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Climate change worsened Pakistan’s devastating flooding, analysis finds

Sept. 15, 2022 Updated Thu., Sept. 15, 2022 at 4:44 p.m.

Flooding in Dadu district, Sindh province, one of the worst-hit parts of Pakistan where nearly a third of the country is underwater and more than 33 million people have been affected.  (Susannah George/Washington Post)
Flooding in Dadu district, Sindh province, one of the worst-hit parts of Pakistan where nearly a third of the country is underwater and more than 33 million people have been affected. (Susannah George/Washington Post)
By Kasha Patel Washington Post

Record rainfall spurred Pakistan’s worst flooding in more than a decade, destroying more than a million homes, killing nearly 1,500 people and affecting another 33 million people. Now, an analysis released Thursday showed climate change likely intensified the rain by 50% to 75% .

Since June, national rainfall amounts have been well above average. Pakistan experienced its wettest July and August on record since 1961. The hardest hit regions were the southern provinces of Sindh and Baluchistan. In August alone, Baluchistan and Sindh received seven to eight times more rain than normal.

“That would have been disastrously high rainfall event without climate change, but it’s worse because of climate change,” said Friederike Otto, a climate scientist at Imperial College London. “Especially in this highly vulnerable region, small changes matter a lot.”

Otto and more than two dozen scientists with the World Weather Attribution project quantified the influence of climate change on the heavy rainfall. The group analyzed weather data and ran computer models to simulate the rainfall in a world without climate change compared to today’s climate, which has warmed about 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1800s. The findings, which are not yet peer-reviewed, use well-established methodologies that have been peer-reviewed and used in past analyses.

The researchers looked at rainfall for 60 days across the entire summer nationwide as well as the 5-day heaviest period over Baluchistan and Sindh. They found that climate change likely intensified the 5-day total by up to 75% and increased the intensity of the 60-day rain by 50% .

They also found such rainfall amounts have about a 1% percent chance of happening each year, known as 1-in-100-year rain event.

“In the world without climate change, it would have been less likely,” said Otto. Otto emphasized the findings have large uncertainties because of the difficulty of modeling rainfall the region, which experiences highly variable rainfall from year to year during monsoon season.

While climate change is a factor, the team said there are several factors – perhaps more important than climate change – that set the unprecedented flooding in motion.

“The historic levels of rainfall that we’ve just heard about, especially in Sindh and Baluchistan, meant that the country had obviously been dealing with an unprecedented hazard,” said Ayesha Siddiqi, a researcher at the University of Cambridge and involved in the analysis. “It’s not really possible for any country, anywhere, to be entirely prepared.”

Even so, Siddiqi said water management along the Indus River delta played a large role in the widespread flooding. For instance, she said much of the damage from the catastrophic 2010 flooding was not caused from the rainfall but issues related to dams.

Sedimentation reduced the capacity for water channels to carry water while water levels continued to rise.

Drainage issues in the lower Indus basin prevented upstream water from entering the sea.

Construction of buildings near riverbeds, which block natural water courses, have also allowed water to stagnate.

“It is important to remember that this disaster was the result of a vulnerability that was constructed over many, many years and shouldn’t be seen historically as the outcome of one sporadic sudden event,” Siddiqi said.

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