Rivers already filled with 'glacial bursts'
"We have been noticing these glacial bursts from the last couple of years," said Hameed Ullah Jan Afridi, Pakistan's minister for environment, in an interview. "This is not the first time, so that was in addition to the floods which happened."
The result for Pakistan's northwest was flash flooding that killed at least 1,500 people, according to government estimates; washed out numerous bridges; and destroyed a section of the fabled Karakoram Highway, cutting off half a million people from the outside world. At least 70 percent of both Nowshera and Charsadda was completely swamped, as nearby rivers and streams proved incapable of handling the water that came crashing down from the highlands.
The south of Pakistan wasn't spared.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's perfect storm was followed on its heels by a second wave of weather that dropped heavy monsoon rains over the Punjab watershed from Aug. 2 to 9, Khan said.
These storms were also strong, with Mianwali, a city at the heart of the downpour, recording 20 inches of rainfall in three days. That more normal monsoon pattern arrived just in time to catch the record volumes of rainwater streaming down the Indus river system from the heavily hit northwest.
Massive torrents of water from the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi and Sutlej rivers fed by these monsoon rains eventually met the Indus at Rajanpur district in southern Punjab. From there, the waters flowed south into Sindh province on their way to the ocean, spilling far beyond the Indus' banks. Floodwaters also spread west into Balochistan, causing devastation there, as well.
A disaster seen from space
This summer's catastrophe was continuously fed by rainstorms that hit the nation sporadically until around mid-September, though Pakistanis say their monsoon season typically concludes at the end of August. At its height, the floodwaters could be seen from space, with the Indus spreading more than 20 miles wide at some parts.
Every province was hit, and all told, 20 million Pakistanis are said to have been affected in some way by the flooding. About 1,800 are thought to have perished, though Pakistani aid workers and victims dispute the relatively low number, nothing that thousands are still probably missing.
The destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes has forced an estimated 8 million to sleep under tents, in makeshift shelters or out in the open. Thousands of acres of cropland has been destroyed just as planting season was to commence, and roughly 10 million head of livestock are believed to have been killed.
Both the United Nations and Pakistani government officials are convinced that climate change was the key contributing factor to the devastation. The cycle of dry spells that Pakistan has suffered for the past few years, terminated by a massive torrent, aligns almost precisely with trends predicted in the assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Environment Minister Afridi says his government plans to drive that point home to other nations at climate change talks scheduled for Mexico at the end of this year.
"We are going to Cancun," Afridi said. "We are looking forward to having a forum where we can cry in front of those people and have them know what has happened with us. The world has seen it themselves."
But Afridi also acknowledges that in many ways, Pakistan set itself up for an even bigger disaster than would otherwise have transpired. Ecological degradation that he says costs his nation about $1 billion in lost wealth per day is also partly to blame.
To what extent the 2010 flood disaster was caused by climate change versus other human impacts is a subject of growing debate in Pakistan.
Next: Part two -- how ecological degradation and neglect made the disaster far worse.
Saadia Haq contributed to this report.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500