Pakistan’s Floods Are a Wind From the West

Pakistan’s Floods Are a Wind From the West

Pakistan’s Floods Are a Wind From the West

The devastating natural disaster could be just an early glimpse of the consequences of industrialization in the Global North.

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Islamabad, Pakistan—Despite contributing less than 1 percent of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, the people of Pakistan have become the victims of an unprecedented climate catastrophe. After a monsoon season in which rainfall exceeded average levels by around 780 percent, as much as a third of the country has been flooded, with more than a thousand people killed in what officials are describing as the worst climate disaster in Pakistan’s history. Sherry Rehman, who serves as minister for climate change in the ruling coalition, estimates that the crisis has affected more than 33 million people. “The volume and scale of water that has come down is without precedent, falling in relentless torrents without gaps for nine weeks,” she told The Nation. “There has been nowhere to drain the water, and the provinces in the south look like one large ocean. The north looks like a giant bulldozer has gone through it.”

In Taunsa Sharif, 280 miles southwest of Islamabad, the 20-mile strip of land between the Koh-e-Suleiman Mountain range and the River Indus has been transformed into one large body of water, destroying one- and two-story buildings altogether. The Indus highway, which is 15 feet higher than the adjoining area, has become an open-air relief camp for the dispossessed. In Nowshera, 50 miles north of the capital, the overflow of the River Kabul has submerged entire shops and restaurants.

Changing weather patterns have led to a number of extreme climate events in Pakistan in the last two decades. Between February and April of 2019, the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan were affected by intermittent flooding and rain-related landslides. Two years earlier, the country experienced a severe heat wave, with many cities in the south recording record temperatures for the month of April. The last major flooding catastrophe took place in July 2010, laying waste to millions of acres of fertile cropland and destroying the lives and livelihoods of over 20 million people. At the time, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the scale of the destruction as greater than anything he had previously witnessed.

Fast forward to the present, and relief workers are describing the current crisis as even greater than that. “At this stage it is difficult to comprehend the full magnitude of these floods, as it’s a developing story,” said Haris bin Saqib, a community organizer involved in the humanitarian response on the ground. “But one thing is for certain: It is much worse than it was in 2010.” This is not solely due to the climate event itself. Pakistan’s economy was in turmoil even before the monsoon season. Since the flooding began, it has incurred initial economic losses of around $10 billion, according to Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal, who spoke to Reuters on Monday. The impact has reverberated across the most affected regions, according to bin Saqib. “Pakistan is more vulnerable and politically unstable, leading to a weaker response than with previous floods,” he said.

The disaster has only served to exacerbate the country’s severe cost of living crisis, with consumer price inflation rising to 27 percent in August—the highest such increase since November 1973. With the floods having ravaged large tracts of agricultural land, food staples like tomatoes and onions are being priced like luxuries. In a country where almost 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, such rapid inflation is certain to have devastating consequences.

The crisis has done little to decrease the political temperature in a country already riven by factionalism and polarization. Zartaj Gul, who served as climate change minister for the Tehreek-e-Insaf (“Pakistan Movement for Justice,” PTI) government under the recently ousted premier Imran Khan, blamed the unfolding humanitarian crisis on “mismanagement” by the ruling coalition. “Our crime minister—I’m not going to call him prime minister—does not know the ABCs of climate change,” she said. “This 14-party coalition, which is ruling the country due to regime change—they are using climate change as an alibi to hide their ill governance.”

Gul, whose constituency is among the worst-affected in Punjab, claims that the federal government failed to convey extreme weather warnings to any of the provinces. During a period of governmental upheaval and political maneuvering, its focus on battling the opposition, according to Gul, prevented the administration from granting due attention to the heavy rainfall. “The flood effects are a part of climate change which is already happening,” Gul told The Nation. “But the real incompetence of this government is that they were fixing us instead of fixing the damage.”

In an interview with The Nation, Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal dismissed Gul’s allegations as “complete lies.” “The National Disaster Management Authority regularly shares information with all of the provinces and we have it on record that they were informed on time about rain expectations,” he said. “The reason for the destruction in the northern areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is that the PTI government allowed construction companies to ignore regulations and build hotels and private properties on every riverbank. When you narrow the river course, it becomes a jet. The big buildings we saw collapsing, especially in Kalam and other places in Swat, were built in the riverbed in exchange for kickbacks and corrupt money.”

Iqbal was also quick to criticize the PTI for scoring political points at a time of national crisis. “Tragedies are moments when families, communities, and societies come together,” he said. “But Imran Khan is such a narcissistic figure that at a time when 30 million of his fellow countrymen are displaced and in distress, he and his party are polarizing society.”

Where there is a degree of consensus, however, is in the belief that Pakistan is having to suffer for the industrial excesses of the West. “This year we moved from heat waves, forest fires, to Glacier Lake Outburst Floods and now the monster monsoon, in a cascade of extreme climate-driven events, one after another,” said Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman. “Our glaciers have also been melting three times more than normal. Is this not a clear sign of global warming? Are we in Pakistan driving that melt? Obviously not.”

For the socialist historian and politician Ammar Ali Jan, it is the responsibility of the Global North to make reparations to countries like Pakistan. “If you look at the longer history of colonialism, the development model created by countries that colonized—the metropolitan countries, mostly Western countries and countries in the Global North—they are the ones who benefited from this model both economically and through resource utilization,” he said. “The harmful effects of this economic model—whether it was in terms of economic exploitation, exploitation of resources and now climate change—are being faced by poor countries that have had very little say in giving direction to global capitalism.”

But there are also those in the Pakistani socialist movement who remain skeptical that any assistance from abroad, whether in the form of aid, loans, or reparations, will end up reaching the victims of the flooding. One politician, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, suggested that the funds would likely end up in the hands of the military. “The military establishment always does this. They let people die, they let them come on the roads, and then they sell these images to get loans from abroad…. And where do you think these loans go? They go into the import bill to buy weapons and oil.”

What no one disagrees about is the scale of the challenge facing Pakistan, which must rehabilitate around 15 percent of its total population. The task ahead will require vast sums of money Pakistan does not possess, in order to repair the country’s devastated roads and infrastructure. Officials are warning of consequences further afield if action is not taken promptly to counter climate change. “There is a new normal in the world, and it’s a dystopic one,” says Sherry Rehman. “The climate decade of our reckoning is here and now. It’s not in 2050. It’s time to make tough decisions, otherwise it won’t just be Pakistan. It will be many other countries feeling the same heat and afterburn of years of reckless carbon-rich growth.”

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