As I observed when commenting upon the Kentucky flooding, all extreme weather event reporting nowadays seems to follow a familiar narrative. It’s designed to evoke an emotional reaction before asserting a definite link to climate change — and the reporting upon the Pakistan flooding is no exception since it follows the pattern perfectly. First, appal your readers with the horror of the event:
“The death toll from the monsoon rains has reached 1,033 – with 119 killed in the last 24 hours, the National Disaster Management Authority says.”
Then plant the idea that nothing like this has been seen before:
“Floods are not uncommon in Pakistan but the people here tell us these rains were different. They were more than anything that’s ever been seen here.”
Then deliver the scientific punchline:
“Officials in the country blame climate change for the devastation.”
It works every time, and anyone who could deny the need to put another nought on the end of that Net Zero bill risks being dismissed as a callous, unthinking brute. Surely, we should do anything to stop this sort of thing happening again.
However, as I hope I demonstrated when analysing the Kentucky floods, things are often not as straightforward as made out by those holding the Net Zero collection box. Before you commit yourself to your personal contribution, you might want to take into account a little context. So let us start with a bit of history.
Whenever devastation is on the scale witnessed in Pakistan over recent weeks, there will always be plenty of people on scene to attest to its novelty. However, the availability heuristic is a powerful cognitive bias and the data will often tell a different story. According to the World Bank, this is what the record of average rainfall (in millimetres) looks like for Pakistan over the last 80 years or so:
There is a slight upward trend there, but nothing to write home about. Individuals may have recently experienced something unique as far as they are concerned, but we are not talking about an event that forms part of a pattern of significantly deteriorating weather. There is simply no sign of climate chaos in the data. Pakistan is a country that has always experienced high variations in precipitation and nothing much is changing.
Even if one takes in a longer perspective, the picture does not change significantly. This is what the World Bank’s Climate Risk Country Profile for Pakistan says on the subject of precipitation:
“Pakistan has a complex historical precipitation profile. The early 20th century was characterised by a prolonged decline in annual rainfall, but since 1960, a slight increasing trend has prevailed (Figure 4). This overall trend hides considerable sub-national variation. Mean rainfall in the arid plains of Pakistan and the coastal belt has decreased by 10%–15% since 1960, contributing to the ongoing degradation of the country’s wetlands and mangrove ecosystems. Most other regions have experienced a slight increase, seen both in the monsoon and dry seasons.”
If you were to look at Figure 4 you would see for yourself that the average rainfall in the early 20th century (i.e. pre-independence) is significantly lower than that of the latter half. So there is that. But the fact remains that the last 80 years or so have seen no dramatic change. And yet we are told that flooding is getting worse. If this is not due to increased rainfall, then what else could be the cause?
I don’t know about you, but when I was a lad, worsening floods in Pakistan were a perennial news item, and yet no one back then mentioned climate change. Instead, the cause was understood to be deforestation within the country’s northern watershed. Interestingly, this hasn’t been mentioned in any of the many reports I have read on the recent floods; in every case the ‘slight increase’ in rainfall caused by supposed ‘climate breakdown’ has been blamed. So could it be that Pakistan has solved its deforestation problem at long last? Well, not according to the World Bank:
“Every year, Pakistan loses almost 27,000 hectares of natural forest area. Based on this, Pakistan is in a state of ‘Green Emergency’.”
The Asia Times provides a further insight into the problem:
“At the time of independence, Pakistan’s total forest cover was 33%. By 2015 it had dropped to 5%. Moreover, in 2010, tree cover in Pakistan was 648,000 hectares, or just 0.74% of total land area…Among the daunting factors that cause deforestation, dependency on firewood, urbanization, and commodity-driven demands are the leading factors. A big chunk of the population (68%) depends on firewood. From 2001 to 2019, urbanization and commodity-driven deforestation accounted for 15% of tree-cover loss.”
Even governmental intervention is having little impact, since Pakistan’s so-called timber mafia is doing its best to service the country’s on-going dependence upon wood. The logging continues to this day.
Strangely, however, the World Bank seemed to overlook the obvious impact that removal of a country’s watershed would have on its flood risk, preferring instead to restrict its commentary to the economic impact on locals. Even the Asia Times article seems more concerned with how the loss of forest will affect global C02 levels, with only an aside mention of landslides. Thankfully, an article on the Deutsche Welle (DW) website sets the record straight and points out the obvious direct impact that deforestation must be having upon flood risk:
“Pakistan floods aggravated by deforestation and other ecological mistakes.”
As to be expected, the article tries to play down the influence:
“The sheer scale of the current floods in Pakistan makes it difficult to talk about human responsibility, admits Saleem Ullah who works with the United Nations Development Program UNDP. ‘The intensity of the disaster was so much that the human role would be not more than something like twenty, thirty percent’.”
I confess that I don’t fully understand what that statement is trying to say, and I’m quite sure that it isn’t the ‘sheer scale’ of the floods the makes it difficult for Saleem to focus upon the ‘human role’ rather than blaming climate change; I’m guessing it has more to do with his desire to stay in the employ of the UNDP. Besides which, as far as I can see, it isn’t the scale of the disaster and how much of it is down to factors such as deforestation that matters here. The real issue is how much of the recent trend for worsening floods can be put down to such factors and, given that there has only been a ‘slight increase’ in precipitation over the last 80 years, I am inclined to suggest that the ‘human role’ is all that really remains to explain it. Remove that role and the flooding would only be about 70-80% of what it was. Remove the precipitation increase due to climate change and the flooding would only be…well I don’t know. What percentage constitutes a ‘slight decrease’?
As always, context is all important when analysing the significance of a flooding event. Certainly, the extreme precipitation that led to the event is of huge importance, but so is the historical climate record and the reputation the area has for such events. Furthermore, exacerbating factors such as deforestation can be of such a scale that any report that fails to mention them would be delinquent to say the least, particularly if trends are to be discussed. The reporting of the Kentucky floods was a perfect opportunity to sell the climate change narrative and so it seems it was necessary to leave out a lot of important context. And I might add that the same has proven true for the Pakistani floods.