Torrential monsoon rains in 2022 have triggered the most severe floods in the recent history of Pakistan, leaving many parts of the country devastated as over a thousand people have been killed and millions rendered homeless. The government of Pakistan has declared a national emergency. However, the effects of the climate change-induced flash floods have been exacerbated by bad governance, delayed response, lack of resources and a proactive approach.
The consequences of the 2022 floods are far-reaching and unprecedented as they have engendered the imminent threat of food insecurity, water-borne diseases, malnutrition, and social unrest in Pakistan. As the country faces a calamity of such a massive scale that has affected every province and devastated the masses, political leaders must come together, putting aside their partisan politics, and offer a collective response to the catastrophe in the larger interest of the people.
Since June 2022, Pakistan has been experiencing extreme monsoon weather. According to Abid Qaiyum Suleri, executive director of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute and a member of Pakistan’s Climate Change Council, Pakistan has received area-weighted rainfall 780% above average levels so far this year. As of August 27, rainfall in the country was 2.9 times the national 30-year average.
This has resulted in extensive flooding, with disastrous consequences for human lives, property, and infrastructure. The Government of Pakistan has classified 80 districts across Pakistan as “calamity-stricken” to date. Given the continuous rainfall, these figures are projected to change, and the number of calamity-declared areas is expected to rise. The flooding has caused devastation on a large scale and in an unprecedented manner.
Impact of the Floods
The devastating flash floods have submerged one-third of Pakistan, affecting and displacing over 33 million people nationwide, washing away roads, homes, and crops – leaving a trail of deadly havoc across the country. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, between 14th June and 1st September, at least 1208 people were killed, a third of which were children, and 6082 people injured, with numbers increasing as the rain continued.
Over 1 million houses have been damaged, with 436,307 completely destroyed and almost 736,242 partially damaged. Livelihoods are also being heavily impacted as 173 shops have been destroyed and more than 733,488 livestock – a critical source of sustenance and livelihoods for many families – have died. Over 2 million acres of crops and orchards have been impacted, including 304,475 acres in Balochistan, 178,186 acres in Punjab, and 1.54 million acres in Sindh.
The crisis is being exacerbated by massive infrastructure damage. Damage to approximately 5000 km of highways and 243 bridges has not only impeded people’s ability to evacuate to safer places but also restricted relief distribution to those in need. Minister for Planning and Development, Ahsan Iqbal, has provided a preliminary estimate of US$10 billion for repairing and reconstructing the infrastructure damaged by the flash floods and rehabilitating the displaced refugees. He also noted that this process of reconstruction and recuperation could take up to five years.
Internet outages have also been reported, with the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority attributing widespread internet cuts in central and northern Pakistan on August 19, 22, and 23 to technical issues in the fibre optic network caused by torrential rains and floods. The situation is likely to worsen as heavy rains are continuing to pour over areas that have already been inundated by more than two months of storms and flooding.
Flash floods and rain-induced landslides are exacerbated by the incapacity of the current infrastructure to manage the unusually large amount of water. Many rivers, including the Indus, which runs the length of Pakistan, are at high flood alert levels and/or have exceeded their banks, and major dam reservoirs are rapidly filling or have already overflowed, posing further risk to residents in the area and downstream.
NDMA issued warnings on 30th August for “very high-level floods” in River Kabul at Nowshera and River Indus at Taunsa in the following days. The federal minister for climate change, Sherry Rehman, has called the flood and its subsequent impacts a “crisis of unimaginable proportions.” She said, “It’s all one big ocean, there’s no dry land to pump the water out.” The colossal impact of the flood and its subsequent consequences such as land sliding has caused colossal damage and widespread implications for the country.
Climate Change-Induced Flooding
According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is the eighth most vulnerable country to climate crisis despite its very low carbon footprint. Pakistan has emitted only 0.4% of carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, since 1959, compared to 21.5% by the United States and 16.4% by China.
Even though Pakistan is responsible for the emission of less than 1% of the world’s global warming gases yet between 1952 and 2009, the temperatures in the country have risen by 0.3°C per decade – higher than the global average. This gradual warming of temperatures caused the phenomenal heatwaves in April and May this year with temperatures reaching above 40°C for prolonged periods in many places.
Places like Jacobabad and Dadu even recorded scorching temperatures above 50°C. Warmer air holds more moisture – almost 7% more per °C – and that eventually comes down. Meteorologists had warned, earlier this year, that the extreme temperatures, compounded with the La Niña climate event—a phenomenon that is typically associated with stronger monsoon conditions in India and Pakistan and is expected to continue the whole year—would most likely result in “above normal” levels of rain during the country’s monsoon season, from July to September.
