NOWSHERA, Pakistan -- "Allah was angry with us when the rain came."
Sumaira Bibi unhesitatingly leans on theology to explain what happened here on the night of July 29, when her world was drowned.
Her husband was out of town for work. The 37-year-old mother was left with her five children and sister-in-law to settle in for the night. Then the incessant rain began to swamp this city in northwestern Pakistan, about 50 miles from the Afghan border. It didn't take long for the water spilling over the doorways to send her family on a desperate bid for survival.
"After six hours, we managed to get out with many of our neighbors, wet and scared," said Bibi, who now takes refuge with her husband and children at a camp run by an Islamic charity group. "The rain still did not stop, but we followed the rest of people who had got a boat."
The sounds she remembers most were the anguished cries of frightened children, women screaming for their loved ones, and the unending rain that caused the Kabul River here to sprawl far outside its banks. She and her children made it to higher ground, but not before losing her home and her brother-in-law, who hasn't been seen since.
"The river Kabul was like a demon, swishing with so much water and overflowing the whole of Nowshera. It is something I have never seen in my life," recalled her neighbor Zunaira, 34, who was pushed out of nearby Risalpur village by the floods. "We had to put a hand on our children's eyes, as they were getting more and more scared with each moment."
The cities of Nowshera and neighboring Charsadda, in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (formerly Northwest Frontier province), and their suburbs were the first major communities hit by the unprecedented flooding that swamped one-fifth of Pakistan and left about 7 million homeless this summer. Both women saw scores of buildings, men, women and children swept away by the floods. Though the government puts the death toll for the entire province at about 1,500, almost everyone here believes the actual number of dead is far higher.
These communities found themselves at the epicenter of an unusual weather pattern that dumped record rainfall on northwestern Pakistan and sent floodwaters surging from the north to the rest of the nation.
Residents describing the deluge say it began with a constant, pounding rain that started around July 28 and continued for a week. There were brief pauses of stifling heat and humidity, quickly followed by more rain. It went on that way for over a month. The center of Nowshera was flooded in some places up to 10 feet above street level.
Given such accounts, it's easy to see why Zunaira, Bibi and many other Pakistanis attribute their nation's worst-ever natural disaster to God's wrath. The government attributes the disaster to global warming, but there's more to the story. A ClimateWire investigation into the origins of the flood disaster uncovered evidence that points to a calamity caused by man, the cumulative effect of erratic weather forecast by climate change models, massive deforestation, and lax attention to infrastructure maintenance and engineering standards.
The story of the 2010 flooding in Pakistan is a warning to other vulnerable nations that experts believe will bear the brunt of the gradual shifts in climate and weather patterns expected over the coming decades.
But it's also a sign of how much of the developing world is willfully making itself more vulnerable to climate change, even as poor nations ask rich ones to spend hundreds of billions per year on helping them to adapt. If the industrialized world is to blame for pumping heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, Pakistanis are also at fault for eroding their country's ability to cope with the consequences.
Final cries of the unrecorded dead
Shehryar Shah, station manager at 93.0 Radio Dilber in Charsadda, remembers the thousands of phone calls his team broadcast over the air from July 28 to alert the Pakistan Army as to where people were stranded. His news and talk station was virtually alone in covering the onset of the flooding as national media attention was fixated on a crash that same day of an Airblue passenger plane in the Margalla Hills, just north of Islamabad.
"We broadcasted these rescue cries for three days, and then we moved to the relief phase," he said.
One of his most painful memories involves a caller indicating that there were about 235 people stuck on rooftops in one part of town waiting for help, calling again and again when no one came. "After two or three hours, there was no more contact with them. Their cell phone was off," Shah said, distraught. "But the government is still insisting just 69 dead in Charsadda."
The SOS calls were interrupted occasionally only by the public service announcements Radio Dilber broadcast on behalf of the provincial disaster management authorities, alerting residents to where the river was breaching its banks and how high it had reached. He described rushing floodwaters up to 20 feet deep in some places. The storm grounded army rescue helicopters for at least two days.
"These people never expected such a huge flood in this region," Shah said. The last time his town was hit by such devastation was in 1929, but even then, the extent of flooding was much lighter, nothing like that seen this summer, he insists.
What Shah and the citizens of Nowshera and Charsadda witnessed in those days was a perfect storm event never before seen in Pakistan's history. Government officials say that from July 28 to Aug. 3, parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa recorded almost 12 feet of rainfall in one week. The province normally averages slightly above 3 feet for an entire year.
"We say that there is some part of the climate change effect there in this flooding," said Azmat Hayat Khan, a scientist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), part of his nation's Ministry of Defense. "This is an historical event."
What is also exceptional about this year's monsoon, Khan and other PMD officials say, is that it was centered so far north, and over one of Pakistan's driest regions.
The northern section of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa usually sees scattered rains during the monsoon season, but never the deluge it had this year. The inundation even spread as far north as Gilgit and Skardu in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, a mountainous region that had never seen the monsoons.
"Never before have the monsoons gone that far north," said Abdul Qadir, an environment and energy expert at the U.N. Development Programme who is now leading flood recovery efforts in Gilgit. "I think this was the first time in recorded history that there was so much rain in the high alpine areas, and that really basically created these flash floods." Flash flooding led to more deaths in the north than anywhere else.