For more than two years, the world we live in has been battered by extreme weather more frequently than ever before, taking a heavy toll globally alongside the pandemic and the war in Europe. From epic calamities like Australia’s Black Summer bushfires and Texas’s Arctic freeze, to the 2021 floods in Europe, to the floods, heatwaves, and droughts happening around the world right now, disasters occur regularly. It is certain that many more will be coming, yet it remains impossible to predict or have any idea of what and where the next severe weather event will be. But there are signs in the air hinting at one catastrophic scenario about to unfold in one of the world’s most climate-sensitive nations, Pakistan, which may be about to suffer a repeat of its worst floods ever.
Like the first three years of the 2020s, the first three years of the 2010s saw a global uptick in severe weather and Pakistan bore the worst of it. Every summer during the monsoon season, Pakistan runs the chance of experiencing large-scale flooding, but it never before saw anything close to what 2010 wrought. The country was devastated by its largest floods on record. Unprecedented rainfall submerged one-fifth of the country in August, killing 2,000 people and displacing 20 million. It was 2010’s biggest disaster besides Haiti’s earthquake and Pakistan’s biggest-ever disaster besides the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. The following year, 2011, the weary nation suffered its second-worst flooding ever. Heavy monsoon rainfall submerged large areas of Pakistan’s south (Sindh and Balochistan), a region less affected in 2010. Another round of flooding across the nation followed in 2012, far milder than the preceding deluges but still enormous by normal standards of Pakistan’s monsoon. These terrible floods did not occur in isolation. They were linked to weather patterns taking place around the world in 2010-2012. And many of those same phenomena have surfaced again in 2020-2022, though not always in the same order.
In 2010, the strongest La Nina on record made its appearance. A weather phase in which the eastern Pacific cools and the western Pacific becomes warmer, La Nina makes floods in Pakistan more likely because warm western Pacific water contributes to monsoon precipitation in South Asia. 2010 began with a mild El Nino, the opposite of La Nina, which dissipated in May, leaving Pakistan with drought conditions. La Nina began in July, the same month Pakistan’s floods began. Around the same time, there was a spate of extreme heatwaves around the globe. This included record-high temperatures in Pakistan, India, the Middle East, and in the Arabian Sea in June, which powered Pakistan’s rainfall. There was also an unprecedented summer heatwave in western Russia caused by the Jetstream wavering and placing a high-pressure dome there. This heatwave contributed to the Arab Spring by destroying Russian harvests and raising food prices. It is also linked to Pakistan’s monster deluge that summer. Scientists say the Russian heat dome pulled in South Asian monsoon currents, causing them to collide with Pakistan’s western mountains, producing a high rate of rainfall.
After Pakistan’s catastrophic rainy season, the La Nina continued its pace into 2011 and caused many other deadly weather events, such as historic floods in eastern Australia from November 2010 to January 2011 and a record Arctic blast that swept the mainland USA in February 2011, freezing even Texas. La Nina ended in spring 2011, but its aftereffects continued to reverberate. The US Southwest, especially Texas, underwent historic drought and heat over the spring and summer and another massive drought spread across East Africa beginning in July. East Africa’s historic 2011 drought caused a huge famine killing an estimated quarter of a million people. Likely contributing to these events was La Nina’s return in September. Two La Nina events within the same year is known as a “double-dip” La Nina.
It was at the same time, late August and September 2011, that southern Pakistan flooded. Before, 2011’s monsoon season rainfall was actually below average, creating dry conditions that threatened Pakistan with drought before the floods arrived.
The second La Nina, which was weaker than the first, ended in March 2012. But it, too, left behind a strong legacy. America’s drought expanded from Texas to the rest of the US. In Pakistan, there was again a dearth of rain in July and August, causing a serious dry spell, until the floods began in September.
That was back then. But how does it all mirror the present? In September 2020, a La Nina began and became the strongest since 2010. That year, parts of Pakistan suffered severe but still normal-scale flooding. But when 2021 began, La Nina’s influence began to show strong parallels with 2011. In February 2021, a record Arctic blast swept the mainland USA, wreaking havoc on Texas, and in March, extreme floods submerged eastern Australia. La Nina ended in May 2021, but a severe drought in the southwestern United States intensified to record breaking levels, affecting especially Texas. Meanwhile, there was a global outbreak of heatwaves very similar to what happened in 2010. From May to July, western Russia sweltered under unprecedented heat caused by a heat dome that Russia’s met department Roshydromet described as being comparable to the one in 2010, while record summer heat prevailed in Pakistan, the Middle East, and the Arabian Sea. La Nina then returned in September.
These were the same ingredients that made the 2010 Pakistan floods possible. But 2021 passed without any significant flooding in Pakistan. Intense rains caused some damage, but mostly, the monsoon season saw a dearth of rainfall provoking drought, until September rains provided some relief.
It is now 2022 and things continue to be alarming. La Nina weakened initially but has resurged. America’s drought continues its devastating course. Australia floods again. East Africa is undergoing severe drought comparable in scale and severity to the 2011 drought. Plus, heatwaves have been prolific worldwide this spring and summer, including heatwaves across South Asia that were record-breaking in their intensity, range, duration, and early onset. Finally, La Nina is forecast to continue and strengthen in late 2022. This is the third La Nina in a row, a very rare “triple-dip” La Nina, last seen in 1998-2001.
What does this mean for Pakistan? The current monsoon is already overactive, killing more than 150 people since late June, according to official figures. Pakistan authorities reported in early July that rainfall in Pakistan was 87% above normal up till this time of year, 261% above normal in Sindh and 274% above normal in Balochistan. But Pakistan’s monsoon is usually at full strength from mid-July to the end of August, putting the most dangerous period ahead.
Pakistan is fortunate to be spared major flooding in 2021. Everything linked to Pakistan’s 2010 and 2011 floods was present that year. But the crucial factor may be lack of extreme drought in East Africa back then. La Nina often causes drought in East Africa, but not usually on such a level. The fact that the East Africa droughts of 2011 and 2022 are equally severe suggests the 2011 La Nina and 2022 La Nina are similarly affecting the Indian Ocean, from where Pakistan’s monsoon originates. Plus, Pakistan and India’s extremely high temperatures over the last four months are likely to supercharge this year’s monsoon, like they did in 2010, by contributing to high Indian Ocean temperatures and low pressure overland. And if La Nina revitalizes later this year as forecasted, it will likely strengthen what is already a severe monsoon season in Pakistan and the rest of South Asia.
All these factors make it clear. This year’s monsoon season carries a much higher chance than normal of bringing large-scale flooding to Pakistan, on the scale of 2012, or 2011, or even 2010. If that happens, it will be the current decade’s worst natural disaster so far. Pakistan, like most nations, is worse off now than when 2010 began, embroiled in political turmoil and economic crisis. Some observers are expressing concern that, after what just happened in Sri Lanka, Pakistan will be the next country to give way. That is not really plausible, under current trajectories. But if a super-flood does strike this summer, it would be a testing scenario for Pakistan. The country cannot handle such a disaster on its own.
The world must wake up to this impending threat and take all action needed to prepare before it is too late.
Author is director at Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management (PPLDM) and issued similar flood warnings in 2021 in electronic and print media and on PPLDM’s YouTube channel Disaster Management (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC3_vsqGckhCgB7WjdIGMoew).