What To Watch Out For In Pakistan’s 2023 Monsoon Season – OpEd


There are many ways the current monsoon season in Pakistan and the rest of South Asia, along with the wider global meteorological context, is behaving in unusual ways already.

Pakistan People-Led Disaster Management (PPLDM) considers this to be a harbinger of a potentially large-scale disaster that may occur in Pakistan before the season is over. We already predicted in advance the nation’s historic flooding of 2022, the largest ever recorded in the land of Pakistan, in our July 17, 2022 Eurasia Review publication One Of The Biggest Natural Disasters Of Our Times May Be About To Strike Pakistan. In our latest publication in Eurasia Review of July 21 this year, Pakistan Faces Another High Risk In 2023, we warned that the same scenario could be repeated. 

This is the third year in a row that PPLDM has been sounding such alarms (you can see our 2021 efforts summarized here. The basis of our predictions is the precedence of three consecutive years that Pakistan suffered massive monsoon flooding, from 2010 to 2012. The 2010 flood was the biggest flood yet in Pakistan’s history. In 2011, it was the biggest flood ever in Pakistan’s normally dry south. 2012 brought another serious round of flooding nationwide, smaller than the previous two but still counting among the biggest floods in Pakistan’s history.

For Pakistan, where major flood seasons are usually spaced years apart, it was a sequence of weather events far beyond what the country ever experienced before. This unique period had unique and identifiable causes, and PPLDM has been watching out for such factors when they appear again. For example, at the same time Pakistan was suffering from monsoon flooding in 2010, an extreme blocking high (anticyclone) in western Russia made that region’s summer the hottest in its history. Scientists linked these two events and established the Russian heatwave as the primary cause of Pakistan’s floods.

In 2021, another blocking high appeared in the exact same region at the exact same time of year, and Russia’s weather agency Roshydromet said it was comparable in severity to the historic one in 2010. That and other factors were noticed by PPLDM and prompted us to raise alarm bells.  Fortunately, flooding on any significant level was averted in Pakistan that summer. However, one might consider 2021 to be a near-miss for Pakistan. Our nation was not so lucky the next year. It validated our approach, and because the floods of 2022 surpassed 2010 in terms of sheer scale and devastating impact, it gives us the added benefit of also being available as a guide for gauging the future threat of floods. 

What happens this year? One can only wait and see. But unfortunately, all the odds are stacked against Pakistan once again.

For starters, the monsoon has already been acting up. Monsoon currents usually enter Pakistan at the beginning of July and begin attaining strength in the middle of July. But strong downpours have been causing floods across Pakistan since June 25 this year. Since then, 133 People have died and tens of thousands relocated. By all means, the current monsoon is already an emergency situation in Pakistan. In addition, parts of India right next to the border have been experiencing their highest rainfall in decades, leading to major flooding such as in Yamuna River. Some of the flooding is in catchment areas leading into Pakistan, prompting India to release great quantities of floodwater into Chenab and Ravi rivers.

The situation is similar to 2022, when monsoon rainfall in Pakistan was excessively strong since mid-June, well before catastrophe was in motion by late August. On the plus side, authorities said back in 2022 that monsoon rainfall was 87% more than normal by early July, and the monsoon reached in July what is normally its peak strength in August, and the resulting flooding was really severe all that time. Nothing like that seems to be the case now, so maybe 2023’s monsoon will at least turn out milder than 2022. However, the early monsoon rains of 2022 took place mainly in the southern provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, foreshadowing the fact that the devastating flooding of August and September would be mostly in the same region. But current monsoon rains are pouring all across Pakistan, so if they are the lead-up to much greater flooding, that flooding will probably have a similar extent, same as what happened in 2010 and 2012 (the latter monsoon season taking place after La Nina ended, just like today’s). 

Another factor to watch out for is the heat. Strong heat-wave conditions were prevalent in India and Pakistan before onset of the current monsoon. The same was the case last year and in 2010, and those hot conditions are blamed for the subsequent floods, because they apparently created low-pressure conditions that attracted monsoon winds. So we have that to watch out for, but we also have to watch out for all the heatwaves still happening across the world. Earth is right now in a global heat emergency, with wide areas of North America, Europe, and East Asia being scorched. The same was going on in 2022 and 2010. Global outbreaks of heat driven by the Jetstreams seem to be one of the biggest symptoms of the entire atmosphere going through a time of disturbance, with a heightened risk of flooding in Pakistan being another attendant effect. 

