Even before this summer’s rains began, Pakistanis living along the country’s rivers were witness to the immense power of climate change. Meltwater from the Himalayas had swollen them by May, a month before the highest temperatures of the year were expected. Summers are getting hotter across the Indian subcontinent and, in turn, the monsoon rains that break the heat are becoming increasingly unpredictable: early or late, deficient or superabundant. This year’s devastating cloudbursts are a terrible case in point (see chart).

By the end of August Pakistan had received three times its annual average rainfall. The swollen Indus river and its many tributaries have therefore burst their banks, washing away buildings and destroying harvests and the livelihoods of millions in a country where 65% of the population is sustained directly by agriculture. A third of the country is estimated to have been submerged. And the country’s government, distracted by protracted political and economic crises, has proved to be woefully unprepared for this inundation. Over 1,100 people have perished in the floods, including hundreds of children. The government estimates that the disaster has so far caused over $10bn-worth of damage. And worse will follow as the rains keep falling and food shortages and flood-related epidemics set in.

Much of the northern hemisphere has been struggling with drought this summer. America, China and most of Europe are therefore seeing crop failures, dwindling waterways and electricity shortages (in part due to diminished availability of hydro-power and high demand for air-conditioning). Most of South Asia (including Pakistan) is meanwhile receiving unusually heavy rainfall.

In the long-term, South Asia should expect more extreme rainfall as a result of climate change. In a study published in 2021, a German research team estimated that for every degree Celsius of global warming the Indian subcontinent can expect an additional 5.3% of precipitation during the monsoon. This is because, as the atmosphere’s temperature rises, so does its capacity to bear moisture.

This year’s devastation is spread unevenly across Pakistan’s varied geography. Two relatively arid southern provinces, Sindh and Balochistan, received 336% and 446% more rain than they would during a normal July. Downriver from the glacial melt, they were especially unprepared to absorb it. Himalayan regions, such as Pakistan-administered Kashmir, have meanwhile had average or reduced rainfall.

In an appeal for foreign aid this week, Pakistan’s finance minister, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, noted how inequitably the costs of climate change are being experienced around the world. Pakistan emits less than 1% of the greenhouse-gas emissions responsible for global warming, Yet, he said, Pakistanis are “paying the price in their lives”. 

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