Funding for this article was provided by the Dorothea Lange–Paul Taylor Documentary Prize from The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.
Karachi—A hot, gritty wind carries the stench of pit latrines across a refugee camp on the western outskirts of Karachi, on Pakistan’s southern facing coast. In the sky, vultures and eagles circle. At its peak, this camp held 1,400 families, all poor farmers displaced by the Indus floods of 2010, which inundated an area the size of England and affected more than 20 million people.
Although climate change cannot be directly blamed for a lone weather event, last year’s floods in Pakistan and the extreme monsoon that caused them fit the pattern that scientists predict climate change will bring. The United Nations Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change warns that the Indus Basin will suffer more floods and droughts as the planet heats up. And Pakistan’s Meteorological Department believes the country’s average surface temperature will rise by 1.3 to 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next decade.
Before the massive floods of 2010—the worst in memory— much of central and southern Asia was suffering through a brutal ten-year drought, during which crops did poorly and farmers sank ever deeper into debt. Pakistan is considered one of the most arid countries in the world and one of the most water-stressed. The flood was just the latest bit of extreme weather.
For those concerned about the human impacts of climate change, flooded Pakistan has been a harbinger, a warning and a test. The people in this camp are climate refugees, and their efforts to survive are what climate adaptation and the struggle for climate justice look like up close.
In Pakistan one can see how the climate crisis is filtered through pre-existing social problems—and thus demands a response that couples the mitigation strategies that climate campaigners generally emphasize with an adaptive program of social justice. It is, after all, the country’s extreme poverty that renders so many Pakistanis intensely vulnerable to extreme weather.
In rural Sindh, the floodwaters have finally receded, but the old problems have not. It is time to plant new crops, but in many refugee camps there are people refusing to go back to the land. At the windswept camp outside Karachi only half the residents have gone home. Aid agencies are cutting off relief, and the government is telling people to leave. Yet many refugees are stubbornly staying put.
“We will die here before we go back to those landlords,” says Mehboob Ali, the camp spokesman. He and his neighbors seem to mean it. The day before I visited, the camp’s incipient social organization, the Mutasereen (affected people) Action Committee, marched demanding the right to stay and build houses. Police met the marchers with volleys of tear gas and a baton charge. Several marchers were bruised and lacerated by clubs and gas canisters, and a 5-year-old went missing—a small example of how climate change leads to increased violence (for more on this topic see my new book, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence).