Pakistan is currently seeing the worst flooding in its recorded history, which has affected over 30 million people and killed over 1,200. Over half a million people have been moved to relief camps over the past weeks. Pakistan’s climate change minister Sherry Rehman on Sunday said that parts of the country “resemble a small ocean,” and that “by the time this is over, we could well have one-quarter or one-third of Pakistan under water.”
“More than one million houses are damaged or destroyed. Seventy-two districts of Pakistan are in calamity and all four corners of Pakistan are underwater and more than 3,500km [2,175 miles] of roads have been washed away. Around one million animals have died,” the country’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said on Wednesday.
The Southern Sindh province and Balochistan have been the worst affected areas in the country. A recent report by the CNN reveals shocking satellite imagery which shows how the overflowing Indus River has turned part of Sindh Province into a 100 kilometer-wide inland lake. The satellite images, taken on August 28 from NASA’s MODIS satellite sensor, show how a combination of heavy rain and an overflowing Indus River have inundated much of Sindh province in the South.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres has referred to the disaster as a “monsoon on steroids” that “requires urgent, collective action.”
Pakistan “is considered the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change,” Moshin Hafeez, a Lahore-based climate scientist at the International Water Management Institute, told Time magazine.
While some experts have blamed the country’s poor disaster management implementation, yet others are pointing out the fact that climate change has a huge role to play in the unprecedented disaster and that the South-asian country is bearing the brunt of a crisis it is not responsible for.
What’s causing the record floods?
Record rainfall over the last two months is the immediate cause. “So far this year the rain is running at more than 780% above average levels,” Abid Qaiyum Suleri, a director at Pakistan’s Sustainable Development Policy Institute, told Time.
This year’s monsoon is the country’s wettest since records began in 1961, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Department, and the season still has one month to go.
However, melting glaciers have fueled the fury as well.
Pakistan is home to over 7,200 glaciers, more than anywhere outside the poles, and rising temperatures, linked to climate change, are likely making many of them melt faster and earlier, adding water to rivers and streams that are already swollen by rainfall, a report by Vox suggests. That means that Pakistan, which is already one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, will become increasingly susceptible to flooding as the planet warms, the report says.
“We have the largest number of glaciers outside the polar region, and this affects us,” Rehman told the Associated Press. “Instead of keeping their majesty and preserving them for posterity and nature,” she said, “we are seeing them melt.”
Not just in the glaciers, but melting in the Himalayas is also accelerating, according to a 2021 study. Additionally, in the mountains, water from glaciers forms high-elevation lakes, often dammed by glacial ice. When there’s too much runoff, those lakes quickly expand and the ice dams can break, producing what’s called a “glacial lake outburst,” the Vox report says.
Northern Pakistan now has more than 3,000 glacial lakes, and some of them appear to be forming earlier in the year due to severe heat, as per the Washington Post.
How is this affecting Pakistan?
On Friday, Pakistan’s armed forces rescued 2,000 more people stranded by rising floodwaters, even as the country’s best-known charity warned that only a small fraction of millions affected by the floods had been reached so far, as per a Reuters report. “Ninety percent of people are still awaiting any kind of assistance; the situation is serious, people are starving,” the head of the Edhi Foundation charity, Faisal Edhi, told reporters.
Edhi, who has spent the last nine days in the flood-hit areas, called on the government to lift a years-old ban on some international NGOs it had accused of “anti-state activities”.
The Pakistani government is struggling to respond to the floods given their unprecedented magnitude. The government has said 33 million people – 15% of its population – have been affected.
The United Nations has appealed for $160 million in aid to help tackle what it said was an “unprecedented climate catastrophe” as Pakistan’s navy has fanned out inland to carry out relief operations in areas that resemble a sea.
On Friday, the military said it had evacuated about 50,000 people, including 1,000 by air, since rescue efforts began. “During the last 24 hours, 1,991 stranded individuals have been evacuated,” the armed forces said in a statement, adding that nearly 163 tonnes of relief supplies had also been delivered to the flood-affected.
The floods come at a time when the country is already in the midst of an economic and political crisis. Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the South Asia program at the Wilson Center, points out that skyrocketing food prices in the country will likely increase even more because supplies will go down with entire harvests wiped out. “The economic crisis, food insecurity, it all sort of plays together, and makes for a perfect storm that will really complicate these recovery and reconstruction efforts,” he told Time.
The IMF warned that rising inflation, accelerating to 27.3 per cent in August — a 47-year high — can trigger “social protest and instability” in the cash-strapped country, even as the full impact of unprecedented floods on the prices of food items and other commodities is yet to come.
The adverse impacts of the floods and consequent disruption in food supplies will be visible in the inflation reading for the month of September, which may push the rate far higher than that of August.
The IMF Executive Board earlier this week approved the seventh and eighth review of the stalled USD 6 billion Pakistan programme, and the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) two days later on Wednesday received the much-needed USD 1.16 billion deposit to steer the cash-strapped country’s economy out of the crisis, the PTI reported.
Who is accountable?
Since 1959, Pakistan has emitted about 0.4% of carbon dioxide, compared to 21.5% by the United States and 16.4% by China, and scientists and officials are pointing out how the country that has contributed relatively little to the world’s climate problem is bearing the brunt.
“Pakistan is not to blame for a climate crisis-fuelled disaster that has flooded much of the country,” the country’s prime minister said earlier this week, as he made a desperate plea for international help in what he said was the “toughest moment” in the nation’s history.
“We are suffering from it but it is not our fault at all,” Shehbaz Sharif told journalists on Tuesday afternoon at a press conference. “We are dealing with a situation I have not seen in my life,” Sharif said.
“Our footprint is so small … There are countries that have got to become rich on the back of fossil fuels and let’s be honest about this,” climate change minister Rehman said. “Now the time has to come to make a change and we all have a role to play but they have a greater role in this climate catastrophe.”
UN Chief Guterres said on Tuesday that south Asia was a hotspot for the climate crisis, “People living in these [climate crisis] hotspots are 15 times more likely to die from climate impacts,” he said, as per the Guardian.
However, many experts have also pointed out how Pakistan has not done enough to prepare for floods, which are frequent in the country. Countries with similar risk profiles such as Nepal and Vietnam have invested in building infrastructure to absorb climate shocks, Amiera Sawas, director of programs and research at Climate Outreach and a climate and water expert on Pakistan tells CNN.
“There’s just nothing in Pakistan [in terms of disaster resilient infrastructure]—so people were literally left to fend for themselves against really extreme weather, which we knew was going to come at some point.”
Pakistan has instead, focused on mega-projects such as building dams to manage water, which has worsened the effects of flooding as the pockets of water caused by dams overflow during extreme rain, a CNN report says.
“The onus is on the international community—particularly the industrialized world in the West and countries like China—to do more to help Pakistan, but also Pakistan arguably could have done a better job to keep its backyard in better order in terms of climate proofing and emissions reductions,” Kugelman said in the Times report.
Maira Hayat, an assistant professor of environment and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame, told the BBC about how Pakistanis could be focused on holding the state accountable but citizens of the Global North needed to reflect on how their countries have contributed to the climate crisis.
“[Pakistanis] know to hold the state accountable. But there are certain other questions that citizens of the Global North need to be asking of their states,” Hayat said. “So for example, what is the responsibility of the Global North in the kind of devastation that we’re seeing in Pakistan today?”