Pakistan Drowns in Floods of Others’ Making

The country is a low carbon dioxide emitter and has tried to mitigate the effects of climate change, yet its fate remains hostage to the big polluters

Pakistan Drowns in Floods of Others’ Making
People make their way through flooded street after heavy monsoon rains in Jacobabad, Sindh province, on Sept. 6, 2022 / Aamir Qureshi / AFP via Getty Images

Don’t tell Yaseen Janjua that the Pakistani government doesn’t do anything to reduce the risks of climate change.

On July 9 last year, Janjua, the Balakot police chief, was summoned to the breathtaking Naran Valley to deal with a protest that was quickly spiraling out of control. Hotel and shop owners with businesses in illegal buildings on the riverside and in the path of new roads were up in arms. Why? The local government had begun an “anti-encroachment drive,” bulldozing and demolishing their illegal structures.

Two policemen were shot during the protest, with Janjua’s bullet injury making the national papers the next day. But in a country with 234 million people, it is hard to stay in the news for long. There are new outrages each day. When he went back to work, just a few weeks after being shot by those he is paid to defend, so too did the hoteliers and shop owners — whose buildings remained in Naran and all along the riverbeds from the glaciers in the north, through the foothills, and down to the fertile plains of the Punjab and Sindh — oblivious to the ever-growing risk of disaster. And the illegal buildings continued to proliferate.

The world has witnessed violent images of floodwater in Pakistan destroying everything in its path. But what has made these waterways more lethal is the widespread violation of building codes, including in the beautiful valleys of the country’s mountainous north. And the violations aren’t happening because of somnambulant authorities. The authorities are wide awake — engaging with a wide spectrum of climate-change-related public policy, from disaster risk reduction to mitigation and adaptation. They try their best despite many obstacles and meager funds. But there is just too much climate change. The scope of the challenge — and the solutions — transcend Pakistan’s limited capacity.

There is no hiding from the unstoppable force of the floodwaters that have so far killed upward of 1,200, damaged or destroyed nearly 1.5 million homes and affected over 30 million Pakistanis. Pakistan has been through at least three extreme weather events this year, with two heat waves, including an April that was the hottest month in 61 years. And it’s only the beginning of September.

Where is all this coming from? Experts like Rina Saeed Khan, the chair of the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board, have warned for years that “while Pakistan is not a high emitter of carbon dioxide, it is in the top 10 list of countries that are the most impacted by climate change.” In fact, Pakistan is ranked eighth in the world on the Global Climate Risk Index, with an astounding 173 extreme weather events that took place from 2000 to 2019. These floods are only a surprise for those not paying attention. Just as there is no doubt about how vulnerable Pakistan is to climate change, the debate over who is to blame is also simple.

In 2013, Pakistan was responsible for only 0.43% of global carbon dioxide emissions. Since then, emissions have increased dramatically, and in 2020, this had risen to 0.67%. In 2013, Pakistan marked the worst year ever for electricity shortages and power, and the country has now nearly doubled its power generation capacity. But even with all this new electricity, Pakistan’s net annual contribution to emissions and its cumulative carbon dioxide profile are minuscule, comparatively speaking. The United States has produced nearly 81 times more carbon dioxide than Pakistan. Its annual net emissions are at least 20 times higher than Pakistan’s. The per capita emissions of an average American are 14 times higher than those of an average Pakistani.

Western economies that make outsize contributions to global warming are the main contributors to Pakistan’s vulnerability. The international system still hasn’t devised a mechanism to help protect the global south from a century of consumer excesses in the West.

But to place blame where it belongs is not to absolve the Pakistani state or society for actions that have increased climate-change-related stresses. There is a population growth rate that won’t quit — featuring an exploding middle class. There is uncontrolled and uncontrollable domestic tourism. And there is the dysfunctional national, subnational and local government architecture, incapable of fixing what it knows to be existentially urgent problems.

Ali Tauqeer Shaikh established Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD, now an NGO) for the Rockefeller Foundation in Pakistan in 1994. For over two decades he ran training programs for mid-level and senior leaders in government, the private sector and nonprofits. Today, nearly every credible senior voice on climate in the country has had some sort of interface with Shaikh’s sustainability-focused leadership courses. Shaikh says it is important for Pakistan to demand international climate justice. But “what about domestic climate justice?”

In Naran, for example, where shopkeepers and hotel owners shot Yaseen Janjua, justice is complicated. How do local authorities tackle the builders of future water missiles — the debris from collapsed buildings that gushes downstream along with the glacial melt and monsoon rains destroying everything in its path? When the state tried, it faced, quite literally, armed resistance.

