Meltdown

The floods in Pakistan have resulted in about 1,600 deaths, with many more expected (even disregarding the possibility of a cholera outbreak), and have stranded or displaced about 12 million people. The worst aspect seems to be that this is just a taste of what’s to come, if the disaster is essentially a consequence of global warming.

It’s hard to get the story straight on this. The link with glacial melting has been made in the Pakistani press, for example by Adil Zareef in The News, and in an AAP report citing ‘glaciologist’ Iqbal Khan. But news reports in general, including those in the Australian media, tend to mention only the monsoon.

Ironically, as far as glacial melting concerned, most of the focus in international reporting has been on the mistaken claim in the IPCC Report that the Himalayan glaciers might disappear by 2035. This is unfortunate if the real story is that a substantial volume of glacial ice will indeed melt in the next thirty years. If that happens we will see floods like the current one on a regular basis, followed by catastrophic drought as the process runs its course and meltwaters cease to fill the rivers in the dry months.

According to Orville Schell, reviewing the latest literature in the New York Review of Books in May:

..what makes glacial melt so critical, even when it is a relatively small percentage of a river’s annual flow, is the timing at which it occurs. If these flows come during the rainy monsoon season, they may lead to floods. But if they come during the hot, dry spring and fall months, the so-called “shoulder seasons” just before and after the monsoon, they keep the volumes of river water more constant and are welcomed. For such rivers as the Ganges, Indus, and Kabul, meltwaters can account for as much as 70 percent of spring and fall flows.

Orville explains that the melting is caused not just rising by high temperatures, but also the accumulation on the ice of soot from factories, mostly in China. This reduces the reflectivity of the ice. Also, large amounts of water can be released suddenly when breaches occur in the natural and man-made dams that retain the glacial lakes where much of the melting snow and ice is collected. The ‘Attabad lake’, created by a landslide in January, was already creating havoc in June.

A bit of googling yields any number of other warnings, like this, this, this and this.

But if glacial melting by itself is going to be catstrophic, its potential interaction with regional politics makes for hair-raising speculations. According to Foreign Policy:

Water is already undermining Pakistan’s stability. In recent years, recurring shortages have led to grain shortfalls. In 2008, flour became so scarce it turned into an election issue; the government deployed thousands of troops to guard its wheat stores. As the glaciers melt and the rivers dry, this issue will only become more critical. Pakistan—unstable, facing dramatic drops in water supplies, caged in by India’s vastly superior conventional forces—will be forced to make one of three choices. It can let its people starve. It can cooperate with India in building dams and reservoirs, handing over control of its waters to the country it regards as the enemy. Or it can ramp up support for the insurgency, gambling that violence can bleed India’s resolve without degenerating into full-fledged war.

Gwynne Dyer’s book Climate Wars, which presents a series of apocalyptic scenarios, also sketches an India-Pakistan war triggered by flood and drought. Here’s someone’s summary:

All of Pakistan’s fresh water flows from glacial melt that travels across five rivers that first run through India before entering Pakistan. India and Pakistan have an existing treaty as to how this water is distributed, basically India has the exclusive rights to three of the rivers and a fixed amount from the remaining two. Pakistan is 100 million people living in a desert with that one river flowing through it. What would happen if the glaciers disappeared? Would India and Pakistan fight over this crucial resource with nuclear weapons?

But is glacial melting in fact a major factor in the Pakistan floods? Well, it seems that the melting is not nearly as well established, nor as easy to establish, as one might think — at least according to Kenneth Hewitt, who as far as I can gather is an expert. In the first place, measuring glaciers is a complex and hazardous exercise. To the extent that reliable measurements have been made, it turns out that some glaciers are evidently expanding while others are contracting.

So we have to be cautious in pointing to global warming as the cause of the floods. But it seems pretty likely, and given so, it’s astonishing how little discussion there has been about the connection. If our own government had maintained its focus on climate change and worked on educating the electorate, perhaps media and public alike would be paying more attention to the disturbing developments at the foot of the Himalayas and less to the phony debate about public debt.

