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What is causing Pakistan's flooding?


What is causing Pakistan's flooding?

A boy carries his younger brother across flood waters on Aug. 7, 2010, in the village of Bux Seelro near Sukkur, Pakistan.

(Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images)
Question: What is causing Pakistan's flooding?
Pakistan is awash in devastation over the summer 2010 flooding that has killed at least 1,600 and left some 4 million homeless. What is causing the calamity that has surpassed the humanitarian aid scope of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Pakistan's 2005 earthquake and the 2010 Haiti quake?
Answer: When we see flooding on such a grand scale -- more than 1.6 million acres of crops have been destroyed in Pakistan -- we're inclined to link the rush of water to a dam or levee break, or some failure in infrastructure. But Pakistan is suffering from a consistent onslaught of Mother Nature: unusually heavy monsoon rains during the normal season that runs from July to September. Particularly heavy rainfall was experienced in the northern regions of Pakistan from July 28-30, 2010, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in the Northwest Frontier Province was inundated with 179.5 percent above normal rainfall totals in July. The flooding, however, runs the length of the country along the Indus River.

Meteorologists have noted that the heavy rains in Pakistan have coincided with unusually high temperatures -- a heat wave unseen in 130 years -- in Russia that fueled disastrous wildfires that killed more than 50, destroyed some 2,000 homes and obliterated a third of the country's wheat crop. A persistent, high-level jet stream, similar to the event that caused heavy flooding in southern England in July 2007, has been blamed for both Pakistan and Russia's woes, stuck in a holding pattern over the regions and causing the heavy rain and high temps. La Nina events over the tropical Pacific -- cooling ocean temperatures -- can also affect Southern Asian rainfall, but this phenomenon has not been exclusively linked to the catastrophic flooding in Pakistan.

The simultaneous meteorological calamities in Russia and Pakistan have also raised the global-warming alarm among some, including Russian President Dmitry Medvedev: "Unfortunately, what is happening now in our central regions is evidence of this global climate change, because we have never in our history faced such weather conditions in the past," he said in early August as the fires raged. Some climate models have predicted heavier monsoon rains in conjunction with climate change, but many meteorologists have cautioned against branding this event as directly caused by climate change -- and instead look for patterns forming over time -- as extreme weather events have periodically happened throughout history.

What are the impacts of the floods?

HUMANITARIAN: The United Nations on Aug. 19, 2010, doubled its previous estimate of those affected by the floods to 4 million. The world body had issued an appeal for $460 million for disaster relief efforts.

DISEASE: Stagnant water and homelessness raise the risk for water-borne diseases, and the U.N. has already reported the first cholera cases springing up in the wake of the flooding. Other concerns are typhoid fever, hepatitis A and E, malaria and dengue, and leptospirosis.

CROPS: Government estimates gathered by Reuters indicate the floods have damaged up to 600,000 tons of wheat stocks, but after a bumper crop of 23.86 million tons in 2009/10 the country should still have some available for export. The country had hoped to exceed 12.7 million bales of cotton harvested with a 14 million target for the 2010/11 fiscal year, a goal that will now be impossible as floods have damaged up to 2 million bales. Also, 15 percent of rice output may be lost.

EXTREMISM: Much of the flood damage has occurred in areas where Islamic extremists already have pull, areas where the government has been pressured by the West to crack down on regions that may provide haven for al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups. President Asif Ali Zardari, already on shaky footing, lost even more credibility among much of populace when he refused to cut short a European trip to return to his stricken country. Humanitarian need and a weak central government can open the door further for extremists. The Pakistani Taliban have urged Islamabad to reject all U.S. aid, saying, "We condemn American and other foreign aid and believe that it will lead to subjugation. Our jihad against America will continue." At the same time, the group claimed that it would fill the aid void.

TO HELP: Text the word "SWAT" to the number 50555, and reply "yes" when asked to confirm, in order to make a $10 donation to help the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Or contribute to the U.S. State Department's Pakistan Relief Fund by texting the word FLOOD to 27722 to contribute $10 through your mobile phone.

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