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EFSAS Commentary

The devastating floods in Pakistan | Those who contributed almost nothing to climate change are suffering the most from it


These last few years have been times of great and frightening change in the lives of many, if not most, people across the world. The COVID-19 outbreak that had its roots in China but was then allowed to spread far and wide wrecked havoc on the lives, livelihoods and lifestyles of people no matter which part of planet Earth they called home. Not only did it impact governance and diplomacy, business and enterprise, transport and communication, arts and culture, and literally every facet of everyday lives, it even changed the way in which human beings related to each other and how they prioritized what was important for them. The invasion of Ukraine that Russia launched just as the COVID-19 pandemic was being tamed has impacted the world in many detrimental ways, and as is most often the case in such situations, it is the average citizen in most countries that is feeling the pinch of exponentially increasing energy costs and runaway inflation. As alarming and disorienting as these changes may appear today, the transformation that is being brought about by global warming threatens to be much more catastrophic, all-encompassing in scope, and long-lasting. The floods that have devastated much of Pakistan over the past two months are a grim foreteller of what lies in store for humanity unless urgent action to stall the rise in temperatures is rushed through.

It should not take much effort for people in other parts of the world, nearly all of whom have been experiencing first hand in some form or the other what global warming is doing to their lives, to empathize with what Pakistan is going through today. Extreme heat, raging fires, destructive flash floods, and severe drought have become regular phenomena across much of the world – from Australia to the Americas and from Africa to Asia. Most of us experiencing a hot, sunny, seemingly endless summer in Europe, for example, are acutely aware that the resulting drought is being measured not in terms of the worst in 20 years, or in 50 years, or even in a hundred years. The droughts in Europe in 2022 have been termed as the worst in 500 years!

The tragedy for Pakistan and the rest of South Asia, though, is that along with most of the global South, it is being made to pay a very steep price for climate-change inducing excesses that it did not itself indulge in. Since June, excessive torrential rains and the consequent flooding, which threatens to become the worst in the country’s history, has submerged a third of Pakistan and killed nearly 1,200 people. This monsoon, Pakistan has already received 390.7 millimetres (15.38 inches) of rain in the quarter ending August, which is nearly 190% more than the 30-year average for the country. Sindh province, with a population of 50 million, has been the worst affected, getting 466% more rain than the 30-year average. The provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan also continue to reel from the impact of the floods, while Punjab is less seriously affected. Climate minister Sherry Rahman told the press that “literally a third” of the country was under water, and the floods have affected 110 of the 150 districts of the country. Close to 34 million remain homeless on its account. Pakistan’s government has declared the floods a national emergency, and 66 districts have been declared to be “calamity hit”. Over 1,100 people, including over 350 children, have lost their lives and more than 1,600 people have been injured. Over 2,87,000 houses have been completely destroyed and 662,000 partially damaged. About 3,451 km of roads, 149 bridges, and 170 shops have been swept away across the country. More than 7,35,000 livestock, which are a major source of income in rural Pakistan, have perished, and 2 million acres of crops have been adversely impacted. Farmers told Pakistani media outlets that Kharif vegetables, sesame, tomato, chili, onion, cotton, rice and date palm crops have sustained heavy damage.

Finance Minister Miftah Ismail assessed that the floods have inflicted a loss of at least $10 billion on different sectors of the country’s already struggling economy. Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal, meanwhile, said that the flood-ravaged country needed $10 billion to repair and rebuild the damaged infrastructure. He told AFP that “Massive damage has been caused to infrastructure — especially in the areas of telecommunications, roads, agriculture and livelihoods”. The Pakistani daily Dawn underlined that the floods will lead to a huge loss to farmers, leading to a need to import more food in a country where 43 per cent of the population faces food insecurity. In Sindh alone, almost all the cotton and sugarcane crop has been destroyed, affecting not only the farmers but also the textile industry. The loss in agriculture will hit the entire agribusiness chain, from middlemen to pesticide and fertiliser manufacturers, sales agents and other staff. The newspaper concluded that “In economic terms, the cumulative losses mean a huge blow to Pakistan’s GDP and the very real possibility of massive food shortages”.

After visiting flood hit areas in Balochistan, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said that he had never witnessed such destruction in his life. “The devastation caused by floods and persistent rains is horrifying”, he said. Pakistani journalist Zarrar Khuhro wrote in the Dawn that “it is already clear that the scale of this disaster is many times greater than that of the 2010 floods which, devastating as they were, were riverine floods. This time, the water is everywhere. And it is relentless”. Relief measures, meanwhile, have had only marginal impact on account of the huge spread of the floods and the limited resources and infrastructure available. Nearly 15% of Pakistan’s population is presently homeless or living without adequate shelter. Flood victims have taken refuge in makeshift camps that have sprung up across the country, where desperation is setting in. Thousands are camped alongside elevated highways and railway tracks, often the only dry spots as far as the eye can see. Prices of basic goods, particularly onions, tomatoes and chickpeas, are soaring as vendors bemoan a lack of supplies from the flooded breadbasket provinces of Sindh and Punjab. Inflation has hit a fresh record this month – the highest in 47 years. 

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah informed on 28 August that the armed forces were being deployed under Article 245 of the Constitution in the wake of the floods, but they too were being impeded by the endless landscape of water. A senior officer was quoted as telling AFP that in Sindh “There are no landing strips or approaches available… our pilots find it difficult to land”. The army’s helicopters were also struggling to pluck people to safety in the north, where steep hills and valleys make for treacherous flying conditions. Also, as Rahman explained, “When we send in water pumps, they say ‘Where do we pump the water?’ It’s all one big ocean, there’s no dry land to pump the water out. To see the devastation on the ground is really mind-boggling”.

