The changed climate patterns in Pakistan make it abundantly clear that understanding the water question – both in its abundance and in scarcity – would be central to our ability to handle environmental crises in the coming years. Many of the altered climate realities clearly highlight this aspect.
Beginning with snowfall, winter snows in the northern parts of the country would normally begin in December and January. That was ideal as it gave a few months for snow to stay on mountain slopes, helping groundwater recharge and preventing flash flooding. However, for the last few years, this has changed. Onset of snow is delayed, with most of it coming in late winter in late February and March. As a result, increasing temperatures melt the snow sooner with little time for groundwater absorption and rapid melting leading to destructive flash flooding.
Another disturbing phenomenon is linked to the shrunken span of spring. Spring months are nature’s buffer to gradually and smoothly transition the cold winter into higher summer temperatures. In the year 2022, we literally walked from winter to summer as spring was very brief. That could only mean that the late winter snows would melt with increased ferocity, resulting in glacial lake outbursts and flash floods in the northern part of the country, playing havoc with fragile livelihood.
Then came unprecedented forest fires. What was different this time was a disturbing pattern of jungle fires happening even in high altitude, cold forests of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, Punjab, Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK. These massive forest fires appeared to be the direct result of quick transition from winter to higher summer temperatures. Along with burning trees, equally worrisome was ravaging of the undergrowth on the hilly slopes. A very disturbing implication of the burning undergrowth was that any ensuing flash flood resulting from heavy monsoons or cloudburst would see massive quantities of water running down the hilly slopes and nullahs with ferocious destruction and in very little time. The natural barrier of jungle bush and shrubs, more than trees, helps reduce the speed of flash flood waters by a few critical hours that can make the difference between safety and destruction of life and property.
This was the changed climate setting, which was followed by a drawn out drought and massive, super floods in quick succession – and which is presently playing havoc in most parts of the country with water on the center stage. Glacial lake outburst, flash floods, cloudbursts, landslides, urban flooding, mudslides and droughts; nearly all our climate change-linked troubles are related to the water question.
The ‘water’ factor can be seen as playing a principal role in the unfurling flooding disaster in Sindh and Balochistan too. Sindh is no stranger to the phenomenon of flooding. Actually, there is this traditional notion of ‘Aabkalani’ which basically means that agriculture, forestry and livelihood along the Indus river was historically managed with a view to take benefit from regular flooding in the river. There was temporary cultivation and afforestation with minimal permanent structures, all dependent on monsoon flooding – ensuring benefit from the flooding river while minimizing damage to life and property. Unfortunately, this wise, historical adaptation to co-exist with flooding gave way to avarice for land as a large part of the riverine belt in Sindh was encroached for permanent agriculture and construction. Resultantly, burgeoning quantities of floodwater are causing large-scale destruction and displacement.
Managing the unpredictable water resource is also highly relevant for Balochistan in the context of altered climate patterns. Most part of Balochistan province comprises ‘rangelands’ where bush, shrubs and grasses grow and where semi-nomadic livestock rearing practices are the mainstay of livelihood. It is important to retain grass and shrub cover over these rangelands for several important reasons. It provides food for livestock; helps gradual seepage and percolation of (rare) rainfall run-off water and very critically, bushy cover over rangelands slows the destructive speed of running water after heavy rains like the present ones.
In each of the above climate change-triggered disasters, it is mismanagement of water that has exacerbated suffering. When there is nothing to reduce the speed of super floods; when water from glacial outbursts cannot be delayed; when water cannot be slowly drained out in the absence of ground vegetation cover in rangelands, there will be devastation. When the sanctity of centuries’ old stream paths and riverbeds is violated through permanent cultivation or construction, rivers would go berserk and calamity would follow.
Adapting to the extreme and unpredictable climate change phenomenon in Pakistan would require assigning a central role to the water question. How we manage its scarcity or how we handle its abundance– through historical wisdom or through emerging science – would be critical for a resilient Pakistan in the coming years.
The writer is a forester and climate change activist, and a non-official member of the Pakistan Climate Change Council.