Why is climate change so devastating for us …

Forests over large areas with their own ecological impact disrupt weather patterns in their formation

Shahzad Chaudhry September 23, 2022
The writer is a political, security and defence analyst. He tweets @shazchy09 and can be contacted at [email protected]

But, not so for India? Give it a thought. They too are impacted by the same phenomenon in the same region and in the same period. Monsoons in fact make their way into Pakistan a month later than their advent in India — officially mid-June. And what we get and where we get in terms of the rainfall is greatly dependent on a large weather pattern which originates in Indian Rajasthan and the adjoining Pakistani region of Sindh and South Punjab but only after Monsoons have dispensed most of their load in India and if they still have some juice left in them. Usually, only a strong enough wave will make it to the western reaches of Pakistan. (Monsoons rain far more heavily in eastern parts of Pakistan than say Rawalpindi and rarely in Peshawar). Essentially the kicker of the pattern though is how deep is the Low in Rajasthan.

There is lot more to it for those who need to know more in how the Frontal Lows from the west augment the disturbance or how the very high altitude inter-tropical convergence zone interacts with the Polar mass. But leave that to the experts. For most of us this year all possible patterns intermingled to give us the deluge that we could count as a boon if we knew how to manage and control the impact or bane if we remain at the mercy of nature without the understanding or wherewithal to handle the floods we are reeling under. We though must view it from the angle of climate change and how may its adversity be mitigated.

Here is a simpler explanation: if you have ever lived on the Prairies — vast open grasslands without a tree in between for miles — you would notice a pattern of repeated Tornadoes which slice through miles of land and cause severe damage to crops, lives and infrastructure. The American mid-West, home to a long, never-ending stretch of a prairie, is one such area where the Tornadoes are most frequent and devastate large swathes. Its origin is in a very local low pressure on the surface which builds in intensity as it travels on land since nothing is in its way to disrupt its formation. With no developed structures, buildings as in cities — population centres are sparse and spread out — and not a tree or a hill in between for miles at end the phenomenon only picks up more speed, laterally and circularly within it, reaching hundreds of miles per hour with the consequence of widespread destruction in its path. It finally fizzles out when it is spent with ground friction or against physical installations which will act to break up its structure. Stopping or disrupting the cycle of formation of such weather patterns is the first intervention which human genius can and should make to avoid large scale devastation.

Forests over large areas with their own ecological impact disrupt weather patterns in their formation and leave their own neutralising effect when a phenomenon moves to gain momentum and intensity. Heat lows that are common in hotter regions can be tempered by such green developments. Pakistan has the highest deforestation rate in the world. Since 1947 forest cover has reduced from 33 per cent to just 5 per cent and continues to reduce at the rate of 1-2 per cent every year with the increase in population. Without a planned mitigation with a well-anticipated replacement strategy denudation can only spell bigger disasters including the loss of topsoil which is blown away. In comparison India retains a forest cover over 22 per cent of its land.

So while the Monsoon pattern over India this year was exactly the same, rather sharper because it must travel across India to make it to Pakistan, the augmentation factors were far less in India than they were in Pakistan. This will always remain true whenever extreme weather patterns take shape since mitigation that India inherently and so consciously has kept in place will save it against the severity of extreme climate and its destructive effect. Pakistan in comparison has only paid abysmal attention and lacks the mechanisms for mitigation against increasing phenomenon of extreme weather. It may still be time to make amends. Forthwith, we must plant trees in billions over large dedicated swathes to save our future generations from the plight of extremes in climate change if we indeed hope to survive as a civilisation.

Onto another mitigation and control strategy. The entire South Asian region is home to two of the world’s largest river systems and the largest collection of glaciers outside of the polar regions. These provide one of the biggest stocks of fresh-water supply to feed the billions that live on both sides of the Himalayas and the Karakorams, two of the world’s longest and highest mountain ranges. The Indus and the Brahmaputra, both originating in the Himalayas and traversing through Tibet, India and Pakistan, and Tibet, China, India and Bangladesh respectively get their supply from those glaciers. When the temperatures are hotter the glaciers melt faster and become the source of added water in the rivers. Compounded by seasonal rains, especially when they are heavy because of climatic change and extreme weather the deluge becomes impossible to manage. It spills beyond the capacity of most waterways and become the floods which destroy habitation, flora and fauna. Deprivation, poverty and inaccessibility to means to survive become rampant and disease takes over. Biblical accounts mention of entire civilisations being washed away by monstrous floods.

Brahmaputra has series of large dams built on it by China, India and Bangladesh. India has built numerous small and big dams on the Indus and Indus tributaries, Chenab and Jhelum even though it flows in a much longer trajectory in Pakistan. We have sadly been sitting by idly making noise which was mostly misplaced and rhetorical. As a consequence Pakistan’s live storage capacity which was 16.26 million acre feet is now reduced to around 13 MAF only which caters to only 30 days of water supply for the entire nation. India has a carryover capacity for 170 days in comparison and Egypt 700 days. What was a 5000 cubic meter per capita water availability in 1947 is now below 900 thrusting us into water scarce nations; a nightmare for an agriculture-based economy. We can store only 10 per cent of the water that comes our way in the rivers. The rest is lost to the sea or wasted away in frivolous consumption.

Dams store water and provide electricity. These also control, manage and channelise water in the courses that Pakistan was lucky to inherit from the British. The largest canal-based irrigation system in Punjab and the rest of the country is live storage which remains unused through efficient utilisation by channelising excess water as was available this year. More dams and more canals would double this capacity but has remained unattended in policy prioritisation for their long gestation periods. Politicians instead prefer areas sourcing instant political return. India in comparison was saved the wrath because of better conception and understanding of the phenomena and its levers of control and management.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 23rd, 2022.

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