Many reasons have been put forth to explain why Pakistan is at the receiving end of such calamities brought about by extreme natural phenomena. Long-term deforestation and government failure to make adaptive changes since the last major flooding event in 2010 have been suggested, as have rampant corruption, poor planning and the flouting of local regulations that allowed thousands of buildings to be erected in areas prone to seasonal flooding. Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and a member of Pakistan’s Climate Change Council, emphasized that despite experiencing similar flooding and devastation in 2010, the government did not implement plans to prevent future flooding by preventing construction and homes in flood prone areas and river beds.

Further, as David Fickling pointed out in his 31 August article in Bloomberg, “As the largest irrigation system in the world, the Indus valley is another monument to massive investment whose roots date back more than 4,000 years. Like Pakistan whose backbone it forms, however, the Indus and its tributaries have been starved of the investment they need to effectively manage the risks of natural disaster…  The underinvestment that has led to this state of affairs is chronic. Among the world’s top 20 economies by population, only Egypt has a lower rate of gross capital formation than Pakistan — a sign of a country that’s unable to build the infrastructure it needs to support a growing population. With the costs of climate impacts rising, more and more money is going to be spent not on the long-term investments needed to protect the country against future natural disasters, but simply on the clean up and compensating for the loss of productivity following catastrophes… Sufficient expenditure could solve many of these problems at a stroke — but Pakistan is struggling to run up a descending escalator, with energy import dependence, weak agricultural productivity, and lack of external investment contributing to a vicious cycle of underdevelopment. Even when cash has been made available for nation-building infrastructure (the country was one of the biggest recipients of Chinese funding for Belt and Road projects, much of it spent on hydropower and water management), Pakistan’s exposure to economic shocks has left it ill-placed to pay its way”.

While these factors may certainly have contributed, most Pakistani officials are convinced that human-caused climate change has brought stronger monsoons and more damage. Prime Minister Sharif told representatives of the international media on 30 August that “The devastation is evidence of the seriousness of the threat posed by climate change. Despite having less than 1 per cent share in carbon emission, we are ranked 8th in terms of exposure to climate hazards… If it is us today, it can be somebody else tomorrow. The threat of climate change is real, potent and staring us in the face”. Sharif urged the international community not to leave developing countries like Pakistan to the mercy of climate change. Climate minister Rehman termed the flooding as a “climate-induced humanitarian disaster of epic proportions”.

Anamika Sinha pointed out in The Financial Express that the familiar ingredients of a warming world were in place in Pakistan: searing temperatures, hotter air holding more moisture, extreme weather getting wilder, melting glaciers, people living in harm’s way, and poverty. They combined in vulnerable Pakistan to create unrelenting rain and deadly flooding. BBC News concurred that “the shadow of human-induced global warming clearly hangs over this new disaster (in Pakistan)”. It reported on 31 August that “Pakistan has been left reeling from a double whammy of climate-related disasters this year. Heatwaves in March and April saw temperatures soar above 49C, while surging floods have now washed away almost everything in their path, leaving tens of millions in need of aid. Scientists were quick to attribute the heat to climate change driven by humans, and the shadow of human-induced global warming clearly hangs over this new disaster. This year the country has been hit by the largest amount of rainfall in three decades - and it’s an irrefutable scientific fact of an overheating world that a warmer atmosphere holds more water, making downpours far more intense. Pakistan also has the largest number of glaciers outside of the Polar Regions and higher temperatures have led to more water tumbling down from melting ice in the Himalayas”.

The cash-strapped Pakistani government has appealed to the international community for aid to help it deal with the humanitarian crisis that the floods have created. The United Nations (UN), which has called the situation in Pakistan an “unprecedented climate catastrophe”, has appealed for $160 million in aid to help the devastated country. The UN also announced that General-Secretary Antonio Guterres, who described the calamity as “a monsoon on steroids”, will visit Pakistan next week to review the flood situation. In a video message, Guterres said that the situation in Pakistan “requires the world’s collective and prioritized” attention, and echoed Sharif in saying, “Let’s stop sleepwalking towards the destruction of our planet by climate change. Today, it’s Pakistan. Tomorrow, it could be your country”.

Following the UN appeal, the United States (US) immediately offered $30 million in aid that will be utilized for providing food, clean water, sanitation and emergency education to people affected by the floods. The World Food Programme (WFP) has said that it aims to reach up to a million people in the coming months with food, nutrition, and livelihoods assistance. So far, countries like Canada, France, Qatar, China, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Azerbaijan have pledged humanitarian support in response to Islamabad’s call, and international aid has already started pouring into Islamabad in the form of cargo planes bearing tents, food, and other everyday necessities from Turkey and the UAE. Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority has begun sending trucks with tents, food, and water to severely hit regions of the nation.

Importantly, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved an agreement to revive a loan program to Pakistan. The international lender will now lend $1.1 billion to the country immediately. The IMF has also added an extra $500 million to the total size of the package. The total package now is $6.5 billion, and the IMF has agreed to the Pakistan government’s request to extend the package through June 2023.

The generosity that the international community has begun to display, and is likely to continue to show, to help Pakistan overcome the immediate aftermath of this present disaster is creditable, but the real test will lie in Egypt in November when participating countries at the COP27 will need to decide whether they want to be facing recurrent emergency appeals for assistance from victims of severe natural disasters across the world, or whether they would rather prefer to nip the problem once and for all by according tackling climate change the serious attention and the commensurate funding that it richly and most urgently deserves.