Climate crisis: Calls for emphasis on international mitigation policies after devastating floods hit Pakistan

Rebecca L Root Tuesday 18 October 2022

In August, heavy monsoon rains in Pakistan led to flash floods that caused rivers to burst their banks. This gave way to widespread devastation as the water washed away entire villages and forced families to flee. Over 1,100 people were killed and, with a third of the country still underwater, a further 33 million remain vulnerable to disease and malnutrition.

Experts say the extreme floods Pakistan has experienced and the subsequent suffering and displacement of people have been made worse by weak governance, corruption and a lack of climate action. ‘Poverty and poor infrastructure have resulted in countless Pakistanis being exposed to the elements’, explains Satyajit Gupta, Secretary of the IBA Asia Pacific Regional Forum and Assistant General Counsel and Head of India Legal & CSR at EXL. Those from lower-income and marginalised populations are suffering the most, he adds.

According to 2018 data from the World Bank, 21.9 per cent of people live below the national poverty line in Pakistan. And while the floods didn’t discriminate between the rich and the poor, lower-income communities living in makeshift homes on riverbanks or in houses made of mud or clay were more likely to see their homes washed away, explains Peter Ophoff, Head of the International Federation of the Red Cross in Pakistan.

‘But it's not just individual homes that have been damaged or destroyed, [it has] also [been] government infrastructure, roads, bridges, schools and medical centres’, says Taimur Malik, a partner at Clyde & Co, who has been contributing to relief efforts in the country.

Some commentators say that, if the Pakistani authorities had factored in lessons from previous floods – and if greater action had been taken on the climate globally – the current crisis could have been mitigated.

In 2010, the country experienced ‘unprecedented monsoon rains’ that killed 1,980 people and left 14 million requiring aid. When it came time to rebuild, there wasn’t enough consideration around the potential for future floods and what that should mean for the reconstruction of infrastructure, says Jumaina Siddiqui, Senior Program Officer at the US Institute of Peace.

Poverty and poor infrastructure have resulted in countless Pakistanis being exposed to the elements

Satyajit Gupta
Secretary, IBA Asia Pacific Regional Forum

‘In parts of northern Pakistan, there were hotels that were built on areas along riversides that were there in 2010, destroyed in 2010 and rebuilt in the same place. No one from the provincial or local government stopped the reconstruction and the expansion of these large commercial infrastructures’, she explains. This meant that when water levels began to rise this year, such riverside real estate was once again under threat.

At the same time, small informal settlements have continued to pop up close to rivers, relying on its water provision for subsistence farming. These often lack government regulation and have contributed to flooding by blocking waterways that would normally drain water out from the cities, Siddiqui says.

‘No one country can prepare for the level of the impact of the floods that we saw this year in Pakistan. But I think some of these gaps that I’ve highlighted would have helped them be better prepared for the scale of the devastation’, she adds. It may also have limited the damage and thus the investment needed to help the country recover.

Rebuilding is going to be time-consuming and costly, Malik says. Pakistan’s Minister for Planning, Development and Reform has estimated that the floods have caused over $10bn worth of damage and that it’ll take around five years to recover. ‘We have to invest a huge amount of money into the rehabilitation and while we do the rehabilitation, we have to make sure that we make use of the technology [and] knowledge that we have available now to build stronger roads, to build stronger buildings, to build flood and monsoon-resistant structures’, Ophoff says.

Gupta believes that corruption within the country has also played a role in exacerbating the current crisis. According to Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions Index in 2021, Pakistan has a corruption rating of 72 out of 100. This level of corruption often takes the form of bribery in the procurement and provision of services. Research by the World Justice Project found that a quarter of Pakistanis have paid a bribe in order to obtain a government permit.

New buildings are sometimes constructed with twice the number of storeys than the amount approved, Siddiqui says. The pipes and the sewage systems are only set up to cater for the original number of floors, however. Underpasses are also built without proper drainage systems. These issues put water management systems under strain, exacerbating the build-up of water and the potential for flash floods.

‘The tentacles of corruption and greed have intertwined to result in both cause and effect. Whether it is corruption in deflecting humanitarian aid elsewhere, or in the issue of real estate permits [being provided] without complying with regulations, this has only compounded the issues here’, Gupta says. Going forward, the country needs to have an ‘introspective conversation’ and make changes to policies, procedures and institutions, adds Siddiqui.

Pakistan’s government declined to comment on these issues when approached by Global Insight.

There needs to be a consideration of the climate elements at play in this crisis, Malik says. Nobody can control the unprecedented rain levels, but Pakistan is home to the largest number of glaciers in the world after the Arctic region, and Malik adds that ‘many of these glaciers are melting at unprecedented levels due to climate change’. While the floods were caused by extreme rains, melting glaciers create more bodies of water with the potential to burst.

However, Malik explains that Pakistan has not partaken in the same levels of industrialisation – a major driver of the climate crisis – that other countries have. It contributes less than one per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions yet is ranked in the non-governmental organisation Germanwatch’s Global Climate Risk Index 2021 as one of the countries most vulnerable to extreme weather events. As such, Malik says there needs to be an emphasis on other countries’ climate mitigation policies. ‘I don’t know how Pakistan can be fully prepared for anything of that sort unless it is with the support – technological, material, infrastructure, financial – from the world community’, he says.

He calls on those in the legal profession in countries such as Australia, the UK and the US to raise awareness of how overseas emissions are having an impact on other countries and to write to their local governments to encourage the provision of more funding for Pakistan's rehabilitation.

Image credit: the ruins of the city after flash flood in Pakistan. Usman Ghani PG/