In Pakistan’s case, it resulted in torrents and flash floods. The extreme heat also led to glacial melts in the country’s northern mountainous regions which are home to the greatest number of glaciers outside the polar zone, thereby increasing the amount of water cascading into tributaries that eventually flow into the Indus. The Indus River runs from north to south through Pakistan, sustaining towns, cities, and enormous expanses of agricultural land along the way.
Climate experts noted that high flows and muddy water in the Hunza River, which feeds into the Indus, indicated rapid glacial melting because fast water picks up sediment as it moves downstream. Several glacial lakes have burst through the ice barriers that usually restrain them, causing unprecedented flash flooding in the country.
The heatwaves were followed by another unusual occurrence: a depression, or a system of intense low air pressure in the Arabian Sea, which brought torrential rain to Pakistan’s coastal districts in June, much earlier than the monsoon season. Furthermore, the early onset of the monsoon on 30th June exacerbated the situation. Consequently, Pakistan received the highest amount of rainfall in at least three decades.
Southern and central parts of Pakistan, particularly Balochistan and Sindh, have been impacted the most. Balochistan received 5.1 times its 30-year average rainfall as of August 27, while Sindh received 5.7 times its 30-year average. Hill torrents erupted in Balochistan, Sindh, and South Punjab, with the majority of the districts inundated and water unlikely to recede anytime soon.
According to the NDMA, the higher rainfall in Sindh and Balochistan indicates a change in the monsoon pattern from its centuries-old passage, as the region is normally not affected by the monsoon. Traditionally, the monsoon currents start from the Bay of Bengal and enter the Indus Valley from Kashmir which serves as an entrance to Northern Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, nourishing human settlements, feeding crops and replenishing the rivers and their tributaries.
However, this year, instead of following its traditional route, it entered Sukkur, Khairpur, and the neighbouring districts of central Sindh short of Karachi, directly from Rajasthan and Gujarat in India, causing unprecedented rainfall and flash floods in regions not accustomed to monsoon rains.
Ali Tauqeer Sheikh has aptly noted that Pakistan has witnessed five meteorological disasters happening simultaneously and coinciding in various regions of the country: the torrential rains in Sindh and Balochistan due to the monsoon’s change of pattern; flash floods in southern Punjab and lower Sindh, emanating from Balochistan’s Koh-e-Suleiman mountain range; urban flooding in the country’s coastal areas; glacial outbursts in the upper Indus basin resulting in downstream flooding; and cloud outbursts upstream of Nowshera at the Kabul river, a tributary of the Indus.
With rivers breaking their banks, flash flooding, and glacial lakes bursting, Pakistan is facing the worst floods of its history.
Bad Governance Exacerbating the Crisis
Climate change may have induced the flash floods, but the ensuing humanitarian crisis was worsened by bad governance and mismanagement. The catastrophic consequences could have been mitigated if the incumbent government and its predecessors had taken timely action and adopted a proactive approach to address fundamental issues like climate change.
Pakistan lacks long-term planning, climate-resilient initiatives, adequate water infrastructure, flood-resilient construction plans, and an effective drainage system since policies are influenced by political agendas and personal interests and the local governments remain dormant.
In May, the Pakistan Meteorological Department predicted an early monsoon bringing above-average rainfall in the country and warned of flash floods, following the directives issued by the South Asian Seasonal Climate Outlook Forum. If the government and relevant authorities had paid heed to the warnings issued by PMD, an integrated and comprehensive system of flood management could have been devised alongside effective mechanisms for rescue operations and relief distribution.
Mapping of communities and settlements more vulnerable to flooding, as well as identification of locations where the flood-affected people could be evacuated should have been carried out to mitigate the loss of human lives and livestock. The impact of timely evacuations is evident from ADC Nowshera, Ms. Qurutulain Wazir’s efforts as she went door-to-door to evacuate people settled in flood-prone areas and helped them settle in the relief camps,.
DC Nowshera warned of 400,000 cusecs of flood water from the Kabul River entering the district in the next 24 hours, saving hundreds of precious lives. If administrators and politicians across the country had adopted a similar approach following NDMA’s warnings that were issued a couple of months prior to the flash flooding, the devastating impact of the floods could have been assuaged and the damages controlled.
While floods are natural disasters, mismanagement and encroachments significantly exacerbate the destruction caused by these floods. The country’s ruling elite and civil bureaucracy learned little from the devastating riverine floods of 2010. In Pakistan, the water channels have been devoid of embankments, which can effectively control the devastating effects of flooding.
The repercussions of construction on riverbanks and other encroachments in flood-prone zones were most discernible in the devastation caused by the 2022 flash floods in Swat Valley. The famous Honeymoon Hotel in Kalam, which had been built on the bank of the Swat River, was washed away in seconds by the flash floods, despite the owner reportedly spending a fortune to make it flood-resistant.
