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Four years of floods have left Pakistan hungry – getting real about the human cost of climate change

Posted by John Magrath Programme Researcher

27th Sep 2013

Muhammed Abrahim in his destroyed field in Shikapur, Sindh Province, which he can no longer cultivate. Credit: Timothy Allen/Oxfam

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) release their report on the physical science behind climate change, John Magrath reminds us of the harsh reality of regional climate change impacts.

I blogged earlier this week about how one effect of climate change is likely to be to make it harder for people to afford to buy the food they need, which may be a bigger cause of hunger than absolute reductions in food supplies per se. Most of us buy the food we need, rather than grow it; even poor smallholder farmers are usually net food buyers. How climate change will raise prices and reduce incomes is the theme of Oxfam's new report, Growing Disruption.

Today (Friday, 27 September) sees the release of the summary report on the physical science behind climate change from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report is a synthesis of the last five year's worth of research on the physical science. It confirms that scientists are now 95% certain that the global warming that has happened since 1950 has been caused by human activity and it warns that some climate impacts that are happening now are happening much faster than had been anticipated. The rate of Arctic sea ice retreat has doubled, sea level rise has accelerated and the oceans are acidifying fast.

Scientists are now 95% certain that the global warming that has happened since 1950 has been caused by human activity

But as with previous IPCC reports, every new certainty is regarded by denialists as evidence of effrontery or conspiracy, and every refinement in understanding and consequent tweak in the analysis is seized upon by denialists as evidence of uncertainty and ineptitude. If you're a climate scientist, you clearly can't win; you're either mad or bad, and certainly dangerous to know.

Looking at the global picture can, indeed, be somewhat misleading. The IPCC concludes, for example, that there isn't so much confidence that global average drought has increased, or global average precipitation either. This row-back from previous levels of confidence is taken by denialists to mean that even if climate change is happening, nothing much (bad) is happening as a result. Or that scientists never knew what they were talking about in the first place. 

But of course averages don't tell us much. The IPCC confirms that wet regions are generally getting wetter and dry regions drier (so the rainfall average stays the same); and we're all getting hotter. The full report will be much more revealing on  the regional impacts of climate change

With this in mind I spoke to my colleague Abdul Majid Khan who's been running humanitarian emergency programmes for Oxfam in Pakistan for the last four years. In Growing Disruption we briefly discussed Pakistan and how the devastating mega-flood of 2010 caused a 75% reduction in income across all households affected.

Abdul points out that since 2010 very few have fully recovered as the country has suffered a further three years of (less publicised) floods. Now half the population are 'food insecure' - they can't be sure where their next meal is coming from. This is compared to a decade ago when a third of the population were in this situation. 

There are a huge number of interlocking reasons for this tragic regression, ranging from deep-rooted social and economic imbalances and injustices in rural areas to an energy crisis, blackouts, business closures and workers losing their jobs in the towns. You can throw insecurity and political violence in for good measure. Nevertheless, Abdul says a more hostile climate has become a potent risk multiplier.

Growing Disruption jacket image

Four consecutive years of floods means that the harvest has been almost completely destroyed in many areas in South Punjab and Sindh, the breadbaskets of the country. 

Poor farmers have lost out on three levels - their employment and income from being labourers, their own supply of food and the crops they would sell to get additional income. Food prices are going up, hitting urban consumers just as their earning opportunities nosedive. Abdul said: 

"It's true we're managing our water resources poorly, and have been for 40 years; that's not changed. But what has changed is the pattern and timing of the rains. 

"We have very extensive rains,especially in areas where we didn't really have monsoons before; and the rains have been coming later every year now for four or five years. 

"Farmers can't grow crops - either crops don't mature because the rains are late or in other areas people are about to pick the crops when the rain starts and batters them down. And that's why we're getting these floods year on year."

What's intriguing - and worrying - is that the trends Abdul has already observed seem to be consistent with climate change projections for Pakistan.  

The IPCC's analysis of regional impacts will probably formalise what's been said in several studies. These predict a decrease in rains across South Asia from December to February - but for Pakistan a 30% increase in rains from September to November (and 50% more by the end of the century), with a large increase in run-off. 

The worrying part of this is that the regional studies didn't think that this would start happening until mid-century. But as with many other manifestations of the physical science discussed this week - such as accelerating Arctic sea ice decline or rising sea levels - things seem to be happening quite a lot faster than we'd been expecting. 

And it isn't just the polar bears for whom that is very bad news indeed.

Main picture:  Muhammed Abrahim in his destroyed field in Shikapur, Sindh Province, which he can no longer cultivate. Credit: Timothy Allen/Oxfam

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Blog post written by John Magrath

Programme Researcher

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