Pakistan floods, Part II

A year after one of the worst disasters in its history, Pakistan is again facing huge and destructive flooding. Short- and long-term help is needed.

If Pakistan’s disastrous flood seems to be old news it may be because just a year ago that nation endured the worst floods in its history – with about 2,000 people killed and 11 million left homeless.

This year’s inundation isn’t quite of that epic scale – though don’t try telling that to the 5.4 million people affected in two provinces where more than 200 people have already died, some 665,000 homes have been destroyed, and 1.8 million people have been displaced.

As the rains continue to fall, some of the same issues are again rising with the floodwaters. Pakistan has a weak and ineffective government that seems overmatched to deal with such a huge humanitarian crisis within its borders.

But Pakistan shouldn’t be forgotten about for more than just humanitarian reasons. It continues to play a key strategic role in efforts to combat terrorists in neighboring Afghanistan. It still possesses nuclear weapons. And it still has a tense relationship with its neighbor India, another nuclear power.

The latest natural disaster in Pakistan, where 800,000 families still remain homeless from last year’s flooding, threatens again to destabilize what is an already unpopular government there. Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani wisely canceled a trip to the United Nations in New York to instead tour the devastated region, but only after the inappropriate timing of his trip was pointed out in a Pakistani newspaper.

Pakistan has appealed to its community living in the United States to provide aid for countrymen back home. “The magnitude of disaster is much beyond the capacity of Pakistan,” Mr. Gilani conceded Sunday. “I appeal to all people, chambers of commerce, the business community, and the international community to come forward.”

The UN has asked for $357 million in international aid to help victims of the floods, which have been triggered by much heavier than normal monsoon rains. In the affected region, nearly three-fourths of the crops have been destroyed, which will exacerbate recovery efforts.

Whether outsized monsoon season floods are part of a “new normal” for Pakistan remains to be seen. Military planners in the US and elsewhere are already trying to get a handle on how changing climates may affect various countries and, as a result, place a burden on other governments and their militaries to respond.

Monsoons aren’t the only threat. Vast high mountain glaciers that feed Pakistan’s rivers are receding at an unprecedented pace – faster than in any other part of the world, Pakistan’s representative told a recent UN gathering on climate issues. In the long term, this may threaten Pakistan’s water supply as glaciers lose their water-storage capacity and shrink.

Already the unprecedented melt contributes to flooding downstream, including the phenomenon of glacial lake outbursts, in which melting ice causes water in a lake contained by a glacier to be suddenly released, creating floods downstream.

This summer Pakistan has set up five monitoring stations at high elevations, a first step in understanding the rate of melt and how it affects rates of runoff.

Immediate attention must focus on providing international aid for those Pakistanis now in dire need. Longer term, the US and other countries must find ways to promote a more stable government in Pakistan that is better able to help its own people. At the same time, scientific research must be stepped up to help better understand the possible effects of climate change on Pakistan – and the best ways to blunt them.

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