It is pertinent to note that the same hotel had been destroyed in the 2010 floods and was granted permission for reconstruction, only to be annihilated by floods again. Similarly, the deteriorating situation of Karachi due to urban flooding is in part caused by illegal structures and encroachments built on stormwater drains, obstructing the smooth flow of water during heavy rains, resulting in flash flooding and damage to the city’s infrastructure.
It is imperative that the government ensures effective policy planning to prepare for floods and other-climate induced disasters, manage response efforts, and develop climate-resilient infrastructure and communities to achieve sustainable development. The flash floods have left one-third of Pakistan – a water-stressed country that is ranked 14th on the list of the world’s 17 countries with “extremely high-water risk” – underwater.
For at least one month of the year, more than 80% of the country’s entire population endures serious water scarcity. According to the IMF, Pakistan’s yearly water availability per capita has dropped to 1017 cubic metres from 1500 cubic metres in 2009. Pakistan is getting close to the 1000 cubic metre scarcity threshold. According to current trends, the country is on a trajectory to reach dangerous levels shortly, as its gross water withdrawal accounts for 74.4% of total renewable water resources.
Pakistan Council of Research on Water Resources warned that Pakistan will reach absolute water scarcity if adequate measures are not taken. The climate change-induced flash flooding caused immense devastation across the country as unfortunately, the country lacks the capacity to store water to meet its future water and energy needs. This important resource has been wasted due to the country’s inadequate water infrastructure.
Pakistan’s water storage capacity is limited to a maximum 30-day supply, far below the 1,000-day storage capacity recommended for a country with such climatic conditions. Bad governance, provincial feuds, and lack of political will and resources have obstructed the construction of dams in Pakistan that are necessary for water storage, flood control, irrigation, and power generation. Apart from the paucity of sufficient pre-emptive measures to control the impact of floods, bad governance and maladministration have affected rescue and relief operations.
The government’s response to flood victims has largely been inept and inadequate. Despite multiple calls to provincial and municipal authorities by the crowd that assembled on the riverside, to the five men who waited for over three hours to be rescued as they scrambled onto a big rock in the middle of the gushing torrents in the Dubair stream in Lower Kohistan, with ropes tied round their bodies, hoping they could use them to be pulled through to safety.
However, they could not move, and the concerned authorities did not respond. To the dismay of the onlookers, four of the five were eventually washed away by the raging waters. Only one of the men was grabbed by the crowd before he was engulfed by the floods. Instead of meaningful, empathetic acts of leadership from the ruling elite, there have been just camp visits and few ration bag drops from helicopters.
The Sukkur police claimed to have registered an FIR on terrorism charges against over 100 unidentified people for allegedly attacking police officers, pelting vehicles with stones, damaging public and private property, and inciting flood victims outside a relief camp on August 26th, during the prime minister and foreign minister’s visit. Furthermore, the armed forces were called on August 26th for rescue operations and assistance to flood victims much later than the beginning of the catastrophic flash flooding.
On August 29th, the Prime Minister summoned an all-parties conference sans Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to develop a joint strategy to address the flood crisis. The non-invitation to the APC reflects the political bitterness that is preventing a consensus among the country’s leaders to develop a united, national front to manage the ensuing humanitarian crisis. It is also pertinent to note how the decision would affect the relief activities carried out in the provinces where PTI is in power. In the wider interest of our people, partisan politics should be put on hold for a while.
Response to the Flash Floods
Amidst the economic turmoil, the government lacks the means, resources, and capacity to independently provide relief and rebuild the people displaced and areas affected by floods. Welfare and non-governmental organisations have played a pivotal role in conducting rescue and relief operations for flood victims.
The Government of Pakistan announced a $170 million allocation to flood victims on August 30th, which will be distributed through the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) as part of the Pakistan Flood Response Plan 2022. The former prime minister, Imran Khan, held a 3-hour-long telethon to raise funds for flood affectees and received ₨. 500 crores (or US$22.5 million) in pledges for flood relief.
Flood relief donation campaigns by various government and non-government organisations are being conducted across the country, as the “resilient” nation seeks to help its affected brethren out of another catastrophe. The Prime Minister, in a video message, appealed to international communities and organisations to aid Pakistan in its hour of need.
He said, “The current relief operation needs 80 billion rupees ($364.4 million). Hundreds of billions of rupees are required to overcome the losses as well as for rehabilitation of the victims.” In response to the PM’s appeal, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, and other agencies have pledged more than $500 million for immediate assistance.
The UN has allocated $3 million from its Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to assist the impacted areas. The United Nations chief Antonio Guterres called the floods “a monsoon on steroids” as he requested international organisations for an additional $160 million in emergency help for flood relief efforts in Pakistan.
