El Niño: A looming disaster

The impact of a “Godzilla El Niño” is already being felt across the world, but is the Pakistani government ready?
<p>Pakistan is one of the world&#8217;s countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change [image by Asian Development Bank]</p>

Pakistan is one of the world’s countries most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change [image by Asian Development Bank]

This year the world is in for a double whammy – climate change along with an El Nino effect so large, that the climatologist Bill Patzert, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge, dubbed it the “Godzilla El Nino” on the US National Public Radio. As the world braces for more weather trouble, Pakistan, among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, is likely to suffer as well due to abnormal weather patterns.

El Niño occurs in east-central equatorial Pacific, during which the waters along the western coast of South America become warmer than average. It is generally believed that the phenomenon impacts weather throughout the globe. The last truly massive El Niño event occurred in 1997-98. About 23,000 people were killed and the total damages caused were estimated to be in the range of US$35 billion. The UN has already warned that the current phase of El Niño is the strongest since 1998, and scientists believe that it will gradually become stronger than its predecessor.

Big El Niños can turn climate conditions on their head and disrupt weather around the globe. The impact of the current El Niño phase has already been felt.  Scientists around the world are convinced that recent extreme weather events, in the form of floods and tornados in UK and the US respectively, are manifestations of this ongoing El Niño event.

Also read: El Niño does hit the monsoon, but some links still missing

Here, we are talking of developed countries that are comparatively resilient against the adverse effects of such weather calamities. Extreme weather does far more damage in poorer countries. In December more than 100,000 people were evacuated their homes in the bordering areas of Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina due to severe flooding in the wake of heavy summer rains brought on by El Niño.

El Niño is, however, not always associated with heavy rainfall events. According to the World Meteorological Organization, drought-like conditions, which can be attributed to the current El Niño phase, are already being felt in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Malawi, Indonesia and across Central America. The phenomenon is also being held responsible for uncontrolled forest fires in the Amazon and Indonesia.

Pakistan impact

Pakistan has also suffered from this weather phenomenon. The 1998 El Niño, for instance, resulted in heavy snowfall followed by the country’s worst and longest drought that went on for four years in lower Punjab, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Similarly, the relatively milder El Niño of 2009 led to a drought followed by the devastating floods of 2010. While the El Niño effect is strongest near the equatorial Pacific regions, they can affect precipitation patterns around the world, leading directly to droughts and floods.

According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department, in the more than 100-year period between 1871-1988, 11 of 21 drought years were El Niño years. A study published in the quarterly journal of the Royal Meteorological Society also shows that there is significant positive correlation of winter precipitation in the northwestern region of Pakistan with El Niño years. “Two regions of high rainfall variability are observed: one is over the NE-Arabian Peninsula region and the other is over the northwestern region of Pakistan,” it said.

Based on these facts, one should expect large scale abnormalities in the weather patterns, both in the form of floods and droughts in 2016.

Pakistan cannot avoid natural calamities but the right set of policies and measures can stop them from turning into human disasters. The cost of not preparing for disasters or learning lessons from past experience is enormous. Unfortunately, we are in the habit of repeating the same mistakes. For the last five to six years, Pakistan has been experiencing a weather related disaster each year. The repeated loss of lives, livelihoods and infrastructure after such events reflect the lacunas in disaster preparedness, prevention and management policies.

Agriculture, which is the mainstay of Pakistan’s economy in terms of employment provision and exports, is very sensitive to fluctuations in weather patterns. The current state of affairs in the country is so bleak that we have failed to respond to any extreme weather related event witnessed in the country. Each year, the agriculture sector suffers heavy losses, with experts estimating losses of up USD 5.2 billion on an annual basis due to environmental degradation.

Time and again, the lack of coordination between various government departments comes up as a major issue during such extreme events. In the end, it all boils down to governance – how decisions are made, who is involved in these decision-making processes and who has the powers to decide, on what evidence is planning based and how are conflicting views dealt with. In this regard, the Ministry of Climate Change may serve as the platform through its advisory body, the Consultative Group on Climate Change, established in July 2015. One of the main objectives of this body is to suggest possible remedies to strengthen the country’s resilience against climate-induced disasters. The year 2016 may serve as a test case for the ministry to take proactive measures and to ensure better coordination among these departments.