Pakistan floods drive calls for climate justice


After record rain during this year’s monsoon season, much of Pakistan was overwhelmed by floods in late August. These submerged buildings are in Jafferabad, Balochistan.   © Reuters


Nikkei Asia

The rift between rich, carbon-emitting countries and the vulnerable, developing world is widening

ADNAN AAMIR, Contributing writer

ISLAMABAD — After four days of torrential rain, residents of Rahimabad, a low-lying neighborhood on the banks of the Kabul River, received a WhatsApp message on August 26. The deputy commissioner of the Pakistani district of Nowshera regretted to inform them that floodwaters were rising rapidly and would submerge most of their homes in the next few hours. The message urged residents to evacuate.

Moin Khan, a 42-year-old driver, discussed with neighbors whether to take the warning seriously. He is glad that he did. On the insistence of his relatives, he left with his family and moved to a temporary camp set up by the government in a local school for the next four days. He returned home the following week after the water receded, to see what was left of his two-bedroom house. Walls had collapsed, furniture was soaked in water, and nothing had been left intact. “When the rain started, we were happy for a change in weather. We could never have imagined that the rains would destroy all our material possessions,” Khan told Nikkei Asia during a visit to his house.

Thousands of houses like Khan’s were damaged throughout the district. More than 52 square kilometers of crops were washed away in Nowshera alone. Most dangerous, according to Zofishan Manzoor, the CEO of Cantonment Board Nowshera and one of the district’s top officials, is the scarcity of clean drinking water, which is forcing people to drink contaminated water and putting them at risk of disease.

Across Pakistan, flooding that started in July and peaked in August has left almost 1,400 people dead, 1.7 million houses ruined and half of the country’s 160 districts officially declared “calamity-hit” zones. Around 7,000 kilometers of roads were washed away and almost 250 bridges were destroyed, according to reports released by Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority.

Cotton and wheat crops have also been ruined, and the specter of hunger beckons. As waters begin to recede, it is clear to residents of Rahimabad that the flood itself was not nearly as catastrophic as the aftermath.

A boy stands next to his damaged home after heavy rain brought floods to the Nowshera district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, on Sept. 2.    © AP

Every day throughout the week, neighborhood residents gathered at the small Rahimabad community center for food and drinking water handouts, brought in by supply vans. But a pack of food and two bottles of water per person does not go far in the 40-degree Celsius weather. “I only get a one-time meal from the private donors, for dinner I have to manage on my own,” Khan said.

Nowshera is one of 81 districts in Pakistan classified by the government as “calamity hit” as the country emerges from one of its worst-ever natural disasters, which is also one of the worst climate change-induced catastrophes ever recorded globally.

Southern Sindh province, where about a third of Pakistan’s food is grown, the damage is most severe. Imdad Ali, a farmer in Sindh province’s Khairpur district, surveyed his 3-acre cotton crop, which is now underwater. “Not only have I lost the crop this year, but the water has destroyed my land and it will also be harder to cultivate crops in the year to come,” he said. Ali added that, without substantial help from the government, he, along with many farmers like him, are doomed.

In Balochistan, Pakistan’s largest and most impoverished province, 32 out of 36 districts have been declared disaster-hit zones. Quetta, the capital of Balochistan and home to one-quarter of the province’s population, was completely cut off from the rest of the country for days. Most of Balochistan’s national highways are still not fully restored to handle traffic.

Volunteers distribute drinking water to flood victims at the Rahimabad Community Center in Nowshera, Pakistan, on Sept. 4. (Photo by Adnan Aamir)

Zahid Mengal, executive director of the Azat Foundation, a Balochistan-based humanitarian organization, told Nikkei that, as a humanitarian worker for more than 25 years, he has never witnessed such a huge level of loss to life, cattle, agriculture, infrastructure and property.

Climate change taking its toll

Experts are virtually unanimous that the changes in the monsoon current that unleashed torrential rains across Pakistan starting in July were climate change-induced. Pakistan’s floods are the latest in a string of climate-related disasters so far this year: Devastating floods hit Australia in February, and parts of Europe faced their most extreme heat wave on record in July, leading to widespread drought and wildfires throughout the summer.

According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department, in the month of August, rainfall in Sindh and Balochistan Provinces was 726% and 590% above the annual average for August. It was the heaviest rainfall recorded in the last 100 years in those areas, said Qamar uz Zaman Chaudhry, a Pakistani climate scientist and lead author of the Pakistan National Climate Change Policy 2021.

