Pakistan - Environment

Pakistan is divided into three major geographic areas: the northern highlands; the Indus River plain, with two major subdivisions corresponding roughly to the provinces of Punjab and Sindh; and the Balochistan Plateau. Some geographers designate additional major regions. For example, the mountain ranges along the western border with Afghanistan are sometimes described separately from the Balochistan Plateau, and on the eastern border with India, south of the Sutlej River, the Thar Desert may be considered separately from the Indus Plain. Nevertheless, the country may conveniently be visualized in general terms as divided in three by an imaginary line drawn eastward from the Khyber Pass and another drawn southwest from Islamabad down the middle of the country. Roughly, then, the northern highlands are north of the imaginary east-west line; the Balochistan Plateau is to the west of the imaginary southwest line; and the Indus Plain lies to the east of that line.

The northern highlands include parts of the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram Range, and the Himalayas. This area includes such famous peaks as K2 (Mount Godwin Austen, at 8,611 meters the second highest peak in the world), and Nanga Parbat (8,126 meters), the twelfth highest. More than one-half of the summits are over 4,500 meters, and more than fifty peaks reach above 6,500 meters. Travel through the area is difficult and dangerous, although the government is attempting to develop certain areas into tourist and trekking sites. Because of their rugged topography and the rigors of the climate, the northern highlands and the Himalayas to the east have been formidable barriers to movement into Pakistan throughout history.

South of the northern highlands and west of the Indus River plain are the Safed Koh Range along the Afghanistan border and the Sulaiman Range and Kirthar Range, which define the western extent of the province of Sindh and reach almost to the southern coast. The lower reaches are far more arid than those in the north, and they branch into ranges that run generally to the southwest across the province Balochistan. North-south valleys in Balochistan and Sindh have restricted the migration of peoples along the Makran Coast on the Arabian Sea east toward the plains.

Several large passes cut the ranges along the border with Afghanistan. Among them are the Khojak Pass, about eighty kilometers northwest of Quetta in Balochistan; the Khyber Pass, forty kilometers west of Peshawar and leading to Kabul; and the Baroghil Pass in the far north, providing access to the Wakhan Corridor.

Less than a one-fifth of Pakistan's land area has the potential for intensive agricultural use. Nearly all of the arable land is actively cultivated, but outputs are low by world standards. Cultivation is sparse in the northern mountains, the southern deserts, and the western plateaus, but the Indus River basin in Punjab and northern Sindh has fertile soil that enables Pakistan to feed its population under usual climatic conditions.

The name Indus comes from the Sanskrit word sindhu, meaning ocean, from which also come the words Sindh, Hindu, and India. The Indus, one of the great rivers of the world, rises in southwestern Tibet only about 160 kilometers west of the source of the Sutlej River, which joins the Indus in Punjab, and the Brahmaputra, which runs eastward before turning southwest and flowing through Bangladesh. The catchment area of the Indus is estimated at almost 1 million square kilometers, and all of Pakistan's major rivers--the Kabul, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej--flow into it. The Indus River basin is a large, fertile alluvial plain formed by silt from the Indus. This area has been inhabited by agricultural civilizations for at least 5,000 years.

The upper Indus Basin includes Punjab; the lower Indus Basin begins at the Panjnad River (the confluence of the eastern tributaries of the Indus) and extends south to the coast. In Punjab (meaning the "land of five waters") are the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, and Sutlej rivers. The Sutlej, however, is mostly on the Indian side of the border. In the southern part of the province of Punjab, the British attempted to harness the irrigation power of the water over 100 years ago when they established what came to be known as the Canal Colonies. The irrigation project, which facilitated the emergence of intensive cultivation despite arid conditions, resulted in important social and political transformations.

Pakistan has two great river dams: the Tarbela Dam on the Indus, near the early Buddhist site at Taxila, and the Mangla Dam on the Jhelum, where Punjab borders Azad Kashmir. The Warsak Dam on the Kabul River near Peshawar is smaller. These dams, along with a series of headworks and barrages built by the British and expanded since independence, are of vital importance to the national economy and played an important role in calming the raging floodwaters of 1992, which devastated large areas in the northern highlands and the Punjab plains.

Pakistan is subject to frequent seismic disturbances because the tectonic plate under the subcontinent hits the plate under Asia as it continues to move northward and to push the Himalayas ever higher. The region surrounding Quetta is highly prone to earthquakes. A severe quake in 1931 was followed by one of more destructive force in 1935. The small city of Quetta was almost completely destroyed, and the adjacent military cantonment was heavily damaged. At least 20,000 people were killed. Tremors continue in the vicinity of Quetta; the most recent major quake occurred in January 1991. Far fewer people were killed in the 1991 quake than died in 1935, although entire villages in the North-West Frontier Province were destroyed. A major earthquake centered in the North-West Frontier Province's Kohistan District in 1965 also caused heavy damage.


Pakistan lies in the temperate zone. The climate is generally arid, characterized by hot summers and cool or cold winters, and wide variations between extremes of temperature at given locations. There is little rainfall. These generalizations should not, however, obscure the distinct differences existing among particular locations. For example, the coastal area along the Arabian Sea is usually warm, whereas the frozen snow-covered ridges of the Karakoram Range and of other mountains of the far north are so cold year round that they are only accessible by world-class climbers for a few weeks in May and June of each year.

Pakistan has are four seasons: a cool, dry winter from December through February; a hot, dry spring from March through May; the summer rainy season, or southwest monsoon period, from June through September; and the retreating monsoon period of October and November. The onset and duration of these seasons vary somewhat according to location.

The climate in the capital city of Islamabad varies from an average daily low of 2 C in January to an average daily high of 40 C in June. Half of the annual rainfall occurs in July and August, averaging about 255 millimeters in each of those two months. The remainder of the year has significantly less rain, amounting to about fifty millimeters per month. Hailstorms are common in the spring.

Pakistan's largest city, Karachi, which is also the country's industrial center, is more humid than Islamabad but gets less rain. Only July and August average more than twenty-five millimeters of rain in the Karachi area; the remaining months are exceedingly dry. The temperature is also more uniform in Karachi than in Islamabad, ranging from an average daily low of 13 C during winter evenings to an average daily high of 34 C on summer days. Although the summer temperatures do not get as high as those in Punjab, the high humidity causes the residents a great deal of discomfort.

Most areas in Punjab experience fairly cool winters, often accompanied by rain. Woolen shawls are worn by women and men for warmth because few homes are heated. By mid-February the temperature begins to rise; springtime weather continues until mid-April, when the summer heat sets in. The onset of the southwest monsoon is anticipated to reach Punjab by May, but since the early 1970s the weather pattern has been irregular. The spring monsoon has either skipped over the area or has caused it to rain so hard that floods have resulted. June and July are oppressively hot. Although official estimates rarely place the temperature above 46 C, newspaper sources claim that it reaches 51 C and regularly carry reports about people who have succumbed to the heat. Heat records were broken in Multan in June 1993, when the mercury was reported to have risen to 54 C. In August the oppressive heat is punctuated by the rainy season, referred to as barsat, which brings relief in its wake. The hardest part of the summer is then over, but cooler weather does not come until late October.

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