From the Frying Pan into the Flood: Pakistan’s Worst Natural Disaster Unfolds (Pt I)

By Jesse Dykstra 02/09/2010


“Amid Drought, Pakistan Prays for Rain”. That was the title of a National Geographic Daily News story published on 1 July, 2010. Since then, Pakistan’s scorching drought has indeed been remedied. Heavy monsoon rains over the past month have instigated widespread flooding, leading to the worst natural disaster in Pakistan’s history. As flood waters finally show signs of receding, the exceptional toll of the disaster is becoming clear:

  • over 17 million people displaced (approximately 10% of Pakistan’s population)
  • 1600 lives lost
  • 4.6 million people left homeless
  • Up to one fifth of the country inundated
  • Initial relief efforts will cost ~$460m US dollars
  • Recovery costs will be in the billions (US dollars)
  • Devastation of millions of hectares of fertile crop land and grazing land will have long term effects on Pakistan’s ability to produce food when they need it most
  • The food shortage in Pakistan will also have a global impact, as Pakistan is one of the world’s largest agricultural exporters
pakistan 2
Source: Unitar/Unosat (click on image to enlarge)

The people of Pakistan have been having a rough go of it in recent years. Parts of northern Pakistan and Kashmir are still rebuilding following the 2005 Kashmir earthquake which resulted in over 80,000 deaths, and left 3.5 million people homeless. Many of these deaths occurred after the initial earthquake, as aftershocks, heavy rain, steep mountainous terrain and landslides ensured that critical transport links were blocked, slowing relief efforts. As is all too often the case with vulnerable populations, a lack of clean water, food, emergency shelter and medical supplies eventually took the greatest toll.

Earthquakes and flooding are simple facts of life in northern and western Pakistan, where the greatest mountain range in the world, the Himalaya, are actively being thrust up by the collision between the Indian subcontinent and the Eurasian plate. More than 50 million years of uplift has created the great topographic barrier of the Himalaya, which dramatically affects the climate of the region. Dry, cold Arctic winds are prevented from crossing the Himalaya into South Asia, keeping the Indian subcontinent relatively warm. During the northern hemisphere summer, moisture laden winds from the Indian ocean are gradually drawn northwards over the warm plains of southern India. Eventually these warm moist air currents collide with the Himalaya and cool as they are forced upwards, generating the summer monsoon rains that nourish the agricultural regions of India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. The summer monsoon season in South Asia lasts for only a few weeks, but can generate some of the highest precipitation rates on earth. Some areas near the southern boundary of the Himalaya receive over 10 m of annual rainfall, the vast majority of which falls during the summer monsoon.

The Great Rivers

Several of the world’s great rivers, including the Ganges, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Mekong originate in the Himalaya region. Approximately half of the world’s population (3 billion people) live within river drainages that are nourished by snowmelt and monsoon rains in the Himalaya.

A Hazardous Place

Scientists know that flooding, drought, earthquakes, and landslides have been occurring in South Asia for millions of years. There is nothing about these events that should catch us by surprise. The evidence of past events is recorded in the very landscape itself. Before our eyes is the greatest mountain range on earth, still being rapidly uplifted by astounding tectonic forces where two continental plates collide. Some of the world’s greatest rivers systems cut entirely through the immense topographic barrier of the Himalaya, in areas subject to some of the highest seasonal rainfalls on earth. Great gorges and rugged mountains give way to the largest river deltas in the world, reminding us that phenomenal volumes of sediment are being actively moved from the mountain highlands to nourish great floodplains, where half the world’s population lives, and makes a living off of the fertile land.


Pt II will be posted tomorrow

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