Are catastrophic floods the new normal in Pakistan?

Are catastrophic floods the new normal in Pakistan?
Are catastrophic floods the new normal in Pakistan?

Islamabad, Pakistan – Large swathes of Pakistan were inundated in 2010 by “super floods”, displacing more than 20 million people. Experts have called it one of the worst humanitarian disasters the country has ever suffered.

Twelve years later, massive flooding has forced analysts and political leaders to search for new adjectives to appropriately describe the devastation wrought by the monsoon rains, with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres calling the flooding “level d ‘era”.

The Pakistan Meteorological Service has warned that there may be more rain to come this month.

The government has declared a national emergency and has desperately sought emergency aid from the international community, which is already suffering from donor fatigue.

While the UN has pledged $160 million and other countries have pledged aid, government officials say the floods have inflicted an “estimated loss of at least $10 billion”.

What is the extent of the damage?

The South Asian nation of more than 220 million is facing what is arguably its greatest humanitarian crisis. In late August, nearly 1,200 people have died since the monsoon rains began in mid-June.

More than a third of the country is still submerged and at least 33 million people are affected. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) puts the number of affected districts at 72 out of a total of 160.

The NDMA estimates the damage to more than 5,000 km (3,100 miles) of roads, 10 million houses partially or completely destroyed and the death of 700,000 head of cattle, often the only means of subsistence of the populations.

The southern province of Sindh remains the most affected. As of August 30, the NDMA said at least 405 people, including 160 children, had died there. More than 14 million people in the province are “seriously affected”, of whom only 377,000 are currently living in camps.

The southwestern province of Balochistan – Pakistan’s largest by area but also the poorest – is also in shock. More than nine million people have been forced from their homes, but only 7,000 have been accommodated in camps.

What caused the floods?

Global climate risk

ranks Pakistan as the eighth most vulnerable country due to disasters caused by climate change, yet the country is responsible for less than 1% of the world’s global warming gases.

The extreme weather conditions have left the country in a precarious situation, where weather patterns are no longer predictable.

Earlier this year, the country faced unprecedented heat waves and a months-long drought in Sindh and Balochistan. Just months later, Pakistan broke its decades-long record for rainfall, with both provinces receiving 500% more.

than the annual average.

Sara Hayat, a lawyer and climate change policy specialist based in Lahore, told Al Jazeera to determine what caused the devastating floods, it must be seen as a pyramid of factors, the fundamental factor being global climate change. .

Hayat said the floods were caused by excessive torrential rains, as well as melting ice in the north of the country.

“Pakistan usually receives three to four cycles of monsoon rains,” she said. “This year we have already received eight and there are forecasts that the rain will continue until October. It is extremely unusual.

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, an Islamabad-based climate change analyst, told Al Jazeera that unlike the 2010 floods which were riverine in nature, this year saw multiple types overlapping resulting in “such destruction across the country “.

Sheikh highlighted urban floods, flash floods, glacial lake bursts as well as cloud bursts as some of the different types of floods that have hit the country, all linked to climate change activity.

“These are not routine floods. In fact, we haven’t had any river flooding at all this year. This may be the first time that climate change has affected monsoon patterns. Only time will tell if this was an abnormal occurrence of nature or if it becomes more routine,” he said.

Hayat said while it was easy to blame the government, preparing for this scale of flooding was always going to be a difficult task.

How do these floods compare to 2010?

While monsoon rains have been hitting the country since June, it was not until late July that the intensity and scale became clear.

Since then, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has called the floods “unprecedented”, and Sherry Rehman, the climate change minister, described the situation as the worst in living memory.

When asked if the floods were worse than in 2010, Hayat replied “100 percent”.

“These floods have displaced 20 million people. This year the floods have not ended and we have already calculated at least 33 million people seriously affected. The full extent of the disaster will only become apparent in the coming months when the water begins to recede,” she said.

Shahrukh Wani, an economist at the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government, agreed that given the scale of this year’s floods, they will “meet or exceed the damage caused by the floods of 2010”.

“Unlike 2010, global conditions are very different right now. Much of the global aid momentum is focused on Ukraine, and many developed countries are themselves facing economic crises at home, which could mean Pakistan will receive less international support than in 2010,” Wani told Al Jazeera.

What are the challenges ahead?

At a time when the country is already reeling from searing inflation and barely avoided a default after the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved $1.17 billion in funds, a one-time flood in a life was the last thing the South Asian nation needed.

To this unstable mix is ​​added a perpetual political instability, exacerbated since the dismissal of the Pakistani government Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in April.

Sharif recently told international media that he was ready to sit down with former Prime Minister Imran Khan to find a way to solve the problems facing flood victims.

Hayat said it is imperative that political warmongering ceases and priorities are adjusted to face the daunting challenge of reconstruction.

“One of the biggest challenges we will face will be when the country enters the electoral cycle. When that happens, you start thinking only about politics. But it is necessary that flood relief efforts and the rehabilitation of the affected population accompany any political conversation in the country.

Wani said Pakistan would suffer “catastrophic” economic repercussions from the floods.

“There is the immediate impact in the destruction of food crops, homes, roads and livestock. This affects both those directly affected by the floods by wiping out their household wealth, but also people in big cities by increasing the cost of food,” he said.

Pakistan faces a “very difficult winter” as it will need money for a “national reconstruction effort after the floods, meeting the requirements set by the IMF program, in competition with Europe to secure imports of gas and cushion the impact of rising food inflation,” Wani warned.

But the biggest challenge for Sheikh is whether floods like this year’s become a regular feature rather than a one-off.

“The worst case scenario would be if we had multiple types of flooding this year plus river flooding together. The devastation would be unimaginable,” he said.

Flood management strategies need to be reoriented to become more robust and climate-smart, Sheikh said.

“The first thing is that we have to protect our community and not give permits allowing construction on the banks of the rivers, the shoulders of the rivers. No amount of money or technology can save a structure built next to the river,” he said.

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