Saya, 65, has lived through various challenges in her life — economic hardships, losing her husband and being a caregiver to her widowed daughter — but nothing has been as shattering as seeing everything her family owned getting washed away by the recent floods in Pakistan. Upon warnings of the flood making its way to her vicinity in Bela, one of the main cities in the Lasbela district of Balochistan, a three-hour drive from the country’s financial hub of Karachi, Saya, along with her son, daughter and daughter-in-law left their home, which they built after years of hardships, and sought safety at a relative’s place nearby.
“We left with nothing to save our lives. When we came back, the flood had washed away everything,” Saya told New Lines, heaving with silent despair. In her tiny house of two rooms, the walls were blemished with cracks and filled with mud. In one of the rooms, there was a broken bed and cupboard, which her daughter-in-law was trying to clean by collecting the mud using a shovel and bucket.
The floods had obliterated the boundary wall, washroom, and cracked the walls and roof, forcing the family to live outside in a tent. “I am a widow and my handicapped son is the only breadwinner of this family, but he earns no more than 400 rupees [less than $2] a day as a vegetable seller. We barely make ends meet. It took us years to build this home, and when it falls, we’ll be homeless again,” she said.
Saya is one of the 33 million people, 15% of the country’s total population, who have been affected by the cataclysmic floods that have wreaked havoc on Pakistan. As of September 9, 1,400 people have lost their lives, according to the statement released by the National Disaster Management Authority. About 116 districts have been affected of which 81 are officially declared “calamity hit.” The statistics are staggering: More than 1.74 million houses have been destroyed or damaged; over 12,700 people have been injured; 4,100 miles of roads have been damaged; and 664,000 people displaced and living in various relief camps.
Around three-quarters of Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest but least developed province, has been damaged by the floods and huge swathes of land in the neighboring Sindh province remain submerged in water. Pakistan’s climate change minister, Sherry Rehman, has called the flooding “a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that Pakistan was facing a “monsoon on steroids” and issued an urgent appeal for $160 million to provide help.
Unleashed torrents of water and floods swept away more than dozens of villages in Lasbela where the majority depends on agriculture. Khalil Roonjha, a social activist, said that flooding in Lasbela was caused by the Porali River, one of the district’s main rivers, which starts flowing downstream from the mountainous regions in Khuzdar district and drains into the Arabian Sea. “The river took a different route, causing runoff and devouring whatever came in its path. Everything got destroyed from crops to houses,” Roonjha told New Lines. Thousands of people have been rendered homeless in the district.
The commute from Karachi to Lasbela takes around three hours by road, but after the floods, it is taking longer than usual as the main highway has been damaged for several miles. The otherwise barren landscape is lush with green grass. Even the barren mountains in this part of the usually arid province are green, but all of this has come at a huge cost. Numerous relief camps are dotted along the road that leads to Bela. This is where migrant laborers from Sindh who work on cotton farms are camping at the moment — not only have they lost their only source of income but are also stranded in no man’s land as their home province is still under water.
Though floodwater is no longer accumulating in the district, the damage it has caused will stay with the people for a long time. At the first sight of a stranger inquiring about the floods, the people fetch their national identity cards, thinking perhaps they are some government official who has come to inspect the damages and help them rebuild. Doors and walls of the homes bear testimony of the high water mark of the floods, and the ground is still wet and muddy with some areas covered in low-level standing water.
On the outskirts of Bela, Faizbibi, 40, along with her daughter-in-law, was on the way to visit the site where her sister’s house once stood; the gushing floodwater of Porali River had annihilated it. She pointed to an empty plot where there was once a kitchen. “My sister with her family came to live with me during the floods, but she is traumatized as nothing’s left of the home she built room by room for years,” Faizbibi said. She also showed us her uncle’s house nearby that has been completely ruined by the floods.
Close to Faizbibi’s sister’s house, Zeba, with her eldest daughter, was inspecting the damage to her home, which has been under construction for the last five years. “I live with my mother and we were planning to move to this house, but now I can’t even look at it,” Zeba said. The three-room house had its boundary wall and gate completely destroyed and the rooms were filled a few yards high with mud. Zeba, who lives with her three daughters, said her brother was constructing the house for her after her husband abandoned them.
