21 August 2010
The Pakistan floods are severely affecting 20 million of that country's 180 million people. Pakistan is used to Monsoon rains and floods but this is not just a regular Monsoon event, it is the biggest flood in the nation's history. To put it into more familiar terms, let us imagine an equivalent tragedy in the UK, with has a population a third the size of Pakistan's. Ignoring our topography for the moment, we would have seen raging torrents surge from the Scottish and Welsh mountains and Northern England into Midlands rivers, Eastern plains and towards Southern England. By now, 250,000 homes would have been destroyed or damaged, with over 500 British people dead (it's already over 1500 in Pakistan). In Pakistan 20 million people are still without aid. Just imagine 7 million stranded UK citizens, including 2 million facing starvation.
Pakistan is already coping with around 1.7 million Afghan refugees. The UK is currently home to around 200,000 from many sources, 2% of the world's 10 million refugees. But the UK's economy is twenty times the size of Pakistan's in GDP terms (CIA world factbook, 2006). The UK is donating £30 million of emergency flood aid - high by international standards and deserving some praise - but this is only the cost of operating the Trident nuclear submarines for five days.
Pakistan's economy cannot cope with a tragedy of such a scale, which would even bring the UK to its knees and in search of international help. The suffering is sufficient reason for concerned human interest, but there is an even greater reason to monitor these sad events. The next few months may provide some indication of whether the world will act to minimise the risk of further extreme weather events - expected as the climate warms. Or whether we are watching a dress rehearsal of future - perhaps even European - tragedies being performed on the stage of Sindh, Baluchistan and Punjab.
Of course we don't expect the UK to ever experience such weather. We don't have the Himalayas channeling Monsoon water swiftly in one regional direction. We live in a rich country and expect that emergency plans are somehow ready for 'once in a century' events. We believe that families could quickly escape inundation by leaping into cars or trains to visit relatives or friends in safer areas. In the 'recovery phase' after a deluge we would expect UK health services to manage the health implications and our welfare system to support victims - who would eventually repair their homes, businesses and fields and reconstruct their lives. Not so in Pakistan of course, where for most people welfare is the solidarity of family and little else.
Our confidence is partly based on the belief that our Atlantic/European weather system will stay much the same as it is. This is now a dangerous, outdated idea. This summer, Poles experienced the worst floods in Polish history. Russians experienced their highest temperatures in recorded history with forests ablaze near Moscow, choking its citizens for weeks. When the global climate changes, local weather can change very, very quickly.
I don't claim that these weather events are firm evidence of human induced global warming - there is anyway enough evidence of that already - but their unprecedented scale should make every sensible government re-examine its climate protection plans. Sadly the new UK government may be burning its climate pledges as fast as the Russian forests. Heavily polluting new coal-fired power stations may yet be permitted, despite election pledges; the Sustainable Development Commission is already earmarked for abandonment and the government may be preparing to cut funds for responses to global disasters.
The Pakistan floods should be provoking an immediate reconvening of the delegations which attended the failed Copenhagen climate conference. From Pakistan to Poland and beyond, there is a need for urgency.