Too Little Water, Too Much Water: Pakistan's Climate Change Dilemma


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By Simi Kamal and Amina Siddiqui

In 2010 and 2011 Pakistan experienced two of the most catastrophic floods in its history. The scope and scale of the crisis was unprecedented. The damage caused by the 2010 floods affected 20 million people, with over 2,000 dead in 82 districts and more than 4.6 million people left without shelter. According to United Nations estimations, the vast flood waters and heavy rainfall impacted an area of over 39.5 million acres. The economic damages resulting from these floods were estimated to be well over U.S. $10 billion, in line with the Asian Development Bank and World Bank assessment that provided initial figures of U.S. $9.7 billion.

Still reeling from the previous year’s epic floods, Pakistan once again battled with heavy monsoonal rains that began in August 2011 in the southern Province of Sindh and caused severe flooding. According to an assessment by the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) in February 2012, these floods affected the lives of over 9.2 million people, caused 497 deaths, damaged 1.6 million houses and forced just under a million people to move to relief camps. The flood caused unprecedented devastation in 38,347 villages across the 22 districts in Sindh, covering an area of over 6.1 million acres. Based on the reports of the Livestock and Agriculture departments of the government of Sindh, an estimated 2.2 million acres of crop area were damaged and nearly 200,000 heads of cattle perished as a result of the flooding.

These floods came on the heels of drought in parts of Pakistan, especially the long-term drought in 2000–2001 and shorter droughts in subsequent years, interspersed with short and local flooding in different parts of the country. In some instances monsoon rains have been experienced one day, followed by westerly depression rain the next. Cyclones along the coast are now more common and more frequent, prompting many to say that Pakistan is falling into a pattern of too little water and too much water.

Pakistan is a federation of five provinces, Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as the Islamabad Capital Territory and the Federally Administered Tribal in the northwest. Outside the tropics, Pakistan lies between 23.45 degree and 36.75 degree north. It has the Karakoram, Hindu Kush and the Himalayan mountain ranges in the north, where the mighty Indus River rises, the huge riverine basin with the tributaries of the Indus, the Baluchistan Plateau in the west, deserts along its southeastern flank and coastal areas along the Arabian Sea in the south. There are many distinct climatic and vegetation zones.

Given the topography and the unique geo-environmental setting of its North Himalayan mountains, the heavy rainfall, weak geological formations and accelerated rates of erosion in the mountain areas, as well as the very high seismicity in the northern areas, has meant natural disasters like the earthquake of 2005. In the broad floodplains of the Indus, with silting and meandering rivers in the low-lying deltaic region accompanied by the erratic seasonal monsoons, floods are a natural corollary. Given that this region also has the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system with three dams, three very large barrages and extensive water infrastructure including weirs, head works and canals, the damages of floods are increased accordingly. While river water changed course in several areas and there were numerous breaches, the dams and barrages withstood the onslaught.

The floods are a stark reminder of nature’s force and the absence of a well-integrated flood management system. With almost one-fifth of the country under water during the 2010 floods and over 95 percent of the Sindh Province inundated in 2011, these calamities are an unforgettable reminder of the potential impacts of global warming and shifts in climates.

It is important to note that while both the floods were fuelled by unprecedented heavy monsoon rains, the geographical impact was seen in totally different regions. The International Panel of Experts on Climate Change and Pakistani meteorologists suggest that changes in the strength of the monsoon have been produced by climate change and rising Indian Ocean temperatures causing high rates of evapotranspiration, disturbing the pattern of the monsoons. It has also been suggested that the floods of 2010 were a result of exceptional rain caused by “freezing” of the jet stream. Flash flooding augmented by snowmelt flows in the mountainous north of Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa, hill torrents in Balochistan, riverine flooding with slower onset but deep saturation in the flatter areas of Punjab and submersion on the right banks of the River Indus in Sindh were the result.

The 2011 floods, however, were the result of the unexpectedly early monsoon rains accompanied by strong weather patterns that entered Sindh (on the left banks of the Indus) from the Indian states of Rajasthan and Gujarat in August.

This short debilitating monsoon spell in 2011, which saw more rainfall in a month than in an average monsoon season, left 22 of the 23 districts in the province of Sindh completely inundated. Water flow in irrigation channels and canals exceeded capacity, causing widespread breaches in the freshwater canals and the saline discharge water courses, particularly in the Left Bank Outfall Drain, which exacerbated flood impact.

The response of the Government of Pakistan to the flooding was organized at the federal, provincial and district levels. The Economic Affairs Division (EAD) collaborated with donors and the Pakistan National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) and was responsible for overall coordination of disaster response efforts by both the government and the international community. The NDMA worked closely with federal ministries, government departments, the armed forces, UN agencies, civil society and donors to mobilize, receive and deploy relief goods and services. The military moved its forces and equipment into the flooded regions to evacuate people and distribute supplies.

It is important to note that despite the immediate and extensive response to the floods by the government, civil society and private sector, studies in the aftermath of the floods indicate that the damage and impacts of the flood worsened due to failures on the part of national crisis management and administrative authorities. Even though Pakistan has had experiences with floods in 1954, 1973 and 1975, there appeared to be complete chaos in the response mechanism to floods during the early stages. However, as flooding progressed, the administrative units established temporary relief centers. Overall coordination of response and relief was taken over by armed forces. The civil administration appeared to be overwhelmed by the challenge, with many areas inaccessible and not serviced for days after the flooding had occurred. The Federal Flood Commission of Pakistan was seldom seen as either engaged or active, even though it is stipulated to be the main organization responsible for flood management.

Pakistani relief organizations, nongovernment organizations and civil society institutions working on water, climate change and environment are working together with government and international organizations to come up with both short- and medium-term measures for mitigation of the effects of both droughts and floods, as well as measures to combat climate change and environmental degradation.

For a country of 180 million people (and growing!) action is needed now to better conserve water and environmental resources. In addition to 114 million acre-feet of water in its surface systems, Pakistan also has 55 million acre-feet groundwater in the aquifers under the Indus basin. While water is being mined from these aquifers with unlicensed tube wells, and being used largely in conjunctive manner with canal water, Pakistan could learn much from how the groundwater in Nebraska is managed, conserved and optimally utilized, without degrading the resource.


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