these estimates due to the high variability in rainfall in the region, and observed changes can have a variety of drivers, including, but not limited to, climate change.”

In order to determine the role of human-induced climate change in the observed changes the study looked at the trends in climate models with and without the human-induced increases in greenhouse gases. The regions involved are at the western extreme end of the monsoon region, with large differences in rainfall characteristics between dry western and wet eastern areas.

“Many of the available state-of-the-art climate models struggle to simulate these rainfall characteristics,” it added. “Those that pass our evaluation test generally show a much smaller change in likelihood and intensity of extreme rainfall than the trend we found in the observations. This discrepancy suggests that long-term variability, or processes that our evaluation may not capture, can play an important role, rendering it infeasible to quantify the overall role of human-induced climate change.”

Prof Ted Shepherd, grantham professor of climate science, Department of Meteorology, at the University of Reading, said: “The study highlights the vulnerability of Pakistan to climate change.  But the report also makes clear that a focus on the role of climate change is an overly narrow lens, because the catastrophic impacts resulted from a number of factors, of which climate change is only one (and this case, a rather uncertain one).  The climate vulnerability in this region is the result of human decisions, both historical and more recent, as well as an apparent failure to learn from past flooding events.  Working towards a more climate-resilient society is an urgent imperative.”

“This study illustrates very well what scholars in disaster studies have long argued: namely, that there’s no such thing as a natural disaster,” Dr Leslie Mabon, lecturer in Environmental Systems, The Open University, said.  “It is of course true that climate change makes weather extremes of this nature more likely.  But the study also shows how political decisions over issues such as river engineering, disaster preparation planning and agricultural policy can influence who and where is most badly effected by extreme events, and the extent to which people are able to adapt.

“As existing scholarly evidence is showing us all too often across a range of contexts, the study indicates that for these floods in Pakistan, it is once again the worst-off and the least empowered who are hit hardest.”