Pakistan’s Next Superflood Is Coming. The Cavalry Isn’t.

Even a 1.5 degree warming target is untenable for countries already wracked by extreme weather. The West needs to step up.

By , a journalist writing about national security and foreign policy.
A flood-hit area in Pakistan
A flood-hit area in Pakistan
A woman sits at a makeshift shelter in a flood-hit area in Dera Allah Yar, Pakistan, on Sept. 8. Fida Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

This is how one-third of my country ends up under water. First, temperatures climb. Then, deadly heat waves sweep across the land. Drought joins in. More water than usual evaporates from the Indian Ocean and is eagerly embraced by a warmer atmosphere. When the seasonal monsoon hits, it hits hard, with rainfall three times the national average of the past three decades. And the drought-parched soil acts like concrete, repelling the torrential rain. 

Add to this the descending meltwaters from the shrinking, third-largest glacier mass in the world, the Himalayas that soar above South Asia. Throw in reckless developmental planning that allowed agriculture and residential settlements in flood-prone areas and along river shores. Toss in rising silt levels and the reduced capacity of dams in the country’s biggest river. And you have the perfect recipe for the worst climate disaster to hit Pakistan, ever.

By some measures, the 2022 floods—which submerged an area roughly the size of Italy—are unprecedented, even though Pakistan was also struck by superfloods in 2010 and unusually bad floods the next two years. On the scale of human suffering, both superfloods were like a nightmarish mashup of the 2004 tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake—all rolled into one.

This is how one-third of my country ends up under water. First, temperatures climb. Then, deadly heat waves sweep across the land. Drought joins in. More water than usual evaporates from the Indian Ocean and is eagerly embraced by a warmer atmosphere. When the seasonal monsoon hits, it hits hard, with rainfall three times the national average of the past three decades. And the drought-parched soil acts like concrete, repelling the torrential rain. 

Add to this the descending meltwaters from the shrinking, third-largest glacier mass in the world, the Himalayas that soar above South Asia. Throw in reckless developmental planning that allowed agriculture and residential settlements in flood-prone areas and along river shores. Toss in rising silt levels and the reduced capacity of dams in the country’s biggest river. And you have the perfect recipe for the worst climate disaster to hit Pakistan, ever.

By some measures, the 2022 floods—which submerged an area roughly the size of Italy—are unprecedented, even though Pakistan was also struck by superfloods in 2010 and unusually bad floods the next two years. On the scale of human suffering, both superfloods were like a nightmarish mashup of the 2004 tsunami, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake—all rolled into one.

The simple fact is that even the most ambitious targets of climate campaigners may be too warm for Pakistan’s comfort. “I have just returned from Pakistan, where I looked through a window into the future, a future of permanent and ubiquitous climate chaos on an unimaginable scale,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said Wednesday. 

At the 2015 Paris climate talks, small island states pushed industrialized nations to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, over preindustrial levels. Wealthier, more polluting nations balked, clinging on to the more manageable goal of a 2 degree Celsius rise. A compromise was reached, reflected in the fuzzy language of the Paris climate agreement that aims to keep warming levels “well below” 2 degrees while pursuing “efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.” Since then, the 1.5-degree moonshot has become an oft-cited goal for world leaders and a rallying cry for climate activists. 

But temperatures have already risen by about 1.1 degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. A recent U.N. report found that global projected fossil fuel use in 2030 is more than twice than what would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. And even the ambitious 1.5-degree target would be untenable for Pakistan: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in its latest assessment report, noted that rising temperatures have already affected Asian monsoon patterns and are increasing the incidence of extreme weather events, such as superfloods. “Even at 1.1 degrees, we’re beginning to see a drastic local impact,” said Gavin Schmidt, the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA. 

A few tenths of a degree or even a few degrees may sound trivial. But at a global level, tiny changes in temperature cause geologically significant shifts, Schmidt noted. The Medieval Warm Period, when the Vikings colonized Greenland, was only about a degree Celsius warmer than what came before; the Little Ice Age, when Europe froze and you could take a leisurely stroll across the Baltic Sea, was only about 1 degree Celsius colder than the norm. Even the last big glaciation 20,000 years ago, when ice sheets covered much of the Northern Hemisphere and woolly mammoths roamed at leisure, was only about 5 degrees colder. Schmidt said NASA trend data shows that since 2010, when Pakistan got hit by the first superfloods, July temperatures have increased by about 0.4 degrees Celsius (0.7 degrees F).

Pakistan contributes less than 0.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, while boasting the fifth-largest population in the world, at about 230 million. And yet, like other developing nations, it has become among the most vulnerable countries to even slight increases in temperatures; climate-related disasters have surged fivefold in the last five decades. Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique were struck by massive cyclones in 2019. Central America’s dry corridor has experienced year after year of drought over the past decade. The Philippines keeps getting hammered with ever-deadlier supertyphoons. But South Asia is in a particularly bad patch. Bangladesh, too, had record-breaking floods this past summer, while India suffered drought and extreme heat waves. And Pakistan is just bracing for more.

“The number of weather anomalies here this past summer alone is worth noting,” said Peter Webster, a meteorologist at Georgia Tech whose research focuses on the Asian monsoon.

The South Asian monsoon is sort of like a giant sea breeze. Damp air moves from the Indian Ocean and sweeps north into Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh in the summer. Warmer air carries more moisture—for every 0.6 degrees Celsius (1 degree Fahrenheit) of warming, the atmosphere can hold 4 percent more moisture. Higher temperatures can increase not only the intensity of the rainfall (which is what happened this summer) but also the intensity of droughts (also what happened this summer), Webster added. These extremes can vary year by year—or happen simultaneously. 

Even if it’s impossible to predict with precision how and when they will unfold, “what’s clear is that extreme weather events in South Asia are happening all too frequently to ignore,” Webster said. 

This means Pakistan must prepare for its next cataclysm. It may, like the gap between the two superfloods, arrive only after 10 years. It may arrive in five. Or sooner. But it will arrive. And in Pakistan, as in other developing countries, climate disasters exacerbate already fragile situations. The floods arrived amid a host of economic and political crises—spiraling food prices, food insecurity, and an ongoing political power struggle. There is little resilience built in for a $10 billion disaster whose impact will reverberate throughout the 230 million population for years to come. 

Developing countries, least responsible for the crisis and least able to cope, bear the brunt of the changing climate. “Vulnerable spots around the world will have to adapt continually to a worsening situation. It’s going to get worse before we reach net zero and eventually stabilize,” NASA’s Schmidt said. Industrialized nations, with significantly higher carbon footprints and significantly bigger pockets, need to step up to support countries that are literally underwater. Back in Paris in 2015, rich countries agreed to contribute $100 billion a year to less-developed regions to help them deal with climate change, but that pledge, like the Paris target itself, isn’t close to being met. Despite a flurry of new pledges from G-7 countries and a lofty promise from the Biden administration, it’s not clear that the even loftier needs of climate mitigation and adaptation will be met for the countries, like mine, most in need. 

We’ve just sat through Act 1 of a play nobody wanted to watch. There are more acts to follow.

Fatima Bhojani is a journalist writing about national security and foreign policy.

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