The 2010 Monsoon Flooding in South Asia: A Major Test of Resilience

As the floods in Pakistan continue their devastating effects on the country, who is taking the full weight of the relief effort, and should the Pakistani government be doing more?

By Dr M H K Bulmer for

Recent events arising from flooding in Pakistan due to the 2010 monsoon rains have received world attention, promoting the open discussion of issues of water security and hydropolitics. An opportunity exists to examine the capabilities of Pakistan and the International community to respond to a major flood disaster.


At the end of the first week in August the death toll from flooding in Pakistan that began on 28 July 2010 stands approximately 1,600 people. Continued rains have hampered relief activities in the north-western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and new flood warnings have been issued to communities along the Kabul River. Waters from the north-western areas overflowed the banks of the Indus River and swamped 2,000 villages in six districts of Sindh. Over the weekend of the 7 and 8 August, rains and landslides killed over 50 people in Northeast Pakistan, with the districts of Skardu and Hangu districts most affected.

At Attabad Lake on the Hunza, the water level is rising and landslides are narrowing the spillway. Sost became cut off when a bridge at Khyber on Karakoram Highway was washed away by the River Khunjrab flooding, leaving 9,000 people marooned in Upper Gojal. In Indian-controlled Kashmir, the town of Leh in Ladakh was hit by a series of debris flows and flash floods triggered by a cloudburst.  The death toll in the town is currently reported to be at least 50, and may increase substantially. In China, heavy rains on the 8th August triggered landslides that blocked a river in Xhouqu district in northwest Gansu causing 702 deaths and 1,148 are reported as missing.

Within Pakistan the Met Office (Pakmet) provides weather forecasting and hydrograph data (river levels). Data obtained from gauging stations along the Indus River shows that the water level at Taunsa is declining, but remains at the 'high' flood category. Discharge is increasing rapidly downstream at Sukkur. The final station downstream at Kotri is expected to experience the flood wave over the 7 and 8 of August. It appears that at Guddu and Sukkur the hydrograph became saturated and were unable to accurately record peak flow but some media reports have suggested 1.2 million cubic feet per second. Flooding has conformed to the flood susceptibility map produced by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2007. Over the week starting the 9th August, Pakmet is forecasting widespread rain-thundershowers, heavy at times, in Punjab, Sindh, Eastern Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Kashmir. 

The 2010 Monsoon

Recent monsoon storms have proved to be some of the heaviest and most intense in the region since the 2005 Kashmir/Pakistan earthquake; significant as the landscape is still adjusting to that upheaval. Mountain slopes in the earthquake affected areas were heavily damaged and have continued to show signs of stress either by sliding or through the development of networks of tension cracks. In broad terms, many valley systems are sediment laden from the earthquake.

The intensity of storms since the 29th July has meant little infiltration into the ground, with most of the water moving as overland surface flow. Available satellite images show higher than normal sediment loads carried from mountain slopes and increased landslide activity. These sediment laden waters moving towards the ocean are , resulting in a significant deposition of rocks, sands, silts, and clays and the geometry of many rivers being altered.

The monsoon will continue to be one of most important influences on the delivery of relief and recovery efforts this year. In the last month disasters attributable to the 2010 monsoon have occurred in Pakistan, India, Kashmir, Afghanistan, China and Nepal. However, across a large swathe of northern and western India monsoon rainfall remains low.

Nevertheless, more storms can be expected before the end of the season. In addition, there is mounting evidence across the globe to support a transition in the climatic pattern from El Niño (the weather system associated with extreme levels of rainfall) to La Niña (the weather system which occasionally follows, bringing severe drought). This will bring additional uncertainty and possibly further extreme weather to Pakistan.

The Civil Military Space

Managing these floods has proved to be as complex an endeavour as that required after the 2005 earthquake. One of the most significant changes to national government policy since 2005 is the creation of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). On Friday 6 August 2010, Nadeem Ahmed, the head of NDMA stated that 12 million people had been affected by the floods,  650,000 homes destroyed or damaged, 557,000 hectares of crop land swamped and more than 10,000 cattle killed. He assessed that the country would need 2.5 billion dollars for relief and rehabilitation operations. The NDMA is a civil agency, albeit with strong ties to the military, and it does not have the resources to deal with apparent scale of the floods.

The military itself remains the major disaster response agency. It is widely considered to have performed well in response to the 2005 earthquake and at the request of the government has now tasked 30,000 troops to flood response. Since the areas initially affected by the flooding were largely in the tribal agencies located on the Pakistani-Afghan border, military units were already present, focused on the current efforts to counter insurgent and fundamentalist activities. What is apparent is that in disaster relief, civilian and military efforts are interwoven, requiring close liaison between civil and military groups. This may prove to be a considerable challenge.