In 2010, when one of the strongest known La Nina phases began, there was a steep uptick in freak weather events across the world, mostly associated with the north polar Jetstream, which continued into 2011 along with the La Nina. In 2020, when another strong La Nina began, there was again a haywire Jetstream and a proliferation of extreme weather which continued throughout 2021 and again throughout 2022. Even though the La Nina ended this spring and is in the process of giving way to El Nino, the exact same atmospheric behavior is still being observed. There are historic heatwaves in North America, Western Europe, and East Asia just as there were in 2022. Since this kind of global phenomena is linked to the 2010, 2011, and 2022 Pakistan floods, it gives us cause for concern.

Another reason to be worried is to be found right here in the areas of Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan. The summer monsoon extends to all parts of the nation, with the usual exception of western Balochistan, what was once FATA, Chitral, and Gilgit-Baltistan, since these remote areas are shielded by mountains. But in 2010, all these areas saw heavy monsoon rainfall for the first time. That is how powerful the 2010 monsoon was. In 2022, monsoon rainfall was again observed to penetrate those same areas. Now, in July 2023, there is severe flooding caused by rain in Chitral, prompting the local government to declare a state of emergency to last until August 15. It is said the rains are causing “devastation” across Chitral. Heavy rainfall is being observed also in Gilgit-Baltistan. 

There is a European linkage with such events (possibly Chinese as well, given the major summer heatwaves of 2010, 2022, and 2023 centered in China). Remember that scientists say the 2010 Russian heatwave contributed to the severity of Pakistan’s monsoon that year, and this likely involved monsoon currents migrating towards the direction of Russia. This meant that the rainclouds were pulled towards northwestern areas of Pakistan, enable them to penetrate rainshadow zones. Recently, there have been scientific reports of linkage between the 2022 Pakistan floods and the Western European heatwave of that summer, which must mean the South Asian monsoon back then was also being drawn towards the northwest. The fact that high rainfall is occurring in Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan right now indicates that conditions in Europe associated with the Jetstream are again tugging on the monsoon, setting up the likelihood that South Asian rainfall will once again concentrate itself in Pakistan through the rest of the summer.

There is one big factor working against the chance of flooding in Pakistan, and that is El Nino. La Nina is what tends to make monsoon flooding more likely, while El Nino instead raises the chance of drought. Indeed, the two strongest May to July periods for La Nina ever measured were in 2010 and 2022. This suggests that a very powerful La Nina was the key ingredient in both of the two biggest floods in Pakistan’s history. Without La Nina, the same might not be possible anymore. And the coming of El Nino, in fact, could just be Pakistan’s saving grace this summer. El Nino tends to make the entire Asia-Pacific region drier.

United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) released an infographic on 20 July, called “Asia and the Pacific: El Nino Humanitarian Snapshot”, stating that western Pacific regions are becoming drier than normal, even while areas to the west, like Pakistan and Afghanistan, are wetter than normal. It is possible this zone of dryness will spread westwards as the summer progresses. In that case, perhaps the South Asian monsoon is in a race against the effects of El Nino, and El Nino might eventually catch up. The result could be a decline in the pace of monsoon rainfall in August or September. It might come just in time to spare Pakistan a major flood event.

PPLDM’s verdict on what to expect is that it is unlikely that a flood of the same monumental proportions as 2010 and 2022 will happen this year in Pakistan. But there remains a good chance of severe and highly destructive flooding, like what occurred several times in Pakistan’s history. If so, the consequences are likely to be worse than they normally are. Pakistan is in a time of economic as well as political turmoil. Widespread and chronic gas shortages in Pakistan are contributing to deforestation, which worsens the severity of floods. And last year’s flooding left behind an enormous amount of damage. Millions of Pakistanis are still far worse off than they were before, many have yet to be properly rehabilitated, and a lot of infrastructure used for flood management has been damaged. Any new flood event will compound the aftereffects of the 2022 floods. 

What can be done to prepare? A lot, actually. In 2010, scientists noted that if authorities in Pakistan had ten days’ advance warning of the flood waves arriving in their area, they could have used their water infrastructure to mitigate the effects, such as by emptying reservoirs in time. And when flooding has already started, it is hard for the affected population to respond and to receive aid. For example, people who are displaced often are not able to move through floodwaters. It is better that evacuations be conducted well beforehand, and enough tents and other supplies gathered for potential flood victims, not the 70,000 or so tents Sindh stockpiled in July last year before millions of its people were left without shelter by the floods.

Acting before there is actual emergency in sight is key to significantly reducing the impact of a flood. And responsibility falls not only on Pakistan. The international community must take note, closely monitor the situation, and get ready to help Pakistan when needed. Their modus operandi is to respond post facto to any disaster in the world. This is their chance to achieve something new in the form of preempting a disaster. The benefits will be enormous and potentially open up a new chapter in global management of humanitarian affairs.

Raja Shahzeb Khan

Raja Shahzeb Khan is a meteorological analyst working at Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management (PPLDM).

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