Understanding Pakistan’s 'perfect climate disaster'

Illustration - Pakistan floods
14 September, 2022

This wasn't supposed to happen. Not yet.

Our leaders have always acted as if inconceivable, unimaginable climate disasters were still decades away, and reassured us that things were better than they seemed.

Maybe they’re not.

The extent of the floods in Pakistan is hard to comprehend. Somewhere between thirty and forty million people have been affected, at least 1,300 of whom have died. Over a million houses have likely been destroyed, and nearly half of Pakistan’s crops have been ruined. A scarcely believable one-thirdone-third – of the country was reportedly underwater.

"Pakistan has more than 7,000 glaciers – more glacial ice than any other country outside the polar regions – that feed its rivers"

How did this happen?

To make sense of the floods, it is important to understand the geography of the country.

Pakistan has more than 7,000 glaciers – more glacial ice than any other country outside the polar regions – that feed its rivers. These include the mighty Indus, which flows south from the Himalayas like a spine down the country, through the fertile Indus Valley between the Thar desert on the east and arid Balochistan on the west.

The Valley is known for its vast irrigation systems, which have supported agriculture since the Bronze Age, and is crucial for the development of the country’s energy. Pakistan’s population is heavily dependent on the food grown in this area.

These natural features leave the country especially susceptible to climate change.

“This was the compound impact – a perfect climate disaster, a climate roulette. It has been an unending game for us"

Pakistan has suffered dozens of floods in the past, so much so that they are a part of life. Between 1950 and 2011, the country suffered 21 major floods – nearly one every three years, according to the Asian Development Bank.

The vast majority of these were related to the Indus, according to Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, an independent climate and water expert who serves as a consultant to the World Bank.

Live Story

Pakistan’s disaster management policy was therefore built to measure the flow and ferocity of the water upstream so authorities could project and plan for floods that were predicted to take place further south.

This time, however, was different. The 2022 floods were unlike anything seen before in Pakistan. Beginning in June, five or six freak climatic events coincided one after the other to destroy the country over three months.

“This was the compound impact – a perfect climate disaster, a climate roulette. It has been an unending game for us,” Sheikh told The New Arab.

It began with a heatwave in the northern reaches of the country that caused the sudden melting of glacial ice, according to Sheikh, unleashing a torrent of water into the country’s several large rivers.

“You could go from one village to another village by boat. And for miles and miles, people had no dry place to sit"

This was accompanied by the arrival of a heavier-than-usual monsoon in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, inundating it with water for several days – much longer than the city’s infrastructure was built to manage.

The third event was the flooding of Balochistan, Pakistan’s biggest and poorest province known for its arid climate. This region suffered a severe drought in the weeks leading up to the rains, hardening the ground and making it impervious to water.

Live Story

The torrential downpour that it received therefore led to runoff flooding, destroying infrastructure that had been built over the past half a century along with homes and farms, and washed away the valuable topsoil required to grow crops.

The fourth spell began with monsoon clouds coming from Rajasthan in India – which also experienced some flooding – into central Sindh province, completely inundating cities towns and villages.

Pakistan floods - 4 Aug 2022 vs 28 Aug 2022
A satellite view of the floods over Pakistan's Sindh province from 4 August 2022 vs 28 August 2022 [NASA Earth Observatory]

“The water level in Sindh was from two feet to 12 feet high; you could see the rooftops of houses under the water,” said Sheikh. “You could go from one village to another village by boat. And for miles and miles, people had no dry place to sit.”

All of these disasters were accompanied by more flash flooding in the already-beleaguered Balochistan and a cloud outburst on the Afghan border, that added to the climatic chaos.

Sadly, most of those affected have been Pakistan’s poor who were living in the worst affected areas, along rivers and in mud houses that were completely washed away.

Live Story

Who was responsible?

Pakistan’s existing infrastructure has been completely overwhelmed by the floods. Its disaster management policy was meant to combat river floods and not this sort of unique combination of dangerous climactic conditions which took the country by surprise.

Several commentators both inside and outside the country have laid the blame on the government for not preparing the country for such an environmental disaster, especially since the last major flood was only 12 years ago in 2010.

