Unprecedented monsoon rains and melting glaciers in Pakistan’s northern mountains have flooded vast swathes of the country, affecting 33 million people and killing more than 1,300, including more than 460 children. The calamity has gripped half the country, destroying buildings, bridges and roads, hampering rescue and relief operations on the ground. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called it a “monsoon on steroids” amid appeals for humanitarian aid.
While the immediate need is for humanitarian aid, it is equally important that we learn the right lessons from the disaster to avoid repeating mistakes in the future. An example in point is the need for sustained investment in flood mitigation planning and action.
The first lesson is that the government had not made adequate preparation to deal with the catastrophe. As experts have pointed out, in the case of Pakistan, one of the main hindrances toward climate resilience is weak governance and cooperation. Also, Pakistan did not invest enough in flood mitigation planning methods and follow-up action. As pointed out by many experts, weak governance can be seen in the rise of water mafias, illegal and unregulated construction, and poor urban and rural planning. Under the previous Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, the country’s climate-resilience efforts focused on tree-planting and the tech sector, specifically related to clean energy and electric vehicles.
It is true that detailed advance planning for a disaster of this scale is impossible, at the provincial level there should have been emergency plans in place, especially in view of the fact that each year the monsoon rains have become more ferocious and inundated larger tracts of land.
A survey of the flood affected areas has shown that the majority of the damages caused by the flood waters were to structures that should have never been allowed by authorities concerned. Many hotels and entire communities were built alongside rivers such as in Swat — in many cases locations that were impacted by the 2010 floods. Instead of learning lessons from 2010, these structures were allowed to be built. The fault lies with not just construction companies or communities, but also with the local governments that did not monitor or regulate this illegal activity.
Pakistan’s climate challenges are huge. The Global Climate Risk Index 2021 ranked Pakistan as one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change and extreme weather events, despite being one of the lowest carbon emitters in the world. But despite being a vulnerable country, Pakistan has not invested enough in climate-resilient infrastructure. Reason: Pakistan is financially strapped and lacks the resources to do the needful to avoid the vagaries of weather.
Here arises the issue of lack of climate justice. Environmentalists rightly argue that the Global North should pay reparations for loss and damage claims by the Global South under the Paris Agreement, which was signed in 2015 and currently has 175 signatories, including the European Union. Surely, it is the legal and moral duty of the rich industrialised countries responsible for carbon gas emissions which impact climate change to come to the help of poor countries which contribute nothing to stratospheric damage but are its direct victim.
There is also a need for the rich countries to provide technical assistance to disaster-prone countries to improve systems to adapt to climate change and mitigate future disasters. On its part, Pakistan should affect changes in its systems and policies with respect to disaster planning and management. We must remember that the current floods are not one of a kind. They are sure to recur in the future. It is therefore important that we put in place appropriate measures and be ready to face such events in the future.
There is another dimension to the problem of climate change. Pakistan is not the only country in South Asia to face the adverse effects of climate change. It is a common challenge for all regional states, given the shared rivers and ecosystems, such as the Indus River between India and Pakistan, and the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers between Nepal, India and Bangladesh. This calls for close cooperation among the neighbouring countries as no one country can deal with the problem all by itself.
This cooperation, above all, should be in the shape of sharing knowledge and experience of how to tackle the different aspects of climate disaster. For example, Bangladesh can share its expertise in cyclone warning, while India can share expertise in adapting to heatwaves. Nepal and Bhutan have expertise in adaptation in mountain ecosystems, whereas Pakistan has expertise in managing droughts.
To this end, the United Nations can play a helpful role by forming regional bodies and groups to tackle a common problem from a common platform. The UN’s mediation is called for because political issues such as those between India and Pakistan prevent them from cooperating in other fields.