My beloved Pakistan is in so much pain I don’t know how to make sense of it. Agony and helplessness of millions of Pakistanis, who lost their loved ones, homes, livestock, meagre assets, and crops, are constant reminders of human powerlessness and insignificance when beneficent forces of nature turn ferocious, merciless, relentless.
Their loss shines in their empty eyes, their young and old crouched on roadside camps, their entire families packed on charpoys covered with a tarpaulin. Their pain is a minute-by-minute notification of the magnitude of the tragedy, the horror of their already minuscule existence flooded to nothing. Their silent wails, the cries of their terrified children, the whimpers of their frail rise above their disrupted lives, broken souls, malnourished bodies to pierce the jaded apathy of the ones in power.
So many animals drowned, an awfully tragic fact of 2022 floods that causes me, an animal lover, immense distress.
Now when it rains in Lahore, my heart fills with dread for those parts of my country that are inundated, destroyed, where land has become a watery graveyard. My most heartfelt dua is for every Pakistani who is suffering, and that too without any hope of that suffering having an expiration date.
In the 2022 floods, according to an official estimate, more than thirty-three million Pakistanis—that is one in every seven Pakistanis—have been affected. One of the worst, most terrifying, devastating catastrophes in the history of the calamity-prone Pakistan, the 2022 flooding, caused by unprecedented monsoon rains, is the destruction that will take Pakistan years and, approximately, ten billion dollars to undo and rebuild.
These monsoon rains that resulted in floods that United Nations chief Antonio Guterres call “a monsoon on steroids” have killed, at the time of me writing these words on September 3, 1,265 human beings. 3,641 people are injured. 372,823 homes and other buildings are destroyed. 482,030 people are displaced because of the obliteration of their homes and, in some cases, entire villages. Approximately, 809,000 hectares—two million acres—of agricultural land and orchards are destroyed, making them uncultivable for a long time. A United Nations report states that nearly 800,000 livestock, an essential nourishment and livelihood for millions of people, have perished.
Rain, a conventional blessing for hot dry areas, continues to unfurl its fury, turning huge chunks of flood-affected areas into liquid terrors. CNN reported, on August 31, that the “overflowing Indus River has turned part of Sindh Province into a 100-kilometre-wide inland lake.” That’s just one rain-ravaged area of Pakistan.
On August 28, NASA Earth Observatory reported: “Since mid-June 2022, Pakistan has been drenched by extreme monsoon rains that have led to the country’s worst flooding in a decade. [Most of the flooding] occurred along the Indus River in the provinces of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan, and Sindh. The provinces of Balochistan and Sindh have so far this year received five to six times their 30-year average rainfall. Most of that arrived in summer monsoon rains.
Across the country, about 150 bridges and 3,500 kilometres (2,200 miles) of roads have been destroyed, according to ReliefWeb. The immense volume of rain and meltwater inundated the dams, reservoirs, canals, and channels of the country’s large and highly developed irrigation system. On August 31, the Indus River System Authority authorized some releases from dams because the water flowing in threatened to exceed the capacity of several reservoirs. In the southern reaches of the Indus watershed, the deluge has turned plains into seas. …the districts of Qambar and Shikarpur in Sindh province [received], from July 1 to August 31, 500 percent more rainfall than average.
The effect of the monsoon rains has been compounded by the continued melting of Pakistan’s 7,000 glaciers. The country holds the most glacial ice found outside the polar regions. Climate warming and recent heat waves have precipitated several glacial-outburst floods. In the rugged northern part of the country, the combined rain and meltwater has turned slopes into hill torrents.”
On August 30, the government of Pakistan declared the situation a national emergency and, reportedly, with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, called for international aid for humanitarian relief efforts.
To have a better understanding of the range and impact of one of Pakistan’s worst natural calamities, I talked to Malik Amin Aslam, a leading climate change expert and former Minister for Climate Change (2018-2022) and Minister of State for Environment (2004-07), the position in which he was the architect of Pakistan’s national policies on environment and climate change. Previously, Aslam honorarily served as the elected Global Vice President of the International Union for Conservation of Nature; chaired the flagship Green Growth initiative for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the programme that included the mass forestation Billion Tree Tsunami project; worked as the prime minister’s special envoy for reform of the UN governance system; and served on the International Advisory Council for the Global eco Forum—a leading environmental think-tank and an advisory body to the government of China.
For Gulf News, I asked Malik Amin Aslam a few questions:
What are the biggest effects of climate change, a global crisis, on Pakistan, the country that produces less than one percent of global carbon emissions?
Pakistan remains on the frontline of climate change. What this means is that over the last ten years we have been continuously among the ten most impacted countries globally. That has translated, this year, into a full cocktail of climate change impact that has hit Pakistan over the last few months.
It started with the horrid heat waves in April-May, which was very early for summer. Pakistan had the hottest place on earth [Jacobabad became the hottest city on Earth on May 14, 2022 when temperatures hit 51 degrees Celsius-124 Fahrenheit]. That was followed by forest fires across Pakistan, especially on the border of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Glacier melting happened too. It was an enhanced glacier melt occurring very early in the season, resulting in a number of glacier bursts and incidents in the Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa areas of Pakistan. That was followed by urban flooding that happened due to the erratic monsoon patterns, principally hitting Karachi and other parts of the Sindh province. Then came the super flood, which occurred because of two main factors.
One factor is what we are used to—glacier melt occurring in the north. That is a slow onset flood occurring throughout Pakistan. But the other factor was totally erratic, and that was the very heavy monsoon rain that occurred in the southern part of Pakistan. This rain flood is what has caused a huge problem in parts of Sindh and Balochistan. Water, so far, is not draining quickly.
What are some of the biggest aspects that exacerbate Pakistan’s climate change challenges?
Pakistan’s climate change challenges are exacerbated because of a lack of proper governance capacity to deal with the issue. Strategies are in place; even this year there was a heavy monsoon contingency plan that was in place much before the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) had predicted that we were going to have erratic and very high frequency monsoon rains. But unfortunately, those plans only remained on paper.
The main challenge is that we need to have our response strategy clearly implemented in time for us to deal with climate change. We also need a longer-term strategy to start investing back in nature. We are presently on a warpath with nature. We are challenging nature by building in flood plains and by erecting hotels and houses within the path of riverbeds, and that is something that cannot be sustainable because nature finds its way like it did in the present floods. That also creates a lot of infrastructure losses.
We need climate compatible infrastructure all over Pakistan, we need to rethink our whole development paradigm, and see it from the lens of climate change, which is a reality and is going to remain with us for unforeseen time.
Monsoon rains of 2022, of unprecedented intensity in certain places, have created devastation of unquantifiable proportions. What are the salient factors—natural and manmade—that have caused this destruction?
We have seen extremely erratic monsoon patterns this year, and that has been the real problem with the flood that has hit Pakistan. Usually, flooding occurs because of the glacial melt in the north and that deluge travelling across Pakistan; it’s called a slow onset flood. It’s also very harmful and devastating but it has a pathway to the Arabian Sea. Early warning systems can be put in place very easily and destruction can be controlled.
On the other hand, flooding that we have seen this year in Pakistan is because of very high monsoon rains, triggering monsoon flooding in the southern parts of Pakistan. We have had almost five times normal monsoon rain in Sindh, and on an average about three times more than normal rain in Pakistan. This monsoon flooding becomes a huge issue because it does not have a drainage pathway. It is just water standing where it is, soaking into the land; unlike river flooding it does not have a pathway for drainage to the sea. It is multiplying and aggravating the human misery that comes with it. That is the big challenge for Pakistan this year.
In your expert view, are there any measures—short and long term—that Pakistan must take to ensure that floods do not wreak havoc the way they have in 2022?
Climate crisis is here in Pakistan, it has gate-crashed into Pakistan, and we are seeing it all over the place. From heatwaves to glacier melts to this flooding, this is a reality we have to face. It is not something unpredicted, though. It was predicted many years ago, but it has hit us now with its full ferocity.
As far as planning is concerned, management and governance of climate change need to be improved. What we are seeing today is a crisis of governance as much as it is a crisis of climate change. This crisis of governance has much to do with implementation of the existing strategies. PMD had predicted about the imminence of floods and heat waves, but unfortunately, policy makers did not pay much heed to the warnings.
There is an established mechanism for flood water management by controlling the outflow from the two big dams, Tarbela and Mangla. After the 2010 floods, a special committee was formed so that in a flood situation it could convene to regulate the dam outflows that impact the flood waters. Unfortunately, that committee has not met this year to control and manage the outflow from the two main reservoirs. Although Tarbela Dam is full, Mangla Dam, even today, is not totally filled up. Outflow from these two dams could have been better regulated for real time management of flood waters.
Similarly, the two flood outfall drains in Sindh were not properly functional. If they had been, they could have been an effective means to drain the standing floodwaters. Notwithstanding the scale of the flood disaster and the unforgiving monsoon, governance and management failures augmented the associated effects and human misery.
Thirdly, early warning systems were not properly in place. Where they were in place in some parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, damage was controlled.
Fourthly, infrastructure in Pakistan needs to be revisited. We need climate compatible infrastructure. Roads, bridges, even private infrastructure, which stands in harm’s way, illegally built on riverbeds and flood plains, need to be removed. Otherwise, it will all be destroyed by nature. These are the lessons that we need to learn to improve governance systems to deal with such situations.
Finally, rescue response operations taking place right now also need to be enhanced. We need a properly operated disaster management authority with full resources at its command. We have a disaster management fund set up in Pakistan, but I’m not sure what it did in the present crisis.
All these factors show that all the elements required for implementation are there but unfortunately, implementation is deficient. That is what causes more misery, more problems, and enhanced destruction, human and material, from floods.
Climate change is a reality that we will have to live with; it is not going anywhere, neither can we escape from it. So, the sooner we get all elements of disaster management, flood forecasting, and climate change governance in place, the better it is going to be for Pakistan.
For combating the ill effects of environmental degradation and climate change, shouldn’t the global north honour its end of the bargain and fulfil commitments related to financing and technology transfer?
Pakistan is unjustly bearing the climate burden of other countries’ follies. With less than one percent of the current global emissions and less than 0.5 percent of the historical emissions, it remains a continuously climate impacted country and has been, for the last decade, on the top ten list of the most vulnerable countries. Loss and damage from climate change induced events have gone beyond the capacity and control of Pakistan’s already debt burdened economy, and all that is fuelling a human catastrophe of epic proportions.
I have raised the issue of climate injustice at all global fora, but it is now time to demand, as a just right, climate compensation from the major carbon polluters. As a first step, Pakistan’s debt payments need to be immediately relaxed or cancelled so that Pakistan can create the fiscal space to deal with the disaster and move towards a climate compatible future. This will need some new innovations in global climate finance. The critical human situation in Pakistan warrants that this is taken up by the responsible multilateral bodies and that it happens without delay.