"Pakistan only contributes 0.9% to global carbon emissions and yet we are the eighth worst affected country on the planet"

Ayesha Salma, the Group Head for Quality Assurance, Research and Design at the Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund who is participating in relief efforts on the ground, however, disagrees.

"This time the biggest response has been from our own country and we’ve used our own resources to help each other," Salma told The New Arab. "Look at where the bulk of the resources are coming from – they’re coming from the state and from Pakistanis themselves. They’re the ones who have been the first responders."

Salma instead believes that the international community must do more to aid Pakistan during this time, and said that international aid has not been fast or adequate enough to help in this time of need.  

She also hopes the international community can do more to help solve the climate crisis.

"Pakistan only contributes 0.9% to global greenhouse gas emissions and yet we are the eighth worst affected country on the planet by climate change,"  she said.

"The countries that have contributed more to carbon emissions have the responsibility to contribute more to counter the effects of climate change. This needs to happen if we are to achieve our vision for a more equitable world."

Flood-affected people walk on a temporary bamboo path near their flooded house in Shikarpur of Sindh province [Getty]

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh has a somewhat different view. He said that the government did get some things right, such as the early warning system, which resulted in only around 1300 deaths out of the 30-40 million affected, and appreciated their relief efforts.

Live Story

However, he argues that Islamabad could have done more to protect these people, who now have nowhere to live – some of them for the second time in 12 years. In an interview with Pakistan’s Aaj TV, Sheikh said that the floods are an indication that Pakistan’s development model had “failed.”

“It is an exclusionary development model that has not worked for the poor, for most of the population, or for climate resilience – leaving people extremely vulnerable,” he said.

The town of Khairpur Nathan Shah in Sindh was totally submerged by floodwaters [Getty]

He also refutes the argument that the international community must foot the bill for the global climate crisis. “There should be climate justice within [Pakistan’s] society, and only then can we talk about the international community,” he said in the same interview.

“Our society has no climate justice. We need to pursue a just development model […] where people’s houses are strong and outside the path of flood water, where the country’s infrastructure is resilient and, most importantly, to treat climate vulnerability as a local issue through strong localised governments.”

He went on to tell The New Arab that he “empathised” with policymakers because they are under pressure to serve a huge population, but did not agree with their decisions.

Live Story

How can Pakistan be better equipped for the future?

Policymakers need to work in three major areas to ensure Pakistan is better equipped to adapt to floods like these in the future, according to Sheikh.

The first is to not interfere with river systems. “They need to have right of way, so let’s ensure there is no new construction that might obstruct their flow,” said Sheikh. “Stop building things near the rivers, and use policy incentives to make those who live in low-lying areas move.”

The second is to treat adaptation and resilience to climate disasters as localised issues. This means each region needs strong local governments that have clear mandates and budgets for municipal and environmental services, with experts who can map out the area, and who invest in the region.

And most importantly, the government must enforce climate-resilient building codes in the country – a step it should have taken years ago.

“Pakistan must revise the construction standards and specifications of the infrastructure so that it is climate-resilient, climate-smart,” said Sheikh. “We need to graduate from things like mud houses.”

The majority of those who have been affected are the country's poor [Getty]

Ayesha Salma also emphasised that Pakistan needs to enforce stronger, climate-resilient building codes to mitigate the damage done by disasters such as this one.

“Schools that were built after the 2010 floods were built to be disaster resistant are still standing today,” she said, “and have provided temporary shelter for people to congregate as a safe space. In some completely devastated areas in Sindh, you will see school buildings still standing.”


We’re all in this together

It is difficult to say whether environmental catastrophes such as the Pakistan floods are here to stay.

But this year has driven home that ecosystems are changing, and that extreme climatic events are not just reserved for the global south, but affect the entire world.

“The speed of the freak events, such as the heatwave in China, droughts in Europe and elsewhere, tells me that the impact of climate change is a lot more transboundary than we realise,” said Sheikh.

“We see that no continent is spared, even if you’re in a wealthy economy like the US or Canada,” he added.

“Clearly, all of us are in this together.”

Ali Abbas Ahmadi is a staff journalist at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @AliAbbasAhmadi2