The scale of the disaster has highlighted the emerging climate inequality that divides the rich, carbon-emitting world from poorer countries that emit little but bear the consequences of those that do. Pakistan, the world’s fifth most populous country, accounts for less than 1% of global carbon emissions but ranks as the eighth most vulnerable to climate change, according to the “Global Climate Risk Index 2021,” published by the nongovernmental organization Germanwatch.

Some Pakistani activists along with a few politicians have begun to moot the idea of compensation from big, carbon-emitting countries — a topic that is gathering momentum throughout the climate-vulnerable developing world.

“This whole year we have borne the humanitarian payload of other people’s carbon-rich lifestyles,” Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s federal minister for climate change, told Nikkei in a phone interview. “It’s as simple as that. The whole of 2022 has been like a clear message to the world, really, and it has come via Pakistan: Climate change is going to be accelerated, and the decisive decade is here, not in 2050, when many targets were set for.”

Funding to address “Loss and Damage,” a general term used in U.N. climate negotiations to refer to consequences of climate change that go beyond what people can adapt to, was discussed during the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in 2021 and continued at the Bonn U.N. climate negotiations in Germany in June this year. Rehman told Nikkei that  “developing countries were really looking at [Loss and Damage] as their pivot to adapt to climate change.”

Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Shehbaz Sharif, has phrased appeals for aid in humanitarian terms rather than as demands for compensation. “I want to give my solemn pledge and solemn commitment [that] every penny will be spent in a very transparent fashion. Every penny will reach the needy,” he said on Aug. 29. In a speech on Sept. 7, Sharif said of the floods that “there is water everywhere, as far as you could see. It is just like the sea.”

So far, $610 million has been pledged, including $350 million in emergency finance from the World Bank, $160 million from the United Nations, $58 million from China and $50 million from the U.S.

People cross a river on a bridge damaged by floodwater in the town of Bahrain, Pakistan, on Aug. 30.   © AP

The flooding has affected 33 million people, making it Pakistan’s worst natural disaster and its worst displaced persons crisis. By way of comparison, the partition of the Indian subcontinent that created Pakistan in 1947 displaced 15 million people, which was the greatest refugee crisis the world had seen at the time.

The aftermath

While the floodwaters have receded, experts warn that the danger to inhabitants of the afflicted region — roughly one-third of Pakistan — is just beginning as the country now faces an imminent food crisis. With massive damage to crops and livestock, Pakistan will find it hard to feed itself for the next couple of years, experts say.

Rathi Palakrishnan, deputy country director of the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) Pakistan, told Nikkei that a recent assessment by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization shows 9.4 million acres of crop area — roughly 17% of Pakistan’s cultivated cropland — is potentially damaged, more than half of which is in Sindh. About 45% of the country’s biggest cash crop, cotton, has been lost and the next wheat planting season is at risk if water levels fail to recede by October, she added.

Palakrishnan said Pakistan cannot afford a poor harvest when it is already struggling with fast-shrinking foreign exchange reserves and severe inflation, which reached 27.3% in August, a five-decade high.

“It is important to note that the levels of poverty and food insecurity were already high even before this monsoon season,” she said. The WFP already classifies 38 million Pakistanis as moderately or severely food insecure, including 4 million people who are severely food insecure.

Farmers in Mehar, Pakistan, work in a flooded field following rain and floods during the monsoon season, on Aug. 29.   © Reuters

Chaudhry, the climate scientist, told Nikkei that 80% of the country’s cotton and rice crops have been destroyed by the floods, and stocks of wheat, which will be cultivated in November, have also been washed away by floodwaters in Sindh and Balochistan.

“If the production of wheat is much less in the coming season, there will be a huge shortage of flour for bread making for a country with 210 million people,” Chaudhry told Nikkei. He added that 40% of Pakistan’s labor force works in agriculture, and damage to crops on this scale will render millions without any source of livelihood.

On Sept. 9, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Islamabad. During a news conference, he said, “Pakistan needed massive financial support for relief, recovery and rehabilitation in the wake of the catastrophic floods,” which he said had caused $30 billion in damages.

Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, center right, and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, left, interact with children at a school set up at a flood relief camp in Jaffarabad, Pakistan, on Sept. 10.   © Pakistan Prime Minister Office/AP

“We have waged war on nature and nature is striking back and striking back in a devastating way,” Guterres told reporters. “Today in Pakistan, tomorrow in any of your countries.”

Hotter summers: The starting point

Chaudhry, also a former director general of Pakistan’s Meteorological Department, said many areas of the country suffered temperatures above 40 C for prolonged periods in April and May — a precursor to the disaster to come. Meteorologists had warned earlier this year that the extreme temperatures would probably result in above-normal levels of rain.

People drink water distributed by volunteers in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province during a heat wave that hit the country in May.   © AFP/Jiji

However, the government appeared not to pay much attention to the warning due to the ongoing political crisis in the country, centered around ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is seeking to force early elections.

Multiple experts told Nikkei that what made this year’s floods unique was that they were rain-induced, rather than being riverine floods. Far more common in Pakistan, riverine floods are caused by melting glaciers swelling rivers with heavy flows of water. The last major floods in Pakistan, in 2010, were riverine floods; they killed 1,985 people and affected 20 million more.

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, a member of Water Environment Forum Pakistan, an advocacy group, says that over the past 75 years Pakistan has prepared its infrastructure to deal with river-based floods but not rain-induced ones.

“The government knows how to deal with riverine floods,” he told Nikkei. “They know the volume and the velocity of river floodwater and can evacuate the endangered communities several weeks before the floods hit them.”

With this year’s rain-induced floods, Sheikh added, this equation has completely changed.

How far is climate change to blame?

This year’s floods were long ago predicted by climate change models. Anja Katzenberger, a doctoral researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told Nikkei that the latest generation of climate models project that the Indian summer monsoon will intensify as a result of global warming.

“These projections are in line with measurements during the last [few] years and [predicted] high-impact events such as the floods occurring … in Pakistan,” she said.

According to Sheikh, the route of Pakistan’s monsoons changed due to climate change. Normally, monsoon currents start from the Bay of Bengal and enter India, Kashmir, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, northern Punjab, and lastly Sindh and Balochistan. This year, monsoon currents directly entered Sindh from Rajasthan and wreaked havoc, creating the heat wave starting in March in Pakistan and India that made heavy rains more likely.

Globally, experts agree that climate change played a role. “The weather patterns [seen in Pakistan] would not have resulted in such heavy rainfall had it not been for global warming,” said Seita Emori, senior principal researcher of climate change at Japan’s National Institute for Environmental Studies.

Emori spoke of an “unreasonable” world in which Pakistan, a comparatively small greenhouse gas emitter, suffers such serious consequences of global warming. “The international community must seriously take this to heart,” he told Nikkei, “and reaffirm the need for global efforts to decarbonize and stop global warming.”

Being able to say with complete certainty that the current floods in Pakistan can be linked to climate change will take time, according to climate scientist Chaudhry, as detailed empirical research is required. “However,” he said, “there is no denying the fact that climate change has caused erratic behavior of monsoon currents, which resulted in unprecedented rainfall, which caused the floods.”

Flash floods of the type that caused Pakistan’s 2010 disaster are also linked to climate change, said Eric Shahzar, an environmentalist and lecturer in politics at Oxford University in the U.K. “Thirty-six percent of all glaciers in Pakistan are expected to melt in the coming decade, which will spark a huge climate change-induced problem in the northern areas, causing flash floods towards the south,” he said.

Climate migrants

“Climate refugee” is a comparatively new concept. At Sachal Goth, a suburban area located in the northwestern part of Karachi, it is a reality. The area is home to displaced persons seeking temporary asylum from the floods in Northern Sindh.

Camps have been set up for flood-affected people in schools and government buildings. Police officers are stationed outside every camp, and local volunteers provide food and water to the flood victims.

In one such camp — a school that has been closed to students for the past two weeks and is being managed by a local charity — 204 people were sheltering when Nikkei visited in early September. Refugees sat on cloth sheets on the ground and there were no fans available to ease Karachi’s scorching heat.

Zaheer Abbas, a 34-year-old day laborer from Larkana, told Nikkei of the long journey he and his family had undertaken to the shelter. After receiving a flood warning message from local officials one night in late August, “we ran for our lives, without bringing anything from home, and walked on foot, traveled in boats and later got a ride in a vehicle to reach Karachi,” Abbas said. The journey stretched to around 470 km.