This ability of different branches of the government to operate effectively is being continually examined by private television channels. These did not exist in 2005, but devices such as the running of split-screen shots, with President Zardari's European travels on one side and Pakistani villages being swept away on the other, have provided a ready outlet for comment on the government's handling of the crises. Critics have compared Zardari's behavior since the floods began to U.S. President George W. Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina. It seems that if the Pakistan government wishes to retain both national and international support, it will need to dramatically improve the image it is currently portraying in the media.

International Response

The Pakistan government has declared a state of emergency and asked the world for help. The U.N. humanitarian chief in Pakistan has called the flooding "a disaster of major proportions," estimating 4 million people to have been affected by the flooding. This figure differs considerably from that of the NDMA, but accurate reporting is extremely difficult at this time. Many of the organisations that have responded are the same as those who did so in 2005 and are familiar with the military but not the NDMA.

Detailed damage assessments have yet to be completed but available images and media stories reveal significant loss of housing, crops, bridges, roads, power lines, sanitation and clean drinking water along the length of the Indus River. In places levees have been breached and there is concern over the stability of barrages such as the one at Sukkur. These form part of the complex irrigation infrastructure and their damage or loss has significant implications for agricultural land production. Many humanitarian organisations simply do not have the capability required to address the extent of the flooding.

This level of relief work cannot succeed without liaison between civil and military groups, something many of the smaller organisations are uncomfortable with. Difficulties of mobility remain critical and will not be easily overcome. Considerable road and bridge damage means that many communities remain cut off. Current reports indicate that the Karakorum Highway will remain closed for six weeks. If the experience of the 2005 earthquake is repeated, there will be a critical shortage of earth moving equipment, operators and fuel. If the highway is reopened within the six weeks, it is likely that it will be single-track and unsuitable for heavy lorries. Helicopters are the only effective way to travel or transport goods, but there are a finite number available and the monsoon has grounded many flights over the last week.

UK Response

This disaster has developed during the visit of President Zardari to the UK and diplomatic tension arising from the British Prime Minister's visit to India. The outcome of government-level discussions will now likely frame any additional response from the UK to the floods in Pakistan beyond what has already been committed. In the US, the response to floods by the Obama administration has been clearly defined in both humanitarian terms and as part of the War on Terror.

There is consensus that the US response after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan resulted in a significant positive change in local perception regarding the motives of the US in the region. If the UK government makes a similar connection to the US then the response will likely require involvement on the ground in the affected areas. This raises the question as to what capability the UK government has and what is it prepared, or able, to call upon. The US military has moved helicopters from Afghanistan but UK forces are engaged in the new NATO offensive in Central Helmand and may therefore find themselves tied into other obligations.

Immediate Need

Outside of the immediate humanitarian needs, air and space-borne imaging and topography equipment must be acquired, able to work at sufficient scales to be able to conduct an impact and damage assessment. If any such assessment has been made, it has so far remained classified; an unexpected outcome given the UK and US capability in the region and lessons identified from data acquisitions and usage over Haiti in support of Operation Unified Response. As shown in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake, if timely impact and damage assessments are not undertaken then tensions quickly appear. Many of these relate to compensation calculations which are based on land ownership, number of dwellings and loss of livelihood.

There is significant scope for using the current flood disaster to help address or even resolve current diplomatic tensions between the Pakistani and UK governments. The UK is in a position to demonstrate firm commitment to the partnership in a way that both sides can benefit from. Additionally, the extensive flood damage caused by the 2010 monsoon season provides an opportunity to examine water security in the Indus river and the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) basin which intersects the international boundaries of India, China, Pakistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh and Nepal. Water remains a precious resource governed by the 1960 Indus Water Treaty and loss of storage capacity, hydro-electric generation or contamination will have long term consequences at local, regional, national and international level. The UK, however, has the capability to provide crucial expert knowledge, including in the assessment and appreciation of geohazards, which will remain a critical area throughout the on-going monsoon season. 


Dr Bulmer is a Research Associate Professor and Director of the Geophysical Flow Observatory at the University of Maryland. On 15 July 2010 he delivered a speech on geohazards at a RUSI workshop on water security and hydropolitics in South Asia. In attendance were prominent regional experts, government policy makers and practitioners. The intent of the workshop was to explore the potential for inter-state conflict over water resources in South Asia and to provide recommendations for confidence building measures to ensure regional water security.





Explore our related content