Rain and ruin

UNDOUBTEDLY, there were others who suffered more. Even before the rains beat down on Karachi this year, taking a few and then a few more and finally over 20 lives, hundreds others had died in neighbouring countries. The citizens of Karachi died as they do every year in an increasingly destructive monsoon season: a child drowned in an underground tank, two men were electrocuted while riding a motorcycle, another in his home. The run-up to Eid meant that there was livestock everywhere, tied up in markets and outside homes. The waste from these animals mixed with stagnant water — the deadly mix of offal, excrement and raw sewage in standing water — may well raise the number of dead. They will not be included in the official death count for this year’s rains.

It was not always this way. Two or three decades ago, Karachi had a largely arid climate. Much to the chagrin of children who awaited the rains that could bring sudden school holidays, clouds came and then wafted away, rarely pausing to dump a downpour on the thirsty city below.

It was not that there were no problems: Karachi swelled to many millions more than two decades ago and its meagre means of managing even a little rain even then were deficient. The first rains were mixed with pollution. Children and grown-ups developed eczema and other rain-related skin ailments if they came in contact with a lot of it. Some knew this; others thought they were just unlucky, scratching and itching and taking whatever medicine by whatever sorts of doctors that they could afford.

A city home to millions and in the direct path of terrible destruction should be better informed about the effects of changing weather patterns.

Things are different now. Dr Ghulam Rasool, the department chief of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, stated in a recent interview that the rising temperatures in the Arabian Sea now almost match those of the Bay of Bengal. If in the past, the higher temperature in the bay had meant that a lot of precipitation (particularly the development of tropical cyclones) occurred in that region, the warming of the Arabian Sea augured a change in weather patterns. The devastating cyclones that were once confined to the bay can now easily develop in the Arabian Sea. Even before they develop into cyclones, tropical depressions forming off the Sindh-Makran coast can trigger sea storms.

In sum, the rains that flooded and destroyed the city last week are a best-case scenario; in years when the city is less lucky, things can get worse, much, much worse. It is possible that it may rain less often, but when it does, it is far more likely to be a deadly and disastrous event.

Karachi, now a megacity but one devoid of anything more than the most basic emergency services, is particularly at risk. An analysis of the deadly heatwave that hit Karachi in June 2015 has shown that a low pressure area over the Arabian Sea reversed the flow of air from land to sea instead of the other way around. With the sea breezes blocked in this way, the temperatures in the city rose and so did the humidity.

The low-pressure system remained suspended over the sea and the city grew hotter and hotter. By the time it moved, scores were dead and many more sickened by heat exhaustion, dehydration, sunstroke and related ailments. According to the Met Department, a similar low-pressure system suspended itself over the Arabian Sea earlier this year, but luckily it was much farther from Karachi’s coastline and was not able to make life as miserable and the air as hot and punishing as it did in 2015.

One would imagine that a city that is home to millions and lies in the direct path of terrible destruction and devastation would be better informed about the effects of changing weather patterns accompanying climate change perpetuated by global warming. If the science is too complex, one would expect that self-preservation, the fear of dying at the hands of a heatwave or tropical cyclone, would lead many to pay attention and make some changes.

Yet even while so much has changed, the apathy, the passivity or the recklessness of an entire city remains unchanged. Even today, millions flock to the ocean in the face of cyclone warnings, even touting this behaviour as exemplary of the fearless attitude of the city. It is likely that they will be doing just that when the storm, previously only forecast, actually hits. The thousands who will die will not be lucky, nor will they be brave; they will simply be dead.

Finally, a word to the television channels whose round-the-clock transmissions are just as much a feature of our times as the rain and ruin and changing weather patterns. Unlike the rest of the world, where warnings of catastrophic weather incidents result in scientific forecasts and many warnings for caution, all attempts at preserving life, no such mercy is available to the Pakistani television viewer.

Unchanged from last year, and the year before and the many years before that, news anchors, their caked-on make-up seemingly untouched by rain or heat, recycle the same old lines about eating samosas and ‘enjoying’ the same weather that is drowning small children, electrocuting people and making others who are bereft of their own means of power generation and water provision completely miserable. The chasm between their narration of the rain and the experience of rain (and accompanying ruin) is vast, a metaphor of denial and illusion that stands for so much in Pakistan.

One person cannot, of course, change the weather or stem the course of climate change or save all the suicidal souls of Karachi who like to dare storms from the coastline. One person can care, heed the signs, listen to the warnings, act in a manner that ensures caution for one’s own life and the life of others. Imagine, then, what a city of those people could do and what a lovely place it would be in rain or shine, regardless of the weather.

Zakaria, Rafia. Rain and ruin. Dawn, September 6, 2017.

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