Unprecedented Catastrophic Flooding in Pakistan – Climate Injustice and Inaction?
The recent and ongoing floods in Pakistan have frequently been termed to be of `biblical proportions’. The devastation and havoc wreaked by mass floods throughout human history is evidenced in our oldest myths, from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the biblical Noah. On the other hand, rivers flooding over their banks have also provided boon to humanity, supporting the rise of civilization itself, from the Sumerians to the ancient Egyptians. However, in recent times the incidence of mass flooding is becoming more frequent, more devastating and in large part attributed to man-made climate change.
One-third of Pakistan is currently estimated to be underwater, resulting in over 1200 causalities and displacing over 33 million people. The unexpected intensity of the floods has been deemed to be a function of three related climactic phenomena: intense heat waves from March to April heated up the atmosphere leading to more moisture in the air. This was followed by low air pressure in the Arabian Sea intensifying the monsoon. Finally, the heat also resulted in a precipitous glacial melt in the northern regions of Pakistan, home to the largest glacial system outside the polar regions.
There is a sense of climate injustice in this as Pakistan contributes less than 1% of global greenhouse gases but is the 7th most vulnerable country to climate change.
The carnage caused by the current floods have been witnessed in the not-so-distant past as well when in 2010 floods on a similar scale in Pakistan caused over 2000 fatalities and an estimated USD 25 billion loss to the economy. A similar story is unfolding this time around, with grave threats to food security as vast swathes of agricultural produce is swept away ranging from the food staples of wheat and rice to the largest cash crop of Pakistan, cotton. Perhaps even more importantly, an estimated 733,000 livestock has reportedly been killed. These will invariably have long term consequences, manifesting itself in worse health, education and welfare outcomes beyond the immediate destruction.
Pakistan’s sinewing river system has supported human populations for millennia, sporting one of the oldest urban inhabitants in the world - the Indus Valley civilization. Its decline has also been attributed to climate change: prolonged droughts and a weakening of the monsoons, with remnants only visible in the majestic ruins of Mohenjo-daro. The present floods have severely destroyed the archaeological site and local curators are pleading the government to take remedial measures. The overall response of Pakistani authorities to the rising waters was, arguably, comparable to their apathy towards archaeological heritage.
Perhaps this slow and inept response is not surprising at all. Since April, Pakistani political parties and the country’s powerful military have been embroiled in Machiavellian level intrigues and plots. The country’s several dozen news outlets and dense network of social media users have also largely been engrossed in this soap-opera like power show. Only after the recent wave of floods, when international media started reporting, did the federal authorities spring into unified action.
With international scrutiny, inflowing foreign aid (though meagre at the moment), and a lowering of the political temperature in recent weeks reconstruction and remedial measures are being undertaken at a faster pace. However, as largely predicted by climate scientists this is not likely to be a one-off, freak disaster. Installation of early warning systems, better climate models and swifter governmental response can cushion the brunt but combatting climate change itself is beyond the power and scope of Pakistan.
As climate activists and scientists have been arguing for decades now, only a unified global response can stem the tide, if at all. Our erstwhile mentioned ancestors were able to tame the vagaries of nature and unlock the potential of river systems through marvelous feats of engineering and architecture. This was made possible only because the political decision makers then were willing to listen to practitioners at the frontier of scientific knowledge, a lesson that the modern-day political establishment sorely needs to heed.
6 September 2022