Furthermore, the European Union has declared 350,000 euros ($348,000) in humanitarian relief; the Red Cross Society of China has announced $300,000 in emergency funds, and the United States has provided $1 million. Countries worldwide including the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey, Germany, France, Japan, UAE, etc. have sent aid and relief goods to Pakistan for the flood-affected people and areas.
It is the government of Pakistan’s responsibility to disburse and utilize the provided funds with transparency and equity. As the national leaders urge international donors to send aid, the leadership should focus on demanding climate reparations from the Global North because of the global warming activities and high greenhouse gas emissions in developed economies that are instigating catastrophic climate change-induced disasters such as the current flash floods in Pakistan in the Global South.
Prime Minister of Fiji, Frank Bainimarama, during the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, blamed the high-emitting industrialised nations for the devastating flood in Pakistan. He said, “Let’s be clear: the Pakistani people did not do this to Pakistan – we all did, and the high-emitting nations are most responsible” As noted by Huma Yusuf, Pakistan currently lacks a comprehensive reparations policy, as well as a climate diplomacy strategy.
The country’s COP26 obligations to reduce emissions were conditional on getting climate finance, most likely in the form of debt forgiveness. Pakistan will undoubtedly seek foreign assistance in the aftermath of the floods, but the country must decide whether it will embrace the climate justice argument and demand reparations from the high-emitting nations of the West, with whom Pakistan is struggling to repair its relationship, or continue to negotiate debt relief opportunistically.
Consequences of the Flash Floods 2022
The extent of the devastation to infrastructure, crops, and livestock will become evident once the waters recede. The consequences of this crisis will be widespread and unprecedented. Each of us must act not only for the sake of humanity but also for our own survival. The flash floods have stripped the people of the flood-affected areas of their means of livelihood as it has killed and displaced thousands of livestock, the primary source of sustenance for families in rural areas.
The victims will have no choice but to seek jobs in urban areas in order to feed their families, increasing the country’s already high urbanisation level. This level of migration, along with a government constrained by high deficits, can quickly lead to social unrest and inequality. Given the severity of crop and livestock destruction as well as disruptions in transportation networks connecting farming areas to metropolitan centres, the ensuing threat of food insecurity in the country is imminent and almost inevitable.
According to Ahsan Iqbal, Minister of Planning and Development, 45% of cotton crops have been swept away, with early wheat sowing also disrupted in southern Pakistan, as wide swaths of land remain submerged with flood water, causing serious damage to rice fields, vegetable and fruit harvests. Cotton plantation damage will have a significant impact on industrial activity.
With crops, harvests, and farming communities contributing significantly to Pakistan’s agriculture-based economy and textiles accounting for a considerable portion of export profits, the impact will reverberate throughout the national economy. The government must establish a centralised crisis response task force in order to better control the situation and address urgent needs such as managing the looming shortages and food inflation and providing adequate food and shelter to the displaced people.
Many of the worst-affected districts are among the most vulnerable in Pakistan. Almost one-third of the victims of the flash flooding are children; the 2022 floods have completely or partially damaged at least 18,000 schools across Pakistan, disrupting their learning opportunities in areas where one-third of girls and boys were out-of-school even before the crisis.
Furthermore, as parts of the country continue to remain under-water, vector, food and water-borne diseases including diarrhoea, dysentery, food poisoning, dengue, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis A and E, respiratory problems, and skin infections, among the flood affectees – particularly the children, pregnant and lactating women – are becoming rampant.
Most of the impacted districts have had public health facilities damaged, medicines destroyed, many health personnel displaced, and relief operations due to damaged infrastructure delayed, thereby further deteriorating the condition of the people devastated by the floods. The torrential rains that have left most of Sindh inundated have also destroyed the vestiges of the province as well, mostly affecting the historic remnants of the Indus Valley Civilisation dating back to 2500 BCE at Mohenjo Daro, Kot Diji, and Ranikot.
According to Pakistan’s Department of Archaeology, Mohenjo Daro may be withdrawn from the World Heritage List if urgent conservation and restoration efforts are not undertaken. While the government and non-governmental welfare organisations work to provide aid and rehabilitate the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by flash floods, historical and archaeological sites around the province must be repaired and conserved.
The early onset of monsoon and climate change-induced flash floods in 2022 have left most parts of Pakistan inundated and devastated. The government of Pakistan must learn its lessons from the cataclysmic floods and strategically plan to develop climate-resilient policies, and address the disaster’s causal factors such as encroachments near water flows.
It must also ensure the development of effective disaster management and response plan for future calamities, and demand climate reparations through diplomatic channels from the Global North whose high emissions are impacting developing countries like Pakistan.
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