After experiencing its hottest months in 61 years in April and May, Pakistan has been hit by a “monsoon season on steroids,” according to U.N. chief Antonio Guterres. Pakistan has long been considered one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world. Despite a history of intense floods, the country was ill-prepared for this year’s monsoon season. Intractable political and economic crises have hampered Pakistan’s capacity to address the ongoing fallout, particularly the worsening humanitarian crisis.

After evacuating the town of Sujawal from rising floodwater, displaced Pakistanis seek refuge on a narrow strip of land outside of the town where food and medical supplies are limited, in Pakistan, Aug. 29, 2010. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)
After evacuating the town of Sujawal from rising floodwater, displaced Pakistanis seek refuge on a narrow strip of land outside of the town where food and medical supplies are limited, in Pakistan, Aug. 29, 2010. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times)

USIP’s Jumaina Siddiqui and Tamanna Salikuddin explain why Pakistan is so vulnerable to climate shocks, how Pakistan’s political and economic crises exacerbate the challenges posed by this year’s floods and how the international community can help. 

What is the scale of the devastation from this year’s severe monsoon season?

Pakistan is facing a dire humanitarian crisis stemming from unprecedented rainfall and floods that have impacted every part of the country. The statistics are staggering: This monsoon season has left one-third of the country underwater, over 1,100 dead, more than 33 million displaced and caused over $10 billion in damages. While we do not know the full extent of the disaster, it is expected that these numbers will keep growing. 

This year’s monsoon season and subsequent flooding are unprecedented in comparison to the disasters of 2010 and 2020. While the Pakistan Meteorological Office did provide warnings about this year’s monsoon, it seems that many did not to take it seriously, thinking that this would be another year of typical rains. However, this year, Pakistan has had rainfall, one expert noted, “780% above average levels.” These rains will continue over the next few weeks, exacerbating the current situation and hindering relief efforts. 

The current political instability has also not helped the situation as all parties were focused on undercutting each other instead of learning from the intense spring heatwave that began in April and preparing for the upcoming monsoon season. Compounding this is the uncontrolled construction across the country in both rural and urban areas. The images from the floods are unbelievable — massive buildings and entire communities, particularly those built alongside rivers and other waterways, have been washed away. Many of the structures were constructed either illegally or so poorly that it could not withstand the rains and subsequent floods. Some of these structures were built in places that were hard hit by the 2010 floods. Pakistan’s army chief, while visiting one of the hardest hit parts of the country, said that “legal action should be taken against those responsible” for building on vulnerable sites. 

Why is Pakistan so vulnerable to climate shocks?

While Pakistan is one of the lowest contributors to climate change, it is one of the most impacted countries in the world. For the past 20 years, Pakistan has consistently been on the list of the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change.  This is due to a number of reasons. Pakistan’s geography is varied — the country has a large number of glaciers in the north, arid deserts and fertile agricultural lands in the central part of the country, and megacities like Karachi that are close to sea level and will be severely impacted as sea levels rise. Climate scientists have noted that global warming has led to significant changes in weather patterns around the world. In the case of Pakistan, this has turned normal monsoon seasons and hot months into extreme weather events. This year, parts of the country set high-temperature records in April and now record rainfalls during monsoon season. 

Poor governance and political will also plays a role in Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate shocks. As noted above, illegal and uncontrolled construction, especially in vulnerable areas has exacerbated the severity of the disaster. However, there is also a disconnect between science and policy. This issue is not exclusive to Pakistan, but leaders have known for at least 20 years that the country is vulnerable to the impacts of the climate change. They saw firsthand during the 2010 floods how quickly such disasters can cause nationwide chaos. It was the 2010 floods that lead to the establishment of Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority as well as provincial-level disaster management authorities. They were tasked with planning for future natural and man-made disasters. For example, the Sindh Provincial Disaster Management Authority’s (PMDA) did note that there would be “above average rainfall” this year and that there were early warning systems and evacuation plans in place. But it remains unclear how effective their communication strategy was. Furthermore, in terms of stockpiling of supplies, the Sindh PDMA only had a little over 70,000 tents in hand but there are almost 4 million people displaced in the province. 

