Pakistan: the lethal impacts of climate change
Pakistan is reeling from the impacts of devasting floods caused by record rainfall this monsoon season. As the death toll has risen, Pakistan’s government has appealed to the international community for help. Rightly blaming climate change for the catastrophe, it has urged global north states, as the main contributors to climate change, to take responsibility and provide the funding required to help global south countries cope. At the same time, Pakistanis have called out their government as distant and ineffective. As extreme weather intensifies, in Pakistan and around the world, governments need to step up the response and take responsibility.
Heavy rains brought by a record-breaking monsoon season have left one-third of Pakistan under water. The floods – described as the worst in the country’s history – have so far killed over 1,300 people. And the monsoon season isn’t over.
Pakistan’s government has led a response backed by international aid groups and local civil society organisations (CSOs) but continues to struggle to cope with the emergency. Government officials have rightly blamed the extreme weather on climate change. They urge the international community, particularly the richest states in the global north, to live up to their responsibility to help a country that has contributed virtually nothing to climate change but is at the receiving end of some of its most devastating effects.
Heavy rains wreak havoc
The statistics are staggering and grim. An area roughly the size of the UK has been submerged by floods. Over 450 children are among the dead. An estimated 33 million people are displaced – some 15 per cent of the population. While some have moved to organised camps, millions are struggling to find shelter, food and drinking water. Lack of access to sanitation and hygiene is increasing the risk of disease spreading, with cholera outbreaks among the looming dangers.
The 2022 floods have been compared to those of 2010, when over 1,700 people died. So far this time there have been fewer casualties, but the human and economic impacts have been greater. Dozens of villages have been swept away and millions of homes destroyed. Around 3,500 km of roads have been damaged. Entire villages have been left without power.
Destruction of crops and agricultural land has sent already high food prices soaring. The loss of key export products – in Sindh province, one of the hardest-hit areas, 90 per cent of cotton crops were destroyed – has worsened Pakistan’s already dire economic situation. Total losses are estimated at US$10 billion.
Rain has now petered off and some flood waters have begun to recede, but large stretches of land remain under water. Any renewed rainfall could exacerbate the crisis.
On 25 August, Pakistan’s government declared a national emergency. Armed forces have been deployed for search and rescue operations, and the National Disaster Management Authority, along with the Provincial Disaster Management Authority, has distributed emergency items such as tents, food packs and hygiene kits.
The government has so far allocated around US$173 million to support the flood-affected population, with the figure expected to increase to around US$460 million. The money is expected to go to vulnerable households in the form of cash relief. The government has also set aside funds for people who have been injured, whose homes have been damaged, or who have lost family members.
On 30 August, the government joined with the United Nations (UN) to launch the 2022 Pakistan Floods Response Plan, aimed at supporting 5.2 million people over the next six months, at a cost of around US$160 million that it hopes to raise through an international appeal. This will add to the US$7 million the UN has mobilised for flood response. The International Monetary Fund has approved a US$1.2 billion loan to prevent the government defaulting on its debt obligations while it prioritises crisis response.
Local civil society is playing a vital role. A huge voluntary effort has mobilised, with young people to the fore, working to rescue people, distribute aid and raise funds through crowdsourcing, including from the diaspora. Organisations such as Alkhidmat Foundation Pakistan and Safridi Foundation are among the many providing assistance.
International CSOs have likewise stepped up. Among those active are Muslim Hands, which has set up medical camps to provide healthcare in the worst-hit areas, and the International Rescue Committee, which is helping displaced Pakistanis find safety and shelter.
Global north countries need to share their resources with the countries least responsible for climate change that are experiencing its biggest impacts and have the lowest ability to respond.
Other states have chipped in, but help has been slow coming. The USA is contributing US$30 million. Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have sent military aircraft to help with rescues, along with medicine and tents. China is also expected to send aircraft and tents and Japan has promised tarpaulins and shelters. Among other states having announced support are Australia, Azerbaijan, Canada, Qatar and Uzbekistan.
The ongoing response is indeed multi-pronged, but it’s no match for the scale of the disaster. Some states, such as the UK, have been criticised for the minimal nature of their initial response. And many people complain that aid isn’t reaching them.
Planning overwhelmed by scale of emergency
Following the 2010 floods, Pakistan’s government passed the National Disaster Management Act, aimed at strengthening the country’s disaster response system. To adapt and help meet the country’s international obligations on climate change, in 2017 the government formed the Ministry of Climate Change and passed the Climate Change Act.
In 2021, supported by the UN Environment Programme and with funding from the Green Climate Fund, Pakistan embarked on a two-year process to develop a National Adaptation Plan.
This March the Ministry of Climate Change announced an updated version of its National Climate Change Policy. This sets out its plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase resilience. It highlights key environmental projects such as the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Project, which aims to plant 10 billion trees by 2023, and the Clean Green Pakistan Movement, aimed at strengthening institutions and encouraging behavioural change.
But the scale of this year’s extreme weather has rendered all plans inadequate. Floods are a cyclical occurrence in Pakistan, but the current floods are in no way typical: Pakistan’s climate minister has accurately described them as ‘apocalyptic’. Some parts of the country have received 5.7 times the 30-year average rainfall.
