Expired · 14th September 2010
The recent flooding in Pakistan is the kind of disaster that science has predicted would accompany global climate change. While true that no individual weather event can be blamed on a warming planet, the increase in unusual deluges, floods, scorching heat, droughts, fires and storms suggests something abnormal is occurring.
Granted, the evidence is circumstantial – perhaps it will always be circumstantial. But, since climate is the average of all weather in a given place, we can only have so many "once-in-a-century" or "once-in-a-millennia" weather events before we have to accept that the future we were warned about has arrived.
The growing list of weather-related disasters has been worrisome. Record high temperatures have hit many places on the planet in the last few months: China, Germany, Greece, Russia, Portugal, Australia, the USA and much of Africa. Heat records were broken in at least 17 countries this summer. Saudi Arabia's temperatures exceeded 47°C and on May 26th Pakistan's hit a suffocating 53.5°C (Maclean's, Aug. 30/10). Record rainfalls struck China, Brazil, France, Poland and the Philippines.
A scan of Canada finds the same incidents of extremes: hot or dry or wet or cold or hail or wind. A mid-July Calgary storm with golf-ball sized hailstones caused $400 million in property damage, and tornados blowing up to 300 km/hr surprised the Prairies and Ontario. As David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada, said of Saskatchewan's unseasonably wet weather, "June is your wet season, but this is ridiculous. I mean this is a monsoon, reminiscent of what you'd see in another part of the world" (Globe & Mail, June 18/10).
Unfortunately for Pakistan, it did get its seasonal monsoons – three weeks of unusual torrential rains. The Indus River couldn't contain all the water. One-fifth of the country was submerged and 20 million people were affected. "More devastating than the 2004 Southeast Asia tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake, and the Haiti earthquake combined," noted Maclean's in an August 30th feature article, Extreme Weather Warming. Humanitarian aid is struggling to provide food, shelter and drinking water while trying to limit the ravages of rampant disease: cholera, typhoid, dysentery and hepatitis. The United Nations is asking for $460 million in immediate aid, an amount that won't even begin to reclaim the damaged farmland, replace the lost crops, rebuild the nearly one million ruined homes, or repair the destroyed infrastructure.
But this is just a vague measure of the physical dimensions of the disaster. As analysts have been warning for a decade or more, the political ramifications might be even worse. Pakistan is populous and unstable, a country with inner conflicts that are tense and explosive. Governments alternate between military dictatorships and wobbly, corrupt democracies. The country has been close to war with India several times and is feeding the fighting in Afghanistan. Pakistan is home to Islamic extremists and regions that are essentially beyond the control of its present precarious national authority. It is also a nuclear power with leaky security for its technology and fissile bomb-making components. This is the last country that the world wants to be traumatized and destabilized by an environmental disaster.
But this is what is happening. The Taliban are attempting to curry popular favour and political support by aiding the destitute victims of the flood. In a deviousness and ruthlessness that is characteristic of their radical politics, they have said they will kill international relief workers who are assisting Pakistanis. Aid efforts by the United Nations have been compromised by this threat. A humanitarian disaster has been made even worse by the callous political opportunism of unscrupulous radicals. "The idea that this flood would essentially come on top of a very corrosive insurgency is extremely worrisome," said Anne Patterson, the US ambassador to Pakistan (National Post, Aug 19/10).
These are the compounding destabilizing forces that make environmental diasters more dangerous than the physical destruction caused by flood, drought, fire or the other expressions of an unsettled Mother Nature. The physical trauma is enough. But to be buffeted by political turmoil is doubly dangerous. As witnessed in East Africa, civil wars can and are triggered by weather stresses. Refugees who spill from one region to another can set in motion a domino-effect of disorder with consequences that can be felt felt around the world.
This presents a dilemma for nations that are capable of contributing assistance. Aid is a financial drain. Expenditures that would otherwise be used for balancing domestic budgets, repairing health care systems or other internal necessities are diverted elsewhere. As disasters proliferate, despite the moral imperative to ameliorate suffering, donor exhaustion does occur. But unaided countries under the stress of environmental calamities can breed widespread problems that are also expensive to the international community. The alternative to humanitarian aid is closed borders and rising military spending, strategies that make the world less safe, less wealthy and less humane.
By any measure, weather-caused disasters are expensive, disruptive and tragic – both where they occur but also where they don't occur. And every statistical indication is that the frequency and severity of these disasters is increasing. And so, in the lottery of weather, the number of losers is on the rise.