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Posted on August 18, 2010

The Man-Made Deluge

The highest global temperatures in recorded history—almost certainly a product of human-caused greenhouse gases—have triggered a series of terrifying calamities this year, including runaway forest fires in Russia, devastating mud slides in China and the ongoing floods in Pakistan.

Most of us can’t really grasp the scale of Pakistan’s tragedy, which ranks as one of the worst disasters in history. When the numbers get too big—20 million people affected, an area the size of England underwater, a quarter of Pakistan’s economy at risk—it’s easier to retreat into denial than to deal with it.

But Pakistan’s calamity is a wake-up call that what we used to call “natural” disasters aren’t so natural anymore, and they can happen anywhere. The deluge that swamped Pakistan was not a simple matter of natural variability in weather. “There’s no doubt that clearly the climate change is . . . a major contributing factor,” said Ghassem Asrar, director of the World Climate Research Programme and World Meteorological Organization in Geneva.

Since the globe is almost certain to continue warming, even if the world gets its act together and reduces carbon emissions, it’s imperative to find ways to adapt and make our communities and ecosystems more resilient. Pakistan offers a sad lesson in how not to do that.

As a small handful of commentators have noted, one reason for the devastating impact of Pakistan’s floods is decades of deforestation in the high country where monsoon rains fall. With reduced ground cover, the water spills off the land, sweeping away topsoil, causing landslides and swelling torrential rivers downstream.

A 2006 paper in the International Journal of Agriculture and Biology noted that “Studies based on remote sensing show that the rates of decline in forest cover in [the mountainous North West Frontier Province] will lead to a complete disappearance of the forest from most areas within 30 years.”

The causes of deforestation are many, including growing population pressure, the lack of alternative fuel and Pakisan’s chaotic system of property rights. Many authorities also blame Pakistan’s forest department, which oversees timber sales, for colluding with timber contractors and permitting unsustainable harvests.

As Kamila Shamsie wrote recently in The Guardian, “One of the most powerful and ruthless organisations within Pakistan, the timber mafia engages in illegal logging, which is estimated to be worth billions of rupees each year. The group’s connection to politicians at the local and federal level has been commented on in the media for years.”

The lessons of all this have been neatly summed up by Adil Najam, a world-renowned environmental policy expert at Boston University:

The rains are clearly a natural phenomenon. But there is nothing natural about the death and destruction these rains have brought. That is all human-manufactured. Our arrogant policies that have disregarded the ecological integrity of the natural systems we depend upon have magnified the fury of the torrents that have been sweeping across Pakistan. . . . I hope we will learn from what we have been seeing and plan for a more sustainable development in the rebuilding process, and also realise that whether we ’cause’ climate change or not, it is we — and especially the poorest amongst us — who will suffer its gravest consequences.”

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