At a press conference in the capital of Islamabad, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said his country was not to be blamed for the climate-crisis-fueled flooding, which he termed as the “toughest moment in the history of Pakistan,” adding that he had not seen such devastation in his life. An early estimate of the cost to rebuild, according to Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal, was at least $10 billion. Iqbal called on the international community for an “immense humanitarian response for 33 million” people affected by the floods.
Towns and cities have been turned into seas and rivers from the deluge. Satellite images, shared by NASA Earth Observatory, show several districts of the Sindh province, including Dadu, Larkana, Sukkur, Shahdadkot, turned into a lake over 60 miles wide because of an overflowing Indus River, a vital transboundary river that supports agriculture in Pakistan and accounts for 23% of its economy.
Unusually extreme weather conditions caused by climate change are believed to be the reason behind the unprecedented monsoon that lasted far longer than expected and caused record-breaking torrential rainfalls in most of Pakistan. However, Sindh and Balochistan witnessed the heaviest rainfall since 1961 with the provinces receiving 522% and 469%, respectively, above normal downpour this year.
Pakistan is the eighth most climate-vulnerable country in the world according to the Global Climate Risk Index, which is produced by the international environmental think tank Germanwatch. In fact, in 2022, Pakistan has been witnessing one climate catastrophe after another. In May, the country was engulfed in an extreme heatwave with temperatures rising above 122 F. “We are at the moment at the ground zero of the front line of extreme weather events, in an unrelenting cascade of heatwaves, forest fires, flash floods, multiple glacial lake outbursts, flood events, and now the monster monsoon of the decade is wreaking nonstop havoc throughout the country,” Rehman said in a video statement posted on Twitter.
Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, a climate change and development expert, said that an unpredictably changing monsoon pattern resulted in several meteorological disasters causing different kinds of flooding simultaneously. “It was understood that climate change can result in changing patterns of monsoon, the timing and amount of rainfall, but the uncertain nature of this change is what makes it hard to deal with. [A] century-old pattern of monsoon was altered this year,” Sheikh said.
“A monsoon from the Arabian Sea caused urban flooding in Karachi that lasted for three weeks, [which was] more than usual. Torrential rains in Balochistan and Sindh caused flash floods. This torrential rainwater reached southern Punjab from the mountains of Balochistan, causing more flooding. Heatwaves in the upper Indus Basin and glacial outbursts caused flooding in the north and cloudbursts along Kabul River,” he explained.
The ramifications of the flooding on health are widespread and likely to persist for months to come. The World Health Organization (WHO) and Pakistani health officials have warned of wide-ranging health threats including an increase in waterborne illnesses such as cholera and diarrhea as well as outbreaks of malaria, dengue and COVID-19 in relief camps where people have been living in cramped conditions. So far, tens of thousands of patients with diarrhea, malaria, acute respiratory infections, typhoid, and eye and skin infections have been identified. The situation is made worse by the fact that over 1,400 health facilities have been affected and many areas remain inaccessible to health care workers.
The country’s agriculture sector has been badly hit; 3.6 million acres of croplands have been affected. This exacerbates the country’s economic crisis, apart from a myriad of issues on the political front after former Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted following a vote of no-confidence in April.
The floods have also compounded issues for women and girls in the country that ranks second worst on global gender parity index. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that as many as 650,000 pregnant women in the flood-ravaged areas are in dire need of maternal health services, among whom 73,000 women are due to give birth in September.
Hafsa Qadir, 19, is the girls’ engagement coordinator for the Welfare Association for New Generation (WANG), a nonprofit, youth-led organization, and has been visiting women in flood-affected areas in Lasbela, one of the worst-hit districts. “Women are bearing the brunt of the floods. Since much of the relief work is conducted by men volunteers, the women have no one to listen to them about their needs,” Qadir said.
“A lot of girls who were about to get married lost their dowry in the flood water. A lot of infants became orphans who need their mothers. A woman told me that her sister walked for miles in labor pain to reach the main road. These stories stay with me even after I am back from the field,” she added. Among the population of flood-affected people, 670,000 are estimated to be children. At least 500 children have been killed.
UNICEF estimates that at least 18,000 schools across the country have been destroyed, forcing millions of children out of school in a country that already ranked second highest for most children out of school.
The Sandeman Girls Middle School Bela, established in 1986 and named after the last British governor general of Balochistan, Robert Sandeman, whose mausoleum is still inundated, was already facing several issues. The government-run school was overstretched and falling into disrepair. When the roofs of the two classrooms needed to be fixed, locals collected funds. Over time, it expanded from a primary school to a middle school, and over 150 students had to be accommodated in the classrooms. Some classes took place outdoors in shelters provided by donations from an NGO.