The ultimate question we should be asking is: What was the disconnect between the various disaster management authorities and the meteorological office in terms of coordination and preparedness? This will only be understood in the months and years to come as Pakistan moves from relief to recovery and reconstruction efforts. There is an urgent need to reflect on the lessons from both 2010 and these current floods. 

How do Pakistan’s political and economic crises impact efforts to mitigate the country’s immense climate challenges and the associated humanitarian catastrophe?

Pakistani officials have been preoccupied this summer by the twin political and economic crises facing the country. With inflation reaching untenable highs and foreign currency reserves at dangerous lows, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government has had to undertake painful reforms to meet the conditions needed to restart an IMF plan. Amid the disastrous floods, positive news that IMF loan would flow with an initial $1.1 billion tranche of an overall $7 billion plan helped to stave off default and was welcomed by Sharif as means to put Pakistan back on track economically. Yet the IMF loans seem paltry in the face of the flood damage, which the Pakistani government is estimating will be above $10 billion across the country. In comparison to the 2010 super flood, these floods have substantially affected crops and other agricultural products, further exacerbating food inflation and shortages. The austerity measures required by the IMF program will also be a significant burden on the population facing humanitarian crisis. The floods will have a substantial impact on Pakistan’s projected GDP growth, with estimates reducing it from 5% to 2% as a result.

Since the spring no-confidence motion against former prime minister Imran Khan and the formation of the new government under Sharif, headlines and political energy in Pakistan have been completely dominated by political infighting, machinations within the governing coalition, and tussles with the military and judiciary. The latest charges against Khan and his party’s control of the provincial governments in Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have been a distraction to the overall flood response. Khan was able to raise a substantial amount of flood relief money in a telethon, a testament to his popularity and ability to get the Pakistani diaspora mobilized. Publicly, there is point scoring and competition between political parties and elites to appear to be providing flood relief, but overall, the Pakistani government and the military have been trying to deliver aid across the country despite the political crisis. The larger problem stems from long-term political instability and recurring crises that do not allow for the policy continuity and reform that might have better positioned Pakistan to address such a climate disaster.

Sharif announced plans to form a National Flood Response and Coordination Center, bringing together federal ministers, representatives of armed forces, chief ministers and experts as a means to provide a comprehensive disaster response to the floods. The Pakistani government also announced a joint effort with the United Nations to provide food security, assistance for agriculture and livestock, non-food items, nutrition programs, primary health services, protection, water, sanitation, women’s health, education support, and shelter for displaced people.

It may take months for flood waters to recede and for rehabilitation efforts to reach the hardest hit areas, and the continued political crisis will remain a major distraction from the relief efforts. With the federal and provincial governments under the control of different political parties, there is also the risk of aid being distributed in preferential or politicized ways. The Pakistani government has committed to the Flood Relief Cash Assistance program to aid all affected persons in every province, with $74.7 million already being dispensed to more than 250,000 families.

How can the international community help?

These apocalyptic floods are clearly tied to climate change, and many in Pakistan have made the argument that the powerful and wealthy nations that significantly contribute to climate change must come to the aid of countries like Pakistan who bear the brunt of the climate disasters. Pakistani leaders are asking for grants and assistance, rather than more loans that will only further weaken the country’s economic position. U.N. Secretary-General Antonino Guterres will be visiting the most affected areas in Pakistan this week, and has called on the international community to contribute $160 million in a flash appeal for immediate aid. USAID has announced $30 million in critical humanitarian assistance to Pakistan, with more expected in the near term. Many other countries, including the United Kingdom, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, are providing assistance and materials to Pakistan for flood relief. In addition to money and supplies, Pakistan will require technical assistance for longer-term flood rehabilitation efforts.

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