Flood victims take refuge in makeshift camps in Jaffarabad, a district of Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, on Sept. 5.   © AP

For 10 days since the flash floods washed away his home in Larkana, Abbas was living in the Sachal Goth camps. “My father is missing after the floods and I have no clue of his whereabouts,” he told Nikkei.

Hameeda, 25, is a housewife from the Qambar Shahdadkot district who is sheltering in a nearby camp. She did not get any early warning alert like Abbas to flee. When the floods hit her village, her home was completely destroyed. “There was complete chaos and I lost touch with my family members,” Hameeda told Nikkei. She added that she managed to flee by traveling on a boat along with her neighbors. “My husband and kids are still stranded in our village,” she said, “and I have lost all contact with them,” she said.

A displaced family in Nasirabad, in Pakistan’s southwest Balochistan province, take refuge on a roadside after flash floods destroyed their home in August.   © AP

Fehmida Riaz, a social worker in Karachi, has provided rations to 1,000 flood-affected families on a self-help basis. She said the women in the temporary camps are in miserable condition and are in dire need of sanitary pads, milk and food for their infants.

Irfan Salam Mirwani is deputy commissioner of Malir, one of seven districts in the Karachi division. He told Nikkei that around 25,000 flood-affected people have been settled by the government in 39 camps in different suburbs of Karachi, including Sachal Goth.

“[The government] has provided them with shelter and asked humanitarian organizations to provide them with rations,” Mirwani said. He added that this arrangement can barely continue for the next two weeks, after which all of these people need to be moved to a government-controlled tent city, the location of which is yet to be decided. Mirwani added that it will be many months before these people can go back to their hometowns.

The reparations debate

Climate change increasingly pits the interests of wealthy countries against those of the developing world. “Of course, it is a Global North vs. Global South problem — it has long been that,” said Maira Hayat, assistant professor of environment and peace studies at the University of Notre Dame in the U.S.

Hayat explained that the U.S. has produced 25% of all carbon emissions, going as far back as the 18th century, and Europe produced more than half of the world’s carbon emissions up until 1950. “Against this, consider that Pakistan contributes less than 1% [of carbon emissions] — so of course it is [an issue of] the Global North developing and living at the expense of the Global South,” she told Nikkei.

“The Global North needs to own its role in creating this devastation — Europe, for example, has built its welfare institutions from the wealth of empire. So when countries of the Global South now demand compensation they are asking the Global North to pay its debt,” Hayat said.

“Reparations, unlike, say, humanitarian aid, is not a handout given as charity,” said Mahvish Ahmad, an assistant professor of human rights and politics at the London School of Economics. They “are a reflection of what is owed by high carbon-emitting countries and companies to those who are paying the price of climate change.”

Pakistani women wade through floodwaters in the Shikarpur district of Sindh province, Pakistan, on Sept. 2.    © AP

Other experts believe the situation is not so clear-cut.

“The developed countries such as the U.S. drag their feet on establishing a fund for Loss and Damages because then they have to pay a lot of money,” Sheikh from Water Environment Forum Pakistan charged. “Therefore, [developed countries] avoid the liability by challenging the process of putting a figure to the loss … and its direct links to a particular country.”

At COP26 last year in Scotland, U.S. envoy John Kerry questioned the scope of a Loss and Damage fund, and the issue remained unsettled, but discussion is likely to be renewed at the COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November.

Sheikh suggested that Pakistan should ask the U.N. to convene a meeting of the world’s nine-largest historical carbon emitters on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly session this year. Pakistan could then make a case along with other vulnerable counties and ask for a mechanism to determine reparations, he said.

“To avert future climate catastrophes, the Global North needs to dramatically alter its carbon footprint, but this will have ramifications across the world,” Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in the U.S., told Nikkei.

Weinstein added that as an example, Pakistan is quite literally kept afloat by concessional Chinese loans, Western and Gulf aid, International Monetary Fund bailouts and remittances. “This is not carbon-neutral money,” he said, “and in an integrated global system the necessary changes will have downstream effects for everyone.”

He went on: “There are many reasons for countries like the United States and China to help Pakistan, including principles of justice and collective responsibility. But the most compelling one is that climate change presents a shared existential crisis. Today, Pakistan is suffering — eventually, it will be the world.”

Additional reporting by Wajahat Khan in New York and Sayumi Take in Tokyo.