The bullet that Janjua took on July 9 was two days after the local authorities launched a campaign to clear riverside and roadside encroachments. About a week earlier, then Prime Minister Imran Khan had visited Naran and spoken of the need to arrest deforestation and to ensure that the river was not depleted of fish through exploitative fishing practices. More pertinently, he spoke of the need to clear the pathways for water and traffic of the illegal encroachments that spread along the full stretch of Pakistan’s tourist paradise in the north.

The fastest-growing districts in the north of the country are all flood-prone, and they have been hit hard during this monsoon season. Among them is Swat: The growth of its river-concentrated population has been staggering. It had a population of 1.25 million in 1998. In the 2017 census, it reported over 2.3 million. Think of it this way: From the time the Americans landed in Afghanistan in October 2001 to the time they left last year in August, most of the highland areas next door in Pakistan saw a doubling of their populations.

A whole new Swat within the old Swat would be a challenge on its own, but people in this valley have also had to contend with two harsh realities for almost the entirety of the past two decades: war and flooding.

By 2009, the local branch of the Taliban, the TTP, had taken over the entire valley — they kicked out police officials like Yaseen Janjua and began to target people like the family of Malala Yusufzai, an education activist. Till that point, the Pakistani military had long been accused of going easy on the local Taliban. So when the military operations finally came, they came like thunder. Thousands of homes (and lives) of innocent residents of Swat were destroyed in the fight to clear the valley of TTP terrorists and insurgents. As many as 2 million people had to flee their homes — out of a population of just over 2 million!

The year after the devastating military operations, Swat was ground zero for the 2010 floods — at that point, the worst floods in the country’s history. But the lessons learned from this catastrophe and the mitigation efforts undertaken by the state have floundered in the face of the irresistible weight of climate effects bearing down on the country, regardless of its policies.

The 2022 floods are much worse than they were in 2010. And the devastation is much worse downstream, in Sindh and Balochistan, than it has been in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the north. NASA says, “In the southern reaches of the Indus watershed, the deluge has turned plains into seas. The effect of the monsoon rains has been compounded by the continued melting of Pakistan’s 7,000 glaciers.” The repeated experience of dealing with large-scale displacement has created a degree of responsiveness and capability in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa that is unmatched elsewhere. But no local effort would have prepared Swat for the 2010 floods, and any such initiative would have been insufficient for Balochistan and Sindh today.

Over the past 30 years, Sindh has averaged a total rainfall of less than 5 inches every pre-monsoon and monsoon season. As of Aug. 29 this year, it had received more than 2 feet. Balochistan’s 30-year average is less than 3 inches. This year, the province has received a total rainfall of about a foot. This is Apocalypse Now.

Where does climate justice — international or domestic — begin?

For years, Adil Najam, the founding dean of the School of Global Studies at Boston University, has spoken of “climate change as a threat multiplier” — where the threat itself is poor governance. But he says the 2022 floods are evidence that the script has flipped. Climate change is now the threat, and Pakistan’s weak governance is the footnote — a multiplier of the threat, but not the primary threat. Everything unjust and broken in Pakistan is going to get dramatically worse because of climate change, and the poor and vulnerable in Pakistan will carry a disproportionate share of the burden.

I asked Rizwan Mehboob, an old-school forest ranger who became part of the country’s civil service, whether the system of governance in the country had adequately absorbed the lessons of the 2010 floods. He echoed something Lt. Gen. (retired) Nadeem Ahmed — the founding chairperson of the National Disaster Management Authority — said to me. Many lessons were indeed learnt. Many of the measures recommended by experts for disaster risk reduction were in fact adopted. But much of what Pakistan can learn about adaptation is lost in the unequal national conversation — scores of observers have noted the dominance of international experts and consultants in the climate change conversation, and the concurrent absence of the communities which have most at stake.

Still, it is hard to imagine what lessons Pakistan can learn from the apocalyptic consequences of 2022’s extreme weather events.

The Paris Climate Agreement proposed three approaches to losses and damages caused by climate change.The first is to avert loss and damage. The second is to minimize. The third is to address. Climate change adaptation and mitigation are mostly about averting and minimizing — and those are the terms you hear most in the discourse on climate change. Addressing loss and damage is less popular because it demands more serious commitment from advanced economies, especially the U.S. and the EU. Maira Hayat, an assistant professor of environment and peace studies at Notre Dame University, says that beyond conversations about domestic climate justice there are certain questions that citizens of the global north need to be asking of their states, “for example: What is the responsibility of the global north in the kind of devastation we are seeing in Pakistan today?” As those in the West observe the calamity of these floods descending upon the people of Pakistan, that is the question most likely to have an effect on ensuring that the loss and damage of climate change is addressed by those with the means to do so. That neither was, nor is, Pakistan.

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