Pakistan’s Deadly Floods Pose Urgent Questions on Preparedness and Response
September 14, 2022
Pakistan is experiencing its worst humanitarian crisis in a decade, spurred by extreme torrential rainfall and devastating flash floods. The most widespread flooding in the 73-year history of Pakistan has left one-third of the country underwater and parts resembling “a small ocean.” The