Dicey weather

April 21, 2024

Extreme weather conditions have been reported from around the world. Is Pakistan prepared to face what’s coming?

Dicey weather


n uncanny weather pattern continues to dominate the skies. A dry winter has been followed by a wet spring. April has brought unusual snowfall and intense rains. Rain data from December 2023 to March 2024 shows less than normal rain in the country except for Balochistan and Sindh. Rainfall during the same period last year was even less. From December 2023 to March 2024 Balochistan received 24 percent more than the normal rainfall.

Westerly weather systems, making entry from Balochistan, have become more frequent this year. These weather systems have brought intense rains, especially in southern Balochistan. Gwadar witnessed bewilderingly intense and disastrous rainfall in February. The Meteorological Office reported that Gwadar received a record 183mm of rainfall in 24 hours on February 28. This extreme weather event caused severe flooding in Gwadar. Inadequate cross-drainage works on the newly built road connecting the town with the Makran coastal highway blocked natural drainage. Consequently, rainwater not only flooded roads and streets but also inundated residential and commercial properties of the town. Dozens of houses were damaged and inmates were displaced. The Pakistan Red Crescent Society reported that 10,000 households were affected. An emergency was declared in Gwadar district.

Urban flooding has been unheard of in Gwadar as the town is located on the seashore with unhindered natural drainage. It is the construction of climatically insensitive roads that introduced this new menace to the town. Another strong weather system may have lashed southern Balochistan by the time this article is being read.

Upcountry, the weather took a different turn with disorderly snowfall. Snow melting is a major source of river flows in Kharif, especially in the Indus region. This year Pakistan received delayed and below-normal snowfall. Till the end of January, very little snowfall had been recorded. Much of the snowfall occurred between February and April. Heavy snowfall in mid-April took residents of Chitral by surprise. Intense snowfall blocked the Lowari tunnel and Shandur pass. Life came to a halt due to an unexpected amount of snow in the area.

Last year too April was a wet month. Rainfall in April last year was 12 per cent higher than the historic average, making the month seventh wettest April in 63 years.

The temperature too has been inconsistent. Last year, the maximum temperature in Larkana was 44 degrees Celsius on April 14. This year, in a discernable contrast, it recorded only 28 degrees Celsius on the day. April has not only brought unprecedented rains in Balochistan but also neighboring United Arab Emirates and Oman. On April 16, the UAE received two year’s downpour within a few hours. The UAE government declared a rain emergency, flight operations were suspended, schools were closed and work from home was advised for office workers. Two days before that, Oman was battered by heavy rain and urban flooding that caused 18 deaths.

Weather pundits believe that delayed and smaller amounts of snowfall are likely to create a relatively thin sheet of snow that can melt fast once the mercury rises over the coming weeks. The snow becomes dense if it falls in December and January as freezing temperatures keep it intact. However, snowfall from February to April will be exposed to relatively higher temperatures and the layer might be a lot thinner. This phenomenon can generate higher flows in the Indus region this year.

Dicey weather

…prognosis, based on weather models for the region, infers above-normal monsoon showers this year. Pakistan can face a challenging situation if snow melting brings riverine floods that can be aggravated by heavy monsoons.

Rains in the Punjab during March have also affected the wheat crop. Pakistan Kissan Committee has claimed that a bumper wheat crop was expected but windstorms affected the produce in many areas including Toba Tek Singh, Okara and Layyah. Although the effect was not severe, farmers in the affected areas have lost some of their harvest.

Amid this baffling weather, the coming monsoon is being forecast as heavy. In the first week of February, Reuter news agency reported that after a strong El Nino, global weather is poised to transition to La Nina in the second half of 2024, a pattern typically bringing higher precipitation to Southeast Asia and India. South East Asian countries - Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand - were gripped by extreme heat waves in the first week of April. In the Philippines, almost 4,000 schools suspended in-person classes as the heat index passed 42 degrees Celsius in some areas. This climatic effect is translating into food inflation in the region. Indonesia experienced prolonged dry weather last year and rice cultivation was affected. The cost of rice, a staple food for the country’s 270 million people, rose by 16 percent and people were making long queues to get subsidised rice. Thailand also experienced a fall in crop yields.

Indian Meteorological Department has predicted above-normal rainfall in the four-month monsoon season (June to September) with cumulative rainfall estimated at 106 percent of the long-period average. A similar weather pattern can be inferred for Pakistan. It may be a wet summer this year.

With dicey weather patterns, it is hard to predict accurately. However, the prognosis, based on weather models for the region, is of above-normal monsoon showers this year. Pakistan can face a challenging situation if snow melting brings riverine floods aggravated by heavy monsoons. In 2022, when Sindh received abnormal rainfall and flows from Balochistan via the Khirthar range entered Sindh, a high flood in the Indus River could not absorb spillover flows from Manchar Lake at Sehwan. This brought devastation to the area. The coincidence of abnormal rains and peak floods in Indus exhausted the flood protection system and resulted in a catastrophe in 2022.

The flood managers should closely observe storage in Tarbela and Mangla, the two large dams of the country. Inflows and outflows should be closely monitored as temperature rises and inflows improve. In the latter half of July, sufficient space should be allowed to absorb flood flows. Although the Indus River System Authority has predicted 30 per cent less water availability during early Kharif, recent rains are expected to improve the situation.

Pakistan is still struggling to rehabilitate those affected by the 2022 floods, especially in Sindh where millions are still waiting for reconstruction of their houses. Blocked natural waterways have been a major source of flooding. The government has not taken any noticeable action to restore natural drainage in the province. With a gentle natural gradient of just 6-8 inches per mile, the province experiences trapped flood water in most of the areas for several months. Obstructed natural drainage aggravates this effect. From Swat to Keti Bunder river beds are dotted with unauthorised structures that need to be removed before monsoon to clear flood paths in riverbeds. One significant manifestation of climate change is its ominously unpredictable behaviour. The only solution to unpredictability is better preparation for worst-case scenarios.

The author is a civil society professional. Email: nmemon2004 @yahoo.com)

Dicey weather