Flooding over the weekend one third of Pakistan plunged into weeks of heavy rain, exacerbating an already difficult series of political and economic crises in the country.
The catastrophic floods have affected 33 million people, about 15 percent of the population, according to Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority. More than 1,130 people have been killed since the start of the monsoon season in June, and at least 75 died in the past day. There has been $10 billion in damage and an estimated 1 million homes destroyed.
“There was a superflood in 2010, but this is the worst ever in Pakistan’s history,” Shabnam Baloch, the country director for Pakistan at the International Rescue Committee, told me. “The kind of catastrophe we are experiencing right now is just indescribable. I don’t even have the right words to express it in a way that people can imagine.”
The south of the country has been most affected, especially the provinces of Sindh and Balochistan. While some degree of flooding is common in Pakistan during the monsoon season, rainfall intensity this month was 780 percent above average, according to the report. Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman.
“More than 100 bridges and some 3,000 km of roads have been damaged or destroyed, nearly 800,000 farm animals have died and two million hectares of crops and orchards have been affected,” the United Nations said. World Food Programme noted. The magnitude of the floods has hindered access for emergency groups to provide aid to the most deprived.
This one disaster alone would have been disastrous. But Pakistan has also faced economic difficulties this year and a deadly heat wave that, as cafemadrid’s Umair Irfan reported, strained public infrastructure and social services. All of these crises have been exacerbated by the political situation in the country, with the government targeting the recently deposed Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and by the global economic situation.
“Pakistan has been through a series of crises this year: economic, political, now, a natural disaster,” Madiha Afzal, a foreign policy researcher at the Brookings Institution, told me. “Under all this, the political crisis has been underway.”
Political crises in Pakistan, but explained too briefly
At the beginning of this year, Pakistan was ravaged by a political crisis. While the immediate crisis was resolved, the underlying tensions persist, and have become even more polarized – causing a political conflict that could affect the country’s handling of these floods.
In April, the cricketer who became pseudo-populist Prime Minister Imran Khan caused a constitutional crisis when he tried to avert a vote of no confidence by dissolving Pakistan’s parliament. In the end, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that he had acted unconstitutionally, the sensational vote of no confidence went through and he lost the premiership.
Since then, opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif has become prime minister and chairman of a country hard hit by economic malaise – rising debt, foreign currency shortages and record inflation – exacerbated by the far-reaching effects of the war between Ukraine and Russia on energy and food insecurity.
All the while, the former prime minister hold political meetings which amplify its street power. In turn, the government has launched a crackdown on Khan. Recently, the police terrorism charges against him about a speech he gave earlier this month. The next general election will be held in 2023, but Khan has been calls for early elections. Taken together, it threatens to push Pakistan into an even more dangerous political phase.
It is a serious situation, but also one that exacerbates and obscures the flood crisis caused by climate change.
Earlier this month, for example, Pakistani TV networks covered for hours on end the story of an aide to Khan who had been detained on charges of treason and claimed that he had been tortured in custody. “While Balochistan was flooded – scenes and videos were coming in from Balochistan – the government was essentially fully engaged in politics, and Khan was fully engaged in politics,” Afzal told me.
Sharif was also involved in politics. “In many ways, the blame lies with the state for not taking charge of its national disaster management authority, for example, and not taking immediate action,” Afzal told me. There have been no daily press conferences, she says, and until last week she was barely aware of the magnitude of the flooding.
Afzal is concerned about political tensions between the federal government and flood-affected areas hampered the government’s response. For example, the northern province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is led by the party of Khan and Prime Minister Sharif visited it only on mondays.
For Pakistani-British historian and activist Tariq Ali, the question is why the government has not done more to prevent the social crises caused by weather calamities. “Why has Pakistan, successive governments, military and civilians, been unable to build a social infrastructure, a safety net for ordinary people?” he told Democracy now. “It’s fine for the rich and the wealthy. They can escape. They can leave the country. They can go to a hospital. They have enough food. But for most of the country, that’s not the case.”
Not just a natural disaster
To be likely that climate change contributed to the scale of the disaster in Pakistan. But Ayesha Siddiqi, a geographer at the University of Cambridge who has studied Pakistan’s response to… the floods of 2010told me that “all disasters are highly engineered, they are built by society and they are built by people.”
She explained that structural inequalities, poor policy making and an emphasis on large-scale infrastructure projects have left much of Pakistan woefully unprepared for the floods.
Pakistan “has kind of famously projected this idea: ‘We have to build big dams, and we have to build big drainage projects, and we have to show our military prowess through these big projects to manage water,'” Siddiqi told me. But in extreme rainfall, the water has to flow somewhere. “So then there are those water pockets that collect in these infrastructural reservoirs and dams, etc., that need to be released. And a whole host of ecological problems have arisen.”
Pakistan can learn from that history – and from the last catastrophic flooding it experienced a decade ago.
The most important lesson the Pakistani government learned from the 2010 floods was how they instant money transfers to those affected. “People always want cash after a disaster — they much prefer cash, say, compared to relief supplies and things like that,” Siddiqi told me. “The state has learned how to reach people, but what the state has been much less adept at are the long-term issues: how do we rehabilitate people in the next five, ten years so that it isn’t vulnerable again?”
For a country embroiled in political turmoil and economic setbacks, coordinating this response in the short and longer term will undoubtedly be a challenge.
While international aid alone will not address these deeper inequalities in the country, aid agencies are calling for a strong international response. “Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions,” said Farah Naureen, Mercy Corps country director for Pakistan. in a statement. “This humanitarian catastrophe is yet another example of how the countries that contribute the least to global warming are the ones who suffer the most.”