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Blair
Blair
11 years ago

Without having seen any data I doubt that glacial melt would have been a major contributor to this flood – its influence would be more on baseflow. The rainfalls with this event were pretty extreme (340mm in two days at Peshawar, for example), and also seem to have been spread over a reasonably wide area.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

Gwynne Dyer’s book Climate Wars, which presents a series of apocalyptic scenarios:

What would happen if the glaciers disappeared? Would India and Pakistan fight over this crucial resource with nuclear weapons?

That seems a tad alarmist.

As far as I can tell from a quick perusal of some literature on the Indian and Pakistani nuke-weapon programmes, both programmes are for deterrence a la Mutually Assured Destruction.

Using – and so experiencing – poisonous, death-giving weapons in an attempt to acquire life-giving water is, even for the most deranged Strangeloving General, a pretty obvious non-starter.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

Thanks for that, Geoff. Of course, the gulf stream Jet Stream behaviour may itself have something to do global warming, though the article doesn’t go into that. In any case I won’t be surprised if it emerges that glacial melting was a significant contributing factor.

Edward, I think the point is that Pakistan faces mass starvation it won’t have much to lose. Experts seem to be worried enough about a nuclear conflict between the two countries even without the water factor.

Dave
Dave
11 years ago

Jet Stream, not Gulf Stream.

dorinny
11 years ago

Pakistan—unstable, facing dramatic drops in water supplies, caged in by India’s vastly superior conventional forces—will be forced to make one of three choices. It can let its people starve. It can cooperate with India in building dams and reservoirs, handing over control of its waters to the country it regards as the enemy. Or it can ramp up support for the insurgency, gambling that violence can bleed India’s resolve without degenerating into full-fledged war.

There is actually a 4th option, which seems far more reasonable, but no less scary..

Foreign interests including state-owned companies from China and the Middle East are increasingly looking to Australia to secure their food production by purchasing key agricultural assets. [read more]

The world has embarked on a dangerous era of food insecurity and imperialism which will fuel conflict and famine if it is ignored. Australia is not immune. Land and water should be treated as strategic resources by us as they are by many in the world.

[…]

At that point realising that the market could not be relied upon to supply food, countries which have outgrown their own land and water resources like China, India, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Qatar embraced a global land and water acquisition plan. They intend to buy land and water in other countries from which to feed their own people. They will also send their own workers to those countries to produce the food – and if necessary employ security forces to protect it.

[http://greens.org.au/content/food-security-plan-essential-national-interest]

On another matter…

If our own government had maintained its focus on climate change and worked on educating the electorate, perhaps media and public alike would be paying more attention to the disturbing developments at the foot of the Himalayas and less to the phony debate about public debt.

As you said yourself – (1) there is no proof that the floods are related to climate change, and (2) if (1) were true, this is largely due to China’s emissions (the accumulation on the ice of soot from factories). Australia’s impact of “climate change” is so minute, I think public debt is the bigger issue right now.

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[…] Club Troppo, James Farrell reviews some of the information relating to the cause of the Pakistan flooding, suggesting that […]

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

James Farrell said:

I think the point is that Pakistan faces mass starvation it won’t have much to lose.

It’s true that they wouldn’t have much to loose by using nukes, but thanks to almost inevitable retaliation in-kind, nor would they have much to gain.

When the net gain from not using nukes (population death by starvation) = net gain from using nukes (population death by fire & poisoning & starvation) = 0, there is no rational grounds for choosing to use nukes.

Then again, in support of your suggestion, in such a case, the choice over the use of nukes could only be made sense of in terms of psychology, culture, political & economic circumstances in that moment.

I asked a Pakistani friend and an Afghani friend (indpendently) about this scenario and they both quickly concluded that Pakistani Generals, if taken to ‘the existential brink’, would launch nukes. Their explanations for this were not sophisticated, and boiled down to the history of anymosity between India & Pakistan and the ‘South Asian mentality’.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

Dorinny

1. The concern you raised. about Australian land being a potential target for powerful countries in the future, is important. But I can’t see that this is mutually exclusive with the scenarios I drew attention to. Relations between India and Pakistan are as tense as any pair of nuclear states have enjoyed since the 1970s; and one of those states (Pakistan) is far less internally stable than either of the Cold War protagonists. It’s pretty obvious that widespread famines in Pakistan aren’t going to alleviate that tension.