The scientific community is increasingly clear: climate change is making extreme weather far more likely. This year’s rains were preceded by a heat wave with temperatures of up to 50°C, a phenomenon scientists said was made 30 times more likely due to climate change. Heat increases the atmosphere’s capacity to hold moisture, so warmer temperatures can drive heavier rainfall.
The fact that the glaciers in Pakistan’s mountainous regions are melting – Pakistan has more glaciers than anywhere outside the polar regions – has only made things worse. This year, incidences of water being released by glacial lakes have tripled.
An unfair burden
Climate change is inherently unjust. It most violently hits people in the countries that have done the least to cause it. Pakistan produces under one per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions but is among the 10 most affected countries.
This injustice is echoed around the region and across the global south. In South Asia, people are 15 times more likely to die from the impacts of climate change than the global average. The world’s 74 poorest countries contribute less than 10 per cent of emissions but face the most devastating impacts.
Pakistan’s lethal extreme weather is far from the first to strike global south countries this year: South Africa too has been struck by devastating floods and China and India like Pakistan recently endured horror heatwaves.
Human activities have already caused global temperatures to rise by around 1°C since the beginning of the industrial era, and it is from industrialisation that the wealth and power of global north countries derives. Temperatures will keep rising unless high emitters take serious action to cut emissions.
If no action had been taken, global temperatures would likely have risen by 4°C by the end of the century. As it stands, after decades of campaigning, international summitry and limited action, projections put the temperature rise at around 2.7°C. Current efforts are making some difference, but not enough. This will be a devastating increase.
To avoid a catastrophe, global north countries must cut their greenhouse gas emissions drastically – which won’t happen unless the vast power of fossil fuel companies is challenged, renewable energies are developed and more sustainable forms of consumption are embraced. But they also need to share their resources with the countries least responsible for climate change that are experiencing its biggest impacts and have the lowest ability to respond.
Funding falls short
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, global north countries committed jointly to contribute US$100 billion per year by 2020 to help global south countries both cut their emissions and adapt to the impacts. That target, likely inadequate, still hasn’t been reached, annually falling tens of billions of dollars short. Financing for adaptation is particularly lacking.
In recent years, the case for another kind of funding has gained traction. There’s only so much a country can do to adapt to the climate crisis. As temperatures rise, people will continue to die from climate-related disasters, coastal areas will continue to disappear beneath rising sea waters and people will continue to lose their livelihoods. To make up for the damage they can’t prevent, global south nations are pushing for ‘loss and damage’ funding.
This issue of financial culpability was a major point of contention at the COP26 climate summit held in the UK in 2021 and is set again to be an issue at the upcoming COP27 in Egypt.
Going into COP26, global south countries asked for US$500 billion to help vulnerable nations respond to the climate crisis. But no progress was made: although COP26’s Glasgow Climate Pact mentions unmet financial commitments, it doesn’t commit to establishing a new financial pot. Global north states still see loss and damage financing as too close to the idea of reparations, something they view as unacceptable.
A shared responsibility
Lack of climate funding will only increase the need for urgent humanitarian spending when disaster strikes. In Pakistan, it’s clear that insufficient climate funding is now being followed by inadequate humanitarian support.
But it isn’t only the international community that is letting Pakistanis down. Many are blaming their own government too. People are complaining that the government is absent in their moment of need, with promises of aid frequently unfulfilled.
Government problems include insufficient coordination and communication between different agencies and limited local-level capacity. The government’s long-running hostility towards civil society is hampering the voluntary response.
People also point to the political infighting with which their rulers have been preoccupied. April saw Prime Minister Imran Khan ousted in a parliamentary vote of confidence after two opposition parties combined, with Shehbaz Sharif installed as the new prime minister. Khan has refused to accept the decision, running a populist campaign peddling conspiracy theories, to which the government recently responded by charging Khan under anti-terrorism laws.
For many people, this is an elite political circus unconnected to their everyday concerns. People have accused the political class, distracted by these events, of missing the early warning signs of disaster.
Helicopters, seemingly available for travel by politicians but not for rescue operations, have become a symbol of the remoteness and indifference many disaster victims accuse politicians of.
Embracing enlightened self-interest
In politics, selfishness is often stronger than solidarity. For Pakistan’s ruling elite, self-preservation instincts should kick in: they need to show they’re doing everything they can to respond to the needs of their most vulnerable citizens – or otherwise be prepared to face the wrath of those they have repeatedly let down.
At the global level too, enlightened self-interest should convince rich and powerful states to step up climate funding so global south countries can cope. If climate change continues on its current trajectory, more extreme weather, with associated conflicts, famines, droughts and economic disruption, are on their way. Insecurity will spread and millions will be displaced, meaning countless more climate migrants heading across borders.
It’s almost but not quite too late to act. The longer the rich and powerful states delay, the worse people in Pakistan, South Asia, across the global south and ultimately all of us will suffer.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The international community must scale up its humanitarian assistance to Pakistan to help the country overcome the emergency.
Major greenhouse gas emitters must commit to reducing emissions to a level consistent with limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5°C.
Global north countries must meet the financial commitments made under the Paris Agreement and commit to making progress on loss and damage financing at COP27.
Cover photo by Reuters/Akhtar Soomro via Gallo Images