The Pakistani floods: a note of guarded optimism

This post contributed by John Mutter, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences/Professor of International and Public Affairs and Director of PhD in Sustainable Development, Columbia University, NY.

 How will Pakistan do after the floods?

To answer that question we need first to know how bad the flooding was. It is widely said to be the worst in modern history and there is no reason to doubt that, but it’s not so easy to measure the magnitude of a flood. There is no widely accepted scale like the Richter scale for earthquake magnitude. Disasters are commonly scaled by deaths and economic losses.

The death toll for the Pakistan flooding is said to be around 2000. However, such figures are notoriously difficult to assess accurately because many people who are displaced don’t “report in”, making it hard to know who among the missing are alive or dead. The 2000 figure is probably the number of bodies recovered and is surely less than the true total. Even so, that’s still as high as the death toll from Hurricane Katrina, although it’s less than the number killed in other disasters in the region, such as the 70,000 victims of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar.

Floods are not like earthquakes that give no warning. You can see a flood coming. It has to rain a lot over a long period of time and floodwaters rise over many days or longer. People can get out of the way and move to safer locations and that is what happened in Pakistan. The number of displaced people is thought to be enormous, far greater than the number displaced by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. These figures too are hard to estimate with any accuracy but it is very safe to say that the death toll was mercifully low and forced displacement by contrast absolutely enormous.

Hard as these figures are to assess it is harder still to assess the economic impact of a disaster. Here there is often confusion added to the difficulty of estimation. What is often reported is so-called financial losses that, at least in the US tends to mean the value of that which is destroyed and the figures that come out quickly are insured property losses. Insurance companies usually know how much they have lost. But the very fact that property is insured says that it will be rebuilt without much financial hardship to the owner. Those losses don’t hurt an economy and can even stimulate a surge in the construction industry. As measures of economic set back due to a disaster they are very misleading.