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Rolling a 13: Global Warming and Regional Water Management in Pakistan and Russia

On July 28th in Peshawar, Pakistan, it rained more in one day than it had ever previously rained for the entire month. In the face of that kind of event, it’s hard not to think that we are entering unprecedented times. (It is still raining, with forecasts of more to come, with 1,600 people dead—at least—and more people homeless from flooding than live in New York City).

Floods in Pakistan have killed thousands and displaced millions. Source: DFID U.K.

Scientists are, of course, very careful not to ascribe any particular event to climate change. The metaphor of “loading the dice” has become a popular way to explain what’s happening. If you load the dice to favor sevens and then roll a seven, you cannot say with certainty that this particular seven was caused by dice-loading, but you know it increased the chances. Climate change is like that — the more greenhouse gasses we put into the atmosphere, the greater chance that an extreme weather event will come up.

Given the severity of events we have seen recently though, some have suggested that the metaphor doesn’t go far enough—that what we’re doing is more like painting new dots on the dice to make it possible to roll numbers (say, a 13) that correspond to events whose severity we’ve never seen before.

Some climate scientists say that the devastating floods of Pakistan may be connected to a parallel catastrophe unfolding in Russia, where the summer’s heat wave may have already taken 15,000 lives, according to the Weather Underground. Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the Boulder, Colorado-based National Center for Atmospheric Research, says that the seasonal monsoon of the Indian subcontinent drives air circulation as far away as Europe.

Temperatures in Moscow rose to over 100 for the first time in history. Rampant wildfires have only made the catastrophe there worse; Moscow is now choking on smoke from its hinterlands.

Battling fire outside Moscow. Source: AP via National Geographic.

While there is no question that the global climate is affecting these regions, we should also not forget the regional water management issues that may have also played a role in Pakistan and Russia’s tragedies.

In Pakistan, some experts have said that flooding has been made far worse by decades of river mismanagement. According to a Public Radio International report, as much as two-thirds of water from the Indus River in Pakistan is diverted for agriculture. With so much water diverted, silt builds up in the riverbed instead of being flushed into the sea, effectively reducing channel capacity, says Danish Mustafad, a professor of environment at King’s College in London. This reduced capacity greatly increases the chance of a truly catastrophic flood when record-breaking rainfall occurs. In addition, river diversions have drained wetlands in the area—removing nature’s sponge for heavy rainfall.

Not coincidentally, the history of draining wetlands may play a part it Russia’s heat and fire woes as well. Peat–partially decayed vegetation that is the geological precursor to coal–is found in wetlands and traditionally was used as a low-grade fuel in Russia and elsewhere. Dried out wetlands can turn into enormous peat-tinderboxes, whose fires can smolder for years.

Both cases are examples of shortsighted water management that exacerbate climate crisis challenges and effectively paint more dots on the catastrophic weather-event dice. On the other hand, by teaching and practicing water-conservation, intelligent management and appropriate restoration, maybe we can begin to mitigate some of the problems that we’ve created.

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13 years ago

Poor management of freshwater resources is a serious issue that doesn’t receive enough coverage in the news media. We are lucky in the U.S. that we have such vast water resources at our disposal. But even these won’t last forever if they aren’t managed properly. And as we’ve seen, the entire planet may suffer from the increased severity of the disasters like those unfolding in Pakistan and Russia. It will truly require an integrated, multilateral strategy to combat climate change. Though little has been accomplished so far, I’m still hopeful the nations of the world will soon begin working together to slow the pace of climate change. We need such efforts now more than ever.

Lady Gwenn
13 years ago

I would just like to say that there isn’t that much of a major concern over global warming anymore. One of the two major political parties (Republicans) has no interest in addressing climate change. In fact, Republicans are increasingly denying that climate change is even a problem. Out of all the Republican contenders for the Senate in 2010, none support action on climate change, and most deny the existence of anthropogenic global warming.The media has done a terrible job covering climate science, and as a result the public is very poorly informed and often misinformed about the science. When the public doesn’t understand the science, it’s hard to make them understand that climate change is a problem we need to address.The economy is in the crapper. The public is much more concerned about creating jobs and fixing the economy, and as a result climate change has been put on the backburner.