Large areas of Pakistan were inundated in 2010 by heavy floods, resulting in the displacement of millions of people. Experts had termed it one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes the country has suffered.
Twelve years later, massive flooding has forced analysts and political leaders alike to search for new adjectives that can describe the devastation caused by monsoon rains, appropriately.
It may be recalled that the Metrological department had warned about the intensity of rain and resulting devastation, but it was too late to avert the situation. Now the government has declared a national emergency and has desperately sought urgent aid from the international community.
While the UN promised US$160 million and other countries pledged aid, government officials say the floods have inflicted an estimated loss of at least US$30 billion.
Pakistan having more than 220 million populations faces the greatest humanitarian crisis. More than 1,200 people have died, one-third of the country is still submerged and at least 33 million people are affected. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) puts the number of affected districts at 72 out of a total of 160.
The NDMA estimates damage to more than 5,000km of roads, 10 million houses partially or fully destroyed, and the death of 700,000 livestock, often people’s only livelihood.
The southern province of Sindh remains the worst affected. As of August 30, more than 14 million people in the province are badly affected, of which only 377,000 are living in camps right now.
The Global Climate Risk Index puts Pakistan as the eighth most vulnerable country because of disasters caused by climate change, yet the country is responsible for less than 1 percent of the world’s planet-warming gases.
Extreme weather conditions have left the country precariously placed, where weather patterns are no longer predictable.
Earlier this year, the country faced unprecedented heat waves and months-long drought in Sindh and Balochistan. Only a few months later, Pakistan broke its decades-long rainfall record with the two provinces receiving 500 percent more rain than the annual average.
Sara Hayat, a Lahore-based climate change lawyer and policy specialist said, to ascertain what has caused the devastating floods, it needs to be seen as a pyramid of factors with the foundational one being global climate change.
Hayat said the flooding was caused by excessive torrential rain, as well as glacial melt in the north of the country.
“Pakistan generally gets three to four cycles of monsoon rains,” she said. “This year we have received eight already and there are predictions that rain will go on till October. This is extremely unusual.”
Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, an Islamabad-based climate change analyst aid, unlike the 2010 floods that were riverine in nature, this year saw multiple types overlapping each other which resulted in heavy destruction across the country.
Urban flooding, flash flooding, glacial lake bursts as well as cloud bursts as some of the different types of flooding to hit the country, all linked to climate change activity.
These are not routine floods. In fact, Pakistan has not had riverine floods at all this year. This is perhaps the first time the country saw climate change affecting patterns of monsoon. Only time will tell if it was a freak event of nature, or if it will become a routine.
It is easy to pin blame on the government, preparing for this scale of flooding was always going to be a difficult job.
At a time when the country is already reeling from back-breaking inflation and barely averted a default after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released US$1.17 billion in funds, a once-in-a-lifetime flood was the last thing Pakistan needed. Added to this volatile mix is perpetual political instability, exacerbated since the removal of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in April.
It is imperative that political warmongering stop and priorities be adjusted to face the daunting challenge of rebuilding.
One of the biggest challenges Pakistan will face is when the country goes into an election cycle. It is necessary to say that flood relief efforts and rehabilitation of the affected population must accompany all political conversations in the country.
Pakistan faces catastrophic economic repercussions because of the floods. There is an immediate impact on destroyed food crops, homes, roads, and livestock. This affects both people who are directly impacted by the flood by wiping out their household wealth, but also people in major cities through increasing the cost of food.
Pakistan faces a very difficult winter ahead as it needs money for a nationwide rebuilding effort post-floods, meeting the demands set up by the IMF program, competing with Europe to secure gas imports, and cushioning the impact of increasing food inflation.
The worst case scenario would be if Pakistan gets multiple kinds of floods it had this year plus the riverine flood together, the devastation would be unimaginable. Flood management strategies must be reoriented to become more robust and climate-smart.
There is a conflict between urgent and long-term plans. Those affected by the floods don’t have a roof over their heads and their standing crops have been destroyed. They need urgent help, and it is in the interest of the government to provide them with that.
More often than not, building back better gets forgotten; meanwhile, some other crisis hits which diverts the policymakers’ attention.
In Pakistan, if someone becomes homeless due to floods, the government says, ‘take 15,000 rupees and rebuild’. But the house will be destroyed next year again due to floods as it’s in the same fragile area. The government should enforce rules and make cash reimbursement conditional to living in safe zones.
There is a need to create a balance between relief and rehabilitation. Pakistan needs guidelines that will help mud houses become stronger, and help their roofs withstand climate change instead of collapsing. Whether plazas or houses in rural areas and shanty towns, there is a need to have a standard for building them. For infrastructure, the country needs guidelines that respond to the growing need to deal with floods and disasters.
So far, we have not increased our adaptation, and as a result, have not reduced our vulnerability to floods and other disasters. At the heart of it, we are a climate-vulnerable country, and we desperately need adaptation strategies to avoid this level of loss and damage.