Climate Change Hurricane Harvey and lessons for Pakistan


By Humayun Saifullah Khan, Ex-Provincial Minister and MNA


(National): Hurricane Harvey is all over the news nowadays. We see pictures of water entering homes and complete cars submerged in water. The damage done will be calculated when the water recedes and it will be in hundreds of billions of dollars.

The facts and figures on Harris County and Houston are unbelievable. It poured 4.5 trillion liters of water in 100 hours. An 8-year-old standing in the water would be completely submerged. Hurricane Harvey is a once-in-500-years storm, and yet it is the third time that a storm of this kind has hit Houston in 38 years.

Reinsurer Munich Re says that their number has increased from 200 floods per year in 1980 to 600 floods per year up to 2016. The UN says that from 1995 to 2015, the damage incurred by floods was $1.7 trillion.

The World Health Organization says that the cost of hurricane damage is increasing by 6% annually. In Pakistan, too, the damage due to floods has been $60 billion in infrastructure. 6000 people have died, not to mention the loss of cattle and other animals.

Floods are becoming more and more frequent and severe. One of the biggest reasons for this is climate change. As the planet is getting warmer, so are the seas; they evaporate faster. Warmer air can hold more water vapor. Energy is released when it condenses inside a weather system, making storms and hurricanes more severe.

A paper published in Nature Climate Change in 2014 by researchers at Stanford says that the South Asian monsoon will become more extreme; there will be dry spells and rainy spells intermittently. This can be seen in the devastating floods of 2010 in Pakistan which killed 2100 people. In addition to that, in 2013, 6500 people died in India and Bangladesh. The average world temperature is between 0.6-0.7 °C (1.1-1.3 °F), higher than it was in 1979.

Scientists have known since 1850 that hotter air contains more water vapors. If the world’s temperature rises by 1°C, the moisture content in the air will increase by 7%. This is known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation. The problem is that the world cannot control climate change and it is going to get hotter. If the world’s temperature rises by another 1°C, the water vapor content in the air will increase by 14% altogether. That will play havoc with countless global systems.

The damage done by climate change cannot be undone. Even if the whole world wants to stop the elements that cause global warming, it might take another 20 years. By that time, more damage will have been done and the planet will be hotter.

A commission on large dams located in Switzerland did an exercise on Tarbela Dam and said that it regulates 16% of the Indus flood. If we had only two more dams, one at Basha and one at Kalabagh, our floods would be regulated by at least 50%. It would help immensely if we start making reservoirs where possible, strengthening our embankments/levees (bund) and making our drainage work. A new project should be designed to cater for a 100-year super flood.

According to Water Politics by David L. Feldman (page 34), “The country’s most far reaching efforts to manage water, however, came about with the end of its Civil War in 1939. Between 1950 and 2000, some 20 dams per year were constructed and surface water acreage doubled.

Spain now ranks 4th in the world in the number of impoundments per capita (Garrido & Llamas 2009). The overall purpose of this centrally-directed water resource development, heralded by the Franco regime as a means of promoting rapid economic development, was to provide cheap water for irrigated agriculture, hydropower for cities and industrial manufacturing, and flood control and navigation to promote social resilience and improvement of internal communications.” We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. All we have to do is follow their example and do good to our nation.