Massive rainfall and flooding have caused one of Pakistan’s worst humanitarian crises in recent memory. Political leaders and experts alike have labeled the disaster a “climate catastrophe,” and environmental and human rights advocates concur. Fortunately, the international community is extending financial support for relief efforts, but a comprehensive strategy for disaster preparedness has proven elusive in Pakistan’s stressed political and economic environment.
It’s time for the Pakistani government to finally develop a thoughtful, inclusive, and holistic plan to address future flooding, amid what has become an annual crisis of heat, drought, rains, and floods. That will require a range of solutions that would benefit from international assistance, including providing more technical support to national and provincial institutions with expertise in disaster management, training climate scientists who can translate the data on weather patterns and climate change risks into policy, and conducting an independent study on lessons learned from previous floods.
The Toll of the Current Floods
While it will take weeks or months to fully assess the death toll, lives affected, and economic impact, the current floods have already overshadowed the massive 2010 floods in terms of impact. More than 1,200 people have died — a third of them children — and 33 million people have been affected, as a third of the country lies underwater. But the crisis is far from over, and the figures are likely to grow in the coming days, while rains continuing to pound parts of the country. Along with serious concerns of flash floods, particularly among communities and towns near rivers and waterways, it might take months for the water to recede.
And this is just the first wave of trouble. As the recovery efforts continue, the country must brace itself for the spread of diseases and starvation in the makeshift camps created for those displaced by the flooding. Authorities must further prepare for potential nationwide food insecurity and migration concerns. Nearly 2 million acres of agricultural land have been destroyed, and the price of basic vegetables such as tomatoes, onions, and potatoes have jumped at least fourfold, and in some cases higher, in the past few days. Unlike the 2010 floods, the current disaster has flooded fields and drowned livestock, putting even greater pressure on food inflation and wheat and grain shortages. And when the flood waters recede it will take month if not years for some areas to rebuild. For some citizens, those reconstruction efforts will take too long, and they will begin to migrate toward urban centers of the country.
Most of these problems are not new and should not occur to such extreme degrees if the Pakistani government learned anything from the 2010 floods. That disaster killed more than 2,000 people, impacted 20 million more, and flooded one-fifth of the country, all while causing an estimated total economic impact of roughly $43 billion. Unpacking how the government’s response and efforts to mitigate the impact of flooding since 2010 offers valuable insight on how to better address this year’s monsoon season — and those of the future.
Pakistan’s Climate Crisis
Over the past two decades, Pakistan ranks among the top 10 most vulnerable countries on the Climate Risk Index but is not a major contributor to global carbon emissions. Monsoon rains and heatwaves are common across the country, but their duration and severity are increasing. This year alone, the Pakistan’s heatwave started in April, which was one of the hottest months the country had ever recorded — that is, until summer began with record high temperatures followed by record rainfall. This combination of extreme heat and massive rainfall produced uncontrollable flooding.
On top of that, the country already faced staggering inflation, food insecurity, and electricity and fuel shortages. The global wheat crisis, fueled by Russia’s war on Ukraine, was already impacting Pakistan, and the heatwave affected its own wheat production by at least 10 percent, if not more. The current floods have destroyed 90 percent of the country’s crops, which will only worsen inflation and lead to greater unemployment, as 40 percent of Pakistan’s workforce is in the agricultural sector.
Political Instability, the Governance Gap, and Disaster Preparedness
Pakistan’s governance failures exacerbate the impacts of climate change. Since its creation 75 years ago, Pakistan has struggled to maintain a stable democracy, with long periods of military rule. The current government is the third in a row to have been democratically elected in the country’s parliamentary system, though prime ministers have changed more frequently as incumbents have been removed or resigned. Each province also faces its own challenges to political stability and governance. The lack of political continuity has caused policy instability, which prevents Pakistan from undertaking the long-term infrastructure and prevention investments needed to mitigate climate disasters.
These chronic failures in governance at the national and provincial levels become especially apparent in basic services such as water, electricity, food, and shelter. Now, with initial estimates of economic losses to the country from the floods totaling almost $10 billion, why was the government not better prepared for the intense rains? While one can argue that a country cannot fully prepare for a climate disaster of this magnitude, in the aftermath of the 2010 floods, the government in Islamabad established the National Disaster Management Authority and its provincial counterparts. However, the agency has focused on a broad framework and uses general meteorological data, which have limited use in proper planning. The agency lacks the technical expertise and experience to mitigate acute climate disasters. For example, in Sindh, the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), in its planning for the 2022 monsoon season, stockpiled just over 70,000 tents. But flooding has displaced almost 4 million people in the province alone.
Furthermore, provincial-level disaster management authorities require more detailed involvement by the scientific community so that they can better utilize more up-to-date weather models to support better disaster planning and preparedness. For example, in May 2022, early warning systems allowed entire communities in Gilgit-Baltistan (located in the country’s north) to escape before flooding from a lake overran its banks. Authorities were using data from the Pakistan Meteorological Office (PMO), the same institution that has provided information on the floods and patterns during this monsoon season. The success in Gilgit-Baltistan begs a question: is the capacity gap in using the data on the PMO side or on the PDMAs? Data sharing and better coordination among agencies as well as between federal, provincial, and local governments is key to addressing future floods.
The Role of the International Community
The international community — donor governments and multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank — have pledged support for the current relief efforts, but these actors should also account for the long-term impacts and allocate resources for capacity-building. Those questions of resource allocation inform the ongoing debate on the broader issues of responsibility for loss and damage from climate change, particularly so because scientists have shown that global warming is caused primarily by the Global North and has outsized impact on the Global South. The debate will feature prominently in the lead up to the annual United Nations climate change conference (COP27) this November in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt. Pakistan offers a prime example of the need for the Global North to financially support the Global South to effectively mitigate the negative impacts of climate change. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres recently called the situation in Pakistan, a “monsoon on steroids” and warned “today it is Pakistan, tomorrow it could be your country.”
Pakistan’s government has a long way to go to stabilize its governance and provide more effective, functional services to citizens that might prevent such disasters in the future. The international community can help in a number of ways, including:
- Increasing technical support to national and provincial institutions tasked with disaster preparedness and management. This includes both the actual provision of services and resources to victims, and appropriate budgeting and staffing for these institutions. Improving crisis communications should be part of the technical support.
- Connecting science to policy and planning: invest in and train scientists to help translate the data on weather patterns and climate change risks into policy by increasing support to the Pakistan Meteorological Office.
- Promoting the involvement from civil society and relief organizations in post-disaster discussions of lessons learned and in future natural-disaster mitigation efforts.
- Supporting a more robust discussion of loss and damage issues at COP27. This aspect of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change is woefully neglected at the annual conference. Participants should not only discuss the issue more, but also develop an agreed action plan on loss and damages.
- Commissioning an in-depth, independent study on lessons learned from Pakistan’s floods in 2010, 2020, and currently to develop a comprehensive overview of best practices that the country can implement going forward.
Pakistan’s government must coordinate closely with international aid providers and its own relief organizations and civil society to rescue victims of the flooding, provide the assistance they need, and begin the long road to recovery. But it is also not too soon to begin thinking more seriously about how to prevent such disasters in the future.