This summer, as the Pakistani government struggled to quell political unrest and bail out a faltering economy, far from the corridors of power in Islamabad, a humanitarian catastrophe was taking shape with frightening speed.
On the rugged plains of southern Pakistan, extreme flooding has killed 1,300 people and displaced more than half a million since June. Large areas of farmland are being flooded, dead animals line the highways and fast-moving currents have destroyed bridges. Scores of homes are under water, and the government estimates the damage at more than $10 billion.
Pakistan’s Climate Minister Sherry Rehman called the floods a catastrophe of “very epic proportions”.
But as rescue workers begin to reach previously cut-off villages and determine the true toll, many in Pakistan are wondering if more could be done to prepare for Asia’s most devastating floods in years. Located in the Indus Valley, home to the world’s largest irrigation system, Pakistan is ground zero for flooding. But compared to countries like China, which spend tens of billions of dollars on flood defenses, Pakistan relies heavily on donations to upgrade its infrastructure.
Dilapidated colonial-era dams and canals — including the Sukkur Dam, which diverts river water to irrigate farms — are in dire need of investment. Upstream reservoirs are so clogged with silt that they can no longer fully absorb the flood water. And the country’s forecasting radars are too outdated to quickly predict extreme weather events.
Although the national disaster management agency posted flood warnings on its website, many survivors said the news did not reach them in time. As water engulfed her home in the village of Gozo, Fatima made an impossible choice: to leave a paralyzed husband behind and take their six children to safety, rather than stay behind and risk her entire life.
“He couldn’t wade through that deep water and I couldn’t lift him on my back,” Fatima, 35, said through tears. “We have no food, no shelter or any medicine. Nobody came to help us.”
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Rehman said Pakistan should have “learned our lessons” from another devastating flood in 2010 that also caused billions of dollars in damage. “We can certainly prepare better for the crises,” she said. “We can plan to make our river paths flow better and not get clogged.”
Pakistan has had a tough year. Inflation hit a 47-year high in August. Street protests threaten a government mired in a standoff with former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Despite the International Monetary Fund recently giving the green light to a $1.2 billion bailout, many Pakistanis are despondent about the future, blaming a corrupt state for failing to serve them.
As glacier melt accelerates and the monsoon season becomes more irregular, Pakistan’s problems on the climate front are particularly severe. This year’s rainfall was the highest in about three decades. In Sindh province, one of the hardest-hit regions, rainfall quintupled on average. With so many farms destroyed, Pakistan now has to spend $3 billion to import cash crops like cotton.
Also read: Floods in Pakistan continue to affect over 33 million people: UN official
Manoj Joshi, an international politics analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, said the scale of the flooding coupled with broader governance issues “probably numbed the system”.
Mobilizing resources is difficult in Pakistan, the fifth most populous country in the world. Funds earmarked for public services are often squandered by bureaucrats, preventing wealthier economies from providing support. The country’s challenging topography — with villages carved into rugged mountain passes — has also complicated relief efforts.
“While people’s anger is justified, this question must be asked: did Pakistan have the capacity to deal with this unusual tragedy?” Joshi said. “If you need 100 admins, you only have 24, how responsive can they be? do they have boats Can the army or the air force step in at short notice?”
These are tricky questions. Pakistan is ranked as the world’s eighth most vulnerable country to climate change, but contributes just 1% to global emissions of greenhouse gases that warm the planet. Although the US has provided over $1 billion in emergency relief for the floods, Pakistan has been urging wealthier economies for more regular support.
Ahsan Iqbal, the minister in charge of flood relief, said in a telephone interview that the country did not have to pay for the destruction. “All countries that have contributed to global warming have a responsibility to help us now,” he said. “We did not cause this tragedy ourselves.”
It’s a constant source of tension at climate finance summits: Donors often favor mitigation projects like increasing solar capacity, which have a higher return on investment, than building canals, even when that infrastructure could save lives.
“Extreme events become catastrophes when the vulnerability and exposure of the population is high,” said Friederike Otto, Senior Lecturer at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment in London. “Therefore, reducing vulnerability must be high on the international agenda.”
Officials said the death toll could rise sharply in the coming weeks. The Indus continues to flood and rescue workers are still struggling to reach many cities. Even when the monsoon season ends, the damage will continue for months. This week, the Pakistani government cut its economic growth forecasts by more than half.
Farmers have suffered particularly heavy losses. The agricultural sector employs almost 40% of Pakistanis and represents about a fifth of the economy. Around 800,000 livestock have died since June, and the Pakistan Food Ministry estimates crop losses at more than $1.5 billion. Cotton, rice and onion fields are now huge lakes.
With the refugee camps overcrowded, some survivors have set up tents along the highway, begging for food and supplies from passing cars. In Shah Moreo village, Ghulam Farid, 80, a cotton farmer whose crops were destroyed, said he sells petrol on the street to feed his family of 20. He makes a profit of only 15 rupees (less than US$0.1) per liter.
“We are poor people and have no other source of income,” he said.
For Pakistanis in still-flooded areas, the nightmare seems unending. On a recent trip to Sindh province, evacuation boats went to villages where panicked people were shouting from their rooftops. In some pockets, the water was 16 feet deep, according to officials.
Many said government support was still piecemeal. A group of protesters prevented vehicles from crossing a key bridge. They screamed that their children were dying of hunger.
Ali Raza, 32, who was evacuated from his home, said a desperate situation had turned predatory. He said private boat operators are now charging people exorbitant prices to retrieve belongings from their villages or rescue trapped family members. Some couldn’t afford to pay.
On a recent afternoon, three people braved the current to swim to higher ground. Within seconds, a man slipped into a deeper pool and disappeared.
The next day, rescue workers recover Ghulam Qadir’s body.
–Assisted by Aaron Clark and Faseeh Mangi.
To contact the authors of this story:
Ismail Dilawar in Karachi at [email protected]
Archana Chaudhary in New Delhi at [email protected]
Kai Schultz in Mumbai at [email protected]