“The floods have further weakened the foundations. We already were facing a shortage of space, now all our furniture, textbooks and school records have been washed away and destroyed,” Rukhiya Usman, the school principal, said. The school was to reopen on Aug. 1 after the summer vacation, which had to be postponed to Aug. 15 because of the floods. It opened for two days before it was shut down again as floods hit Lasbela a second time on Aug. 19. The first flood hit on July 25. “I did not have the heart to come visit the school when it was flooded a second time. I got sick by worrying. Teachers, parents and schoolgirls are all afraid. I am constantly worried about the future of the girls,” Usman added in a distressed tone.
While it is estimated that it would take five years to rebuild and rehabilitate, millions of people are in dire need of assistance. Sharif announced a grant of 10 billion rupees (nearly $45 million) for the flood victims in Balochistan. Balochistan Chief Minister Mir Abdul Quddus Bizenjo announced that the government would rebuild every house destroyed by the floods.
Although authorities argue that relief operations in all flood-affected districts have been carried out and are ongoing, the people tell a different tale. In Lasbela and elsewhere in Balochistan, local volunteers and nonprofits have been raising funds to provide shelter and food to the victims. “Our volunteer teams worked to provide relief. As accessibility to villages is becoming possible, we are reaching out to villages in the nearby vicinity. However, link roads to these villages have totally vanished and are out of sight,” said Roonjha, who is also the program director of WANG.
Maryum Jamali, 19, has been working tirelessly to provide relief to people in her village, Chowki Jamali, in Jafarabad district of Balochistan that borders Sindh. She said more than 3,000 people had sought refuge in tents pitched on the banks of Saifullah Magsi Canal, which runs for 31 miles and is the only safe ground for the people forced out of their homes by the floods. Jamali said that “no one has seen a single tent, ration bag or a meal from the government.”
“The population consists of 95% agriculture laborers who earn less than 10,000 rupees [$45] a month — how will they be able to rebuild their houses that took them blood, sweat to build in the first place?” Jamali said. Her team has been targeting Sohbatpur, Dera Bugti, Jafarabad, Naseerabad and Jhal Magsi — some of the worst-hit districts in Balochistan. Despite the challenges, a “sense of community” has kept her going. “While relief is an immediate task, rehabilitation is a long process,” Jamali said.
However, given the scale of the disaster, many people remain without food or shelter. Faisal Edhi, head of the Edhi Foundation, one of the country’s largest charities and the world’s largest volunteer ambulance organization, said of the cumulative efforts of the foundation, the government and other nonprofits, only 10% of the people have been reached and the rest are still awaiting assistance. In a recent press conference in Karachi, he warned that “people who survived the floods may die of starvation.”
There is a sense of injustice in the country as it contributes less than 1% to the global carbon emissions. In a statement made during a press interview, Rehman said that “reparations were long overdue” by richer countries contributing to the majority of emissions. However, Sheikh believes that the onus of the destruction doesn’t solely lie on the climate crisis. Poor governance and a weak economy are contributing factors too.
“Climate change doesn’t seem to be on Pakistan’s development agenda. We keep making the same mistakes when hit by calamity — that of focusing on the urgent and ignoring the important. Take, for example, the fact that the government’s cash reimbursement doesn’t come with any condition of rebuilding with stronger specifications. In such a case, if it floods again, the houses will fall again,” said Sheikh, who believes that the government needs to strike a balance between relief and development reforms.
Once the flood water recedes, Pakistan has to make tough decisions when rebuilding to ensure the country can mitigate the impacts of another climate catastrophe. Ayisha Siddiqa, an environmentalist and human rights advocate, said Pakistan must set aside funds for natural disasters which will only continue to increase as per the science. “Our defense budget is over 1.53 trillion rupees [$6.75 billion], and none of those accounts for protecting the people against climate change. There will be nothing left to defend if we don’t take climate change seriously,” she said.
“Pakistan needs to invest in dams especially around the lakes in Gilgit and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, it needs to focus on building climate resilient structures, buildings and homes. Our people have a right to safety just like any other person in the world. After all, what else is the purpose of the government if not to ensure its citizens are safe,” she said.