With any story that has to be fit in as little as a minute of TV news or an article that must not fail to mention the same talking points as all the other newspapers (lest the readers complain about the “oversight”), there are some points that are left out of the picture.
Often enough, the demand for reporting the news leaves very little place for putting things into perspective. In the case of the floods in Pakistan, two questions have often been left out of the picture. 1) When has something similar happened before? 2) What did people do in the meantime?
The first question can be answered with a single document. This refers to the flood of 2010, but is still relevant today, as this years flood is not larger than last years. Appendix B shows recent large flooding events, occurring every couple of decades. Among them floods occurring in short order: 1973, 1976, 1977 and 1978. Much more interesting about this list though, is what it leaves out. On page 4 the section “Extent and Magnitude of Flooding” says something interesting: “The flood event became the most extensive in this region since 1929”.
Because of the flood last year, this piece of information is now even a bit harder to come by than last year – as Google is now thoroughly contaminated with reports of the 2010 flood. The point is, that there was worse flooding in 1929 than in 2010 or this year. Unfortunately this is the only place where this flood is mentioned and no further information is provided anywhere, even though it must have been worse than anything we have seen on TV.
Seeing a recurrence of such flooding on a smaller scale is hardly surprising, now that we know that the Indus river has seen even worse flooding. So, we may consider those current floods as “climate as usual” and ask ourselves, why they have such a major impact.
The problem with floods is not that there is water flowing down a river. It only becomes a problem when there are people in the way. In last years flood on the order of 20 mio people were affected. That’s one in nine people in Pakistan, which had a population of about 185 mio people last year. Pakistans population during the time of the 1929 flood was significantly smaller – not even 23 mio people all told.
Worse yet, there is disproportionately dense population along the rivers of Pakistan. Yet, there is very little in the way of actual flood prevention in place. In March 2010 – half a year before the 2010 flood – the Pakistani Government helpfully put a presentation on the internet describing the Pakistani flood control system. The emphasis is obviously and almost exclusively to predict where and when flooding is going to occur. The only mechanical system to combat flooding that the government deemed worth mentioning, were the “Breaching Sections in Punjab” on page 18 of the pdf:
In case of Exceptionally High Floods part of the Floods, discharges are escaped by providing breaching on pre-determined sites for safety of the Hydraulic Structure (Bridges & Barrages).
I’m not sure I’m making friends in Pakistan this way, but it seems that there simply is no such thing as flood control beyond what can be commonly expected every year during the monsoon season in Pakistan, with no attempt being made to control flooding beyond that.
But once more, blaming climate change is the easy way out to avoid responsibility.