Pakistan floods show need for climate resilience

Born in India and having Pakistani friends, Auroop Ganguly, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University, follows very closely the news of the catastrophic floods in Pakistan.

He says that due to climate change, such disasters are no longer completely unexpected surprises, but rather predictive events that need to be anticipated and factored into infrastructure design considerations.

“It’s a mess from many different angles,” Ganguly says of the situation in Pakistan.

This summer, a third of Pakistan was inundated by abnormal seasonal monsoon rains that started in mid-June and continued through September, dumping three to six times more water than expected. The floods have affected more than 33 million people, about 15% of the country’s population, killing more than 1,300 people as of September 5.

Auroop Ganguly, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University, says adapting to climate change is as important as reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

More than 1.1 million homes, dozens of bridges and 3,200 miles of roads have been destroyed or damaged. The country lost millions of acres of crops and about 800,000 head of cattle.

Some people sometimes call such disasters “acts of God,” Ganguly says, but that’s not the case. They are linked to worsening climate change, and people around the world should be aware of this.

There is a link between greenhouse gas emissions and the burning of fossil fuels and the intensification of floods and other natural disasters, says Ganguly.

“We operate in the current climate, we no longer operate in the pre-industrial or 1940s climate,” he says.

Pakistan experienced prolonged heat waves in April and May, when temperatures reached over 104 degrees in many places and 123 degrees in the city of Jacobabad.

With global warming, the atmosphere becomes able to hold more water, leading to an acceleration of heavy rainfall and resulting flooding. Global warming intensifies daily precipitation by about 7% for every degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of increase in global temperatures.

Clearly, says Ganguly, climate resilience and adaptation are becoming very important.

One way to deal with climate change is to implement low-regret adaptations, that is, low-cost measures that will potentially bring large benefits under future climate conditions. These measures include, for example, improving water efficiency, restricting the type and extent of development in flood-prone areas, preserving natural areas for biodiversity, and creating green urban areas or green roofs.

When low-regret adaptation fails, says Ganguly, communities and governments need to think about transformative adaptations.

“I think we’re getting to that stage now,” he said.

Floods comparable to those that occurred decades ago, whether in Pakistan or New Orleans, now cause more damage, due to population growth, increased urbanization, changes in the land use and aging infrastructure. Peoples and countries now have more assets that can be destroyed by floods.

Most greenhouse gas emissions are generated by China, USA, India, EU and Russia. However, climate change and exacerbated flooding are not just the failure of developed countries or the Paris Agreement, or any one country in particular, says Ganguly. Every molecule of carbon dioxide impacts us all.

“Everyone has to do something and blaming each other won’t help,” Ganguly says. “It’s really a case where we have to think collectively, we have to think together.”

Unfortunately, the need to build adaptive capacity around the world doesn’t get enough attention, and it’s a major problem, he says. Climate change is a global problem affecting all countries and many sectors of the economy. Some places, such as Pakistan, may need more immediate and urgent attention, technical and societal know-how from developed countries and financial assistance to build protection and survival infrastructure and, simultaneously, educate and prepare the population for natural disasters.

“None of us – no individual, no community, no country – can be an island of resilience in an ocean of fragility,” says Ganguly.

And floods don’t need to cause so much destruction, says Ganguly.

“Just because there’s a danger doesn’t mean it has to turn into a disaster,” he said.

Flooding is a hazard that has certain factors. In the context of climate, there is always natural climate variability, and there are climate changes, he says. Due to natural climate variability, the world has experienced catastrophic flooding before, but climate change serves as a threat multiplier.

Two elements determine the probabilistic risk of a hazard, says Ganguly: vulnerability and exposure. Vulnerability is assessed based on the measures taken to prevent damage given this hazard.

“This is where I start talking about protective infrastructure like reservoirs, dams, levees, nature-inspired systems and giving the river room to breathe,” says Ganguly.

Exposure determines the impact a disastrous event will have. This impact could be measured in lives lost, people displaced and consequences for the economy.

A more resilient lifeline infrastructure can reduce exposure. Vital infrastructure, which enables the continued operation of the most basic services, includes power grids, transportation networks, health facilities, communications, water distribution and sanitation systems.

“Over the longest period, Pakistan has not invested in infrastructure, in reservoirs, in dams,” says Ganguly. “That’s where the attention is – why nothing has been done.”

But infrastructure investments shouldn’t happen right after every flood. They must be done consistently over a long period of time.

Additionally, says Ganguly, resilience needs to be built within communities, including early warning systems, guidance advisories and simulation exercises. Even some of the poorest people now have cellphones, he says, so there could be a community network where people help each other locally, and the network can be extended nationwide.

Above all, there must be political will to invest in adaptive capacities, in addition to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to slow global warming, he says. Governments need to understand the urgency of taking action on climate adaptation. Citizens also need to be aware of what needs to be done to prepare for climate change and natural disasters in order to have a better chance of convincing their governments.

“To deal with these disasters, we need to be able to spend on adaptation,” says Ganguly. “It’s long-term spending, it’s not just consequence management anymore.”

Among the countries that have already managed to adapt are the Netherlands and Denmark. They are significantly ahead in building resilience than the United States, says Ganguly, which has money and other resources but hasn’t spent enough on climate adaptability.

“Thinking about what’s happened in the United States before, whether it’s Puerto Rico or New Orleans, or wherever, that’s still happening,” Ganguly says. “There are things that could be learned and done in the United States”

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