2. Even if glaciers aren’t contributing to the current flood, there is no doubt that they’re melting, and, with or without flooding, this will adversely affect agriculture in all of the countries dependent on Himalayan run-off. The case for global reductions in greenhouse gases isn’t impaired in any way.

3. Australia’s ‘minute’ impact on global warming is the really important issue in all this. If other countries do not cut emissions, there is nothing to be gained by cutting unilaterally. If other countries act to cut emisssions, we could choose to free ride by doing nothing and possibly benefit. The problem is, if small country acts on that logic, the outcome is that everyone loses. The process of restricting emisssions has to start somewhere.

4. This isn’t the place to start debating public debt. I know i’m the one who mentioned it, but I implicitly assumed that most readers agree that our public debt is small by both international and historic standards, and that its recent growth was an inevitable consequence of the GFC, and of an appropriate fiscal policu response to the GFC. (Who taught you macroeconomics anyway??)

Edward

I refer you to Item 1 above.

dorinny
11 years ago

Re- point 1) I was just pointing out a 4th option which didn’t involve nuclear warfare, but is not mutually exclusive to the first 3 scenarios. There should definitely be more public awareness of what is happening with foriegn acquisitions of our agriculture.

Re- point 3) I’m not saying that Australia should never do anything – but when our global impact is relatively tiny, and the economic cost of doing something is so great, I think it would be more appropriate to follow the lead of the big carbon emmission producers (e.g. China) before we commit to a regime that could potentially cripple our economy (as opposed to leading the way, and let’s face it – no way would China follow our lead).

Who taught you macroeconomics anyway??

Oh, just some wacky “economists”… can’t say I learned all that much, particularly from the macro unit coordinator :P

Patrick
Patrick
11 years ago

I don’t know very much if really anything about nuclear war. Watching Hiroshima mon amour is about the extent of it.

However, my very limited knowledge suggests that using nukes to secure not-very-far-away water resources would be more counterproductive than almost any other policy option.

Also, I, like a few others above, suspect that in reality even Pakistani generals are actually awfully fond of their own lives. Which appears to me to make nuclear war even less likely.

Edward Mariyani-Squire
Edward Mariyani-Squire
11 years ago

James Farrell said:

[1] Relations between India and Pakistan are as tense as any pair of nuclear states have enjoyed since the 1970s; and one of those states (Pakistan) is far less internally stable than either of the Cold War protagonists.
[2] It’s pretty obvious that widespread famines in Pakistan aren’t going to alleviate that tension.

Obviously tensions are high at present. That said:

[1] In the past, there have been sporadic moves towards ‘thawing’ the tensions, admittedly falling apart pretty quickly. Nonetheless, such moves hint that tensions are not irreversable.

[1.1] Even at points of highest tension, neither Pakistan or India has launched nukes suggesting there may be something to their M.A.D. deterrence strategies.

[2] Internal instability is not necessarily grounds for increased tensions.

[2.1] E.g. Indonesia’s economic collapse in mid-1997 and subsequent political crisis in 1998 seems to have contributed to then-President Habibie’s decision to allow a referendum on independence for East Timor. Despite the length of the occupation, the bloodiness of the withdrawal, and Indonesia’s loss of East Timor’s petroleum and natural gas resources, the two countries – whose tensions were far worse than those between India and Pakistan – now enjoy unusually good relations. One wonders whether tensions between Indonesia and East Timor would have ultimately been alleviated if Indonesia had not gone through such a massive crisis.

[2.2] This is not to say that Pakistan and India will go the same way due to, say, a water/agricultural crisis. (A blindly obvious difference is that it was the stronger power, Indonesia, and not the weaker one that was in crisis. The reverse is the case for Pakistan-India.) My point is only to say that crises can have very unusual results – that is, they can, weirdly, sometimes alleviate tensions.

(Admittedly, [2] sounds absurd. And reading over it now, it looks quite straw-grabby. Then again, everything that happened between 1998-2000 in Indonesia and East Timor would have been a laughably insane fantasy to South-East Asia experts in early 1997.)