It’s been several weeks since the world learned of Pakistan’s devastating flooding, and yet the sheer scale is still hard to fathom: 33 million people, nearly equal to the total population of Canada, affected. A full third of the country — more than the area of the United Kingdom — submerged. More than 1,300 people dead and 6 million displaced. More than 240 bridges and 3,100 miles of roads destroyed.
No wonder United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who arrived in Pakistan today, has called the catastrophe a “monsoon on steroids.” It’s even worse than Pakistan’s 2010 floods, which Guterres’ predecessor Ban Ki-moon described as the worst natural disaster the U.N. had ever responded to.
The world is pledging support, and assistance is flowing in. Pakistan needs far more than short-term flood relief, however. It needs longer-term assistance to help it become more climate-resilient, so that it can better withstand the wrath of an angry earth and the future damage it will inevitably inflict. Getting global buy-in for long-term climate assistance to Pakistan is a hard sell, considering the various calamities clawing for the world’s attention against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic — but it’s essential. Pakistan is one of the world’s most climate-vulnerable states, and in addition to the human toll that must be the priority, this vulnerability also poses a stability threat.
There’s never a good moment for catastrophic floods, but from an international assistance standpoint, the current deluge couldn’t have come at a worse time. Foreign donors were already struggling to address two other major humanitarian crises—one in Afghanistan following the cutoff of critical international economic assistance after the Taliban takeover, and the other in Ukraine following Russia’s full-scale invasion, not to mention the plethora of other acute or chronic natural and political disasters and conflicts across the globe. There is, for example, an ongoing conflict-driven humanitarian crisis in Yemen and a looming famine in Somalia. And then there are the pandemic-induced supply chain shocks and the skyrocketing commodity costs triggered by Russia’s war on Ukraine, both exacerbating global economic stress and heightening the risk of donor fatigue.
There were not quite as many constraints during the 2010 floods, which at the time were the worst in Pakistan’s history. Within weeks after they began, 60 nations had committed funding. Washington pledged $600 million, and the U.S. military — in the midst of its surge next door in Afghanistan — sent helicopters into Pakistan and airlifted hundreds of stranded people to safety. This time, the United States had committed only $30 million until adding an additional $20 million today. The U.S. military has sent an assessment team to Pakistan to see how it can supplement U.S. assistance, and an interagency delegation of senior U.S. officials, including U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, is in Pakistan this week to focus on flood relief. About a dozen other countries have pledged support.
Despite the hard sell, the world should not only step up and provide more aid, but also avoid the mistake the international community made in 2010, which was to restrict most assistance to immediate rescue and recovery efforts. Long-term international assistance to help Pakistan reduce the effects of climate change is essential. Pakistan’s climate vulnerability is painfully acute, and the less it can focus on mitigation and especially adaptation, the higher will be the risk of instability.
For better or worse, Washington has made it clear that its top interest in Pakistan is stability. It has long worried about the potential implications — domestically in Pakistan but also regionally and globally — of the country’s volatile combination of class, ethnic, and sectarian tensions; a history of violent extremism and terrorism and state sponsorship of some militant groups; a large and young population; often-unstable politics and economic stress; its nuclear weapons program; and its troubled ties with nuclear rival India.
Pakistan is hit hard, and often, by climate events. For years, it has suffered record-breaking temperatures, droughts, cyclones, sea level rise, and of course torrential rains and floods. Glacial melt, which intensifies flooding, increased by 23 percent between 2001 and 2011 and continues at a rapid rate today. An agriculture-dependent economy and large coastal populations compound vulnerability.
The effects of catastrophic flooding are exacerbated by governance failures: inattention to creaky water infrastructure and poor drainage systems, a lack of regulation of rapid deforestation (Pakistan has the second-highest rate in South Asia) and of construction along riparian areas, and poor implementation and enforcement of climate-related laws. These failures are exacerbated by the large resource constraints that hamper a wide array of state capacities, from rescue efforts to the use of sturdier building materials.
On Sept. 2, several months after the beginning of the monsoon rains that triggered the current floods, Faisal Edhi, the head of Pakistan’s respected Edhi Foundation charity, estimated that 90 percent of Pakistan’s flood-affected areas had not received “any kind of assistance.” That’s a reflection of the floods’ sheer scale, for sure, but also of the state’s lack of capacity to respond more quickly. Religious charities, aid workers, and common citizens, along with the military, have sought to fill the vacuum, as they have during past disasters. But it’s not enough.
Acute climate vulnerability, ecological governance failures, and resource constraints for mitigation and adaptation measures make for a perfect storm, resulting in repeated climate-induced shocks with catastrophic damage. Though they didn’t receive as much global attention as those in 2010 and today, Pakistan also suffered catastrophic flooding in 2011 and 2020, with millions affected. What’s happening now could easily happen again, and with the same terrible implications for economics, food security, health—and stability.
Climate Change as Destabilizer
One of the biggest effects of destructive climate events is displacement. Pakistan and broader South Asia may have almost 40 million climate migrants by 2050, according to the World Bank. In Pakistan, mass movements of vulnerable groups, especially ethnic and religious minorities, can stoke tensions and violence during their periods of migration and in their new communities. Rapid, massive rural-to-urban migrations impose added burdens on already-overcrowded cities to provide basic services. An inability to provide these resources raises the risk of radicalization . So do the broader conditions of privation in which many victims of destructive weather events find themselves (scholarship shows that class and economic status are not always the best predictors of radicalization in Pakistan, but radicalization risks across the country, including in cities, continue to be high). Furthermore, climate-induced crop destruction increases food insecurity, which in the past has sparked urban unrest and violent protests. The current floods have damaged Pakistan’s rice crops, a key staple, and threaten the upcoming wheat planting season — in a country already experiencing soaring food inflation.
Climate change effects also embolden and strengthen militant groups, which use charitable offshoots to conduct relief efforts in the absence of the state. Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a part of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terror group, has done this for years. Tehreek-e-Labbaik, a new hardline religious party that calls for the execution of alleged blasphemers and has staged violent protests, has set up flood relief centers in recent days. In Pakistan, climate-induced disasters help extremists earn more public goodwill.
The U.S. intelligence community recognizes the stability risks at play. In 2021, the National Intelligence Council identified Pakistan as one of 11 countries — neighboring India and Afghanistan were also among them — “of great concern for climate change,” and said that “building resilience” would likely be “especially helpful in mitigating future risks to U.S. interests.”
Taking a Long View on Climate Assistance
The need of the moment is immediate relief, and the international community is using newly established humanitarian air bridges to fly in food, blankets, and essential household items. Health and sanitation emergencies are also major concerns, especially waterborne disease and maternal health needs. Washington is well-placed to assist on this front; it recently launched a new Health Dialogue with Islamabad, which could serve as a critical node for health cooperation.
It’s important, however, that the international community not pull up stakes once the immediate relief and recovery stage ends and the cameras go dark.
It can make valuable investments in helping Pakistan develop stronger river embankments, more resilient building materials, updated water infrastructure, and flood risk-management systems. There’s some precedent for such support in wider South Asia. A British government program helps develop early-warning systems for climate-vulnerable communities in the region, and the World Bank and Red Cross have offered technological and scientific support for natural disaster risk-management programs. Another World Bank initiative provides technical and analytical assistance to operationalize flood forecasting in the Ganges Basin, one of the world’s largest river systems (it flows from the Himalayas south through India and empties into the Bay of Bengal). Such initiatives are a start, but their scale must be increased, and be more focused on Pakistan specifically.
Additionally, foreign assistance can support training or other educational programs to empower provincial and local governments to better oversee these initiatives and pursue climate adaptation policies more broadly. Decentralization reforms have transferred more responsibilities and resources from the central government to the provinces, where much of the on-ground policy implementation takes place. But officials outside Islamabad often lack the expertise and resources to pursue such work.
Also, international interventions can promote more livelihood opportunities in non-agricultural sectors. In Pakistan, agriculture is a top source of employment, but also arguably the most climate-vulnerable sector, making its workers especially vulnerable to displacement. Donors can fund vocational training and skills-development programs to make people more competitive for jobs in areas like telecommunications, electronics, and retail — all urban industries with high-growth potential and less vulnerability to the vagaries and destruction of climate change. (A thoughtful recent Just Security essay by Jumaina Siddiqui offers additional ideas for longer-term international climate assistance for Pakistan.)
In recent days, many have rightly noted that Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, but must often bear the brunt of the developed world’s decades of polluting policies. No one can reverse climate change. But the onus is on the international community to do its part to help Pakistan — and other acutely climate vulnerable states — ease climate change’s destructive effects.