2022 has brought environmental disaster to Pakistan as the country experienced a record-breaking heatwave in May, contributing to the collapse of many agricultural sectors. Even more ominously, these unprecedented high temperatures led to record melting amongst many of the glaciers in the north of Pakistan, increasing the rate of glacial melt water flowing in the Pakistani river system. This combined with an unprecedented wet monsoon season, where provinces such as Baluchistan and Sindh in the south experienced rainfall nine times higher than average, resulted in what the UN Secretary-General referred to as a “Monsoon on steroids”. Over a third of the country is inundated now, with the situation expected to worsen in the coming weeks as rains continue, and lakes are close to spilling over and exacerbating the flooding.
This year has seen catastrophic heatwaves and wildfires globally, leading to record emissions from a burning earth. Rapidly melting Arctic ice and permafrost have in turn partially driven greater volatility in the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a global weather phenomenon which is currently pushing warmer air towards Central and South Asia. These factors combined with the rapid oscillation of the jet stream, rampant deforestation in the Central Asian basin and alteration of rivers through dam construction have resulted in more intense monsoons. Previously reliable climate patterns such as the monsoon are being destabilised due to anthropogenic heating of the planet.
Severe poverty and internal political conflict exacerbate the situation. Poor quality infrastructure was easily wiped away by flooding whilst poorly constructed buildings along riverbanks or low-lying areas were unable to withstand the flooding. Destruction of farmland in the south continues to add pressure, when considering that agriculture is the number one contributor to national GDP, as well as employing over 40% of the labour force. With over 45% of arable land currently underwater, famine and food security add to the perfect storm that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif must deal with, as well as a febrile and even more divided political environment, following former PM Imran Khan’s ousting in April earlier this year.
Pakistan has spent the past year lurching from one crisis to another. The country is still in the grips of dealing with separatist movements in Baluchistan and an unstable border with Afghanistan. All the while Imran Khan is using the crisis to fuel his opposition movement in a bid to regain office. Furthermore, the country has only recently secured another IMF bailout from them to help support a national economy on the verge of default. Consequently, the response to a crisis of this magnitude has stretched the government apparatus to the breaking point.
Authorities have been unable to provide adequate aid for those that have been affected the most by the floods, namely those living in poverty, inhabitants in rural areas and residents of neighbourhoods located alongside rivers. Instead, there has been a heavy reliance on a collection of NGOs. Yet only a handful of these NGOs have the capacity to coordinate large-scale humanitarian responses. Even UN assistance has been hampered by corruption issues as well as logistical difficulties in reaching affected zones and communities. Often, relief efforts are a largely uncoordinated and chaotic scramble to help those in need. This has been exacerbated by the fact that Pakistan has effectively expelled international aid organizations such as Save The Children from the country due to espionage concerns.
The nature of this response means that over 33 million people have had to vacate their homes, forcing them to relocate to internal camps for the displaced. The nature of the floods has forced the government in Islamabad to realise unfortunate truths about their country's predicament, namely that they do not have the financial and logistical capacity to deal with issues such as humanitarian assistance and disaster reduction (HADR). In response to this, Pakistani officials have begun calling for developed countries to fully commit to financing 100 billion dollars’ worth of climate adaptation and mitigation efforts in developing countries. Pakistan has been responsible for 0.5% of global emissions, yet they stand to be one of the country's most affected by climate change.
A way forward
Pakistan is a country with great potential, with a well-educated population of over 200 million and ample natural resources that could be the basis for guaranteeing a sustainable and stable future for its population. Yet it faces challenges both internally and externally on how to proceed. Externally disputes with India over the Kashmir region threaten to escalate tensions as the region hosts glaciers that feed both rivers in India and Pakistan. Internally political instability has resulted in a mismanagement of state funds, leaving it little room to manoeuvre when the country is hit by a disaster on the scale of these floods. For Pakistan to unlock its potential the country needs foreign assistance in mitigating the risks posed by climate change. The UN has already called for over 160 million dollars in disaster relief for the country, but Pakistan needs more. Government officials have begun calling for an increase in climate financing from wealthier countries to help support a Pakistani green transition. But this is only part of the equation. Industrialized countries in Europe and beyond should see this as an opportunity to protect millions from future catastrophes and ensure a sustainable and just transition for the country.
Developed countries must finally live up to their commitment to provide $100 billion a year in funding for developing countries most at risk to climate change. In addition, the financing needs to be restructured away from loans, which increases the amount of debt that these countries have been saddled with. This is particularly worrying in the case of Pakistan as the country is already heavily in debt and further financial pressure of this sort may leave it unable to finance climate change adaptation or mitigation projects. As we have seen with the example of Sri Lanka, high amounts of debt, especially foreign currency debt, has a sizeable impact on the provision of necessities such as food and fuel, risking further political and social collapses. In a country already battling famine and political unrest, a debt-induced recession is the last thing Islamabad needs. A more prudent measure for the future may be for countries to incentivize private sector investment in adaption and the renewable transition. This could be achieved through various guarantees and subsidies that should have formed part of the global climate financing commitment. COP27 in Sharm-El-Sheikh in November this year, would provide a great opportunity for this to be addressed. In addition, debt-forgiving measures might be considered. Not only would this communicate long-term support to Pakistan, but also ensure that the country is not forced to implement tough austerity measures.
Despite substantial political obstacles to enacting meaningful reform such as the current political partisanship between the current and former Prime Ministers, a deeply entrenched and corrupt military and a sizeable debt-burden, larger-scale international resourcing is necessary. Pakistan is clearly a victim of the industrial revolution, both historical and modern, and whatever the international misgivings are about the country’s geopolitical and domestic fragility, there are existential security implications for the country and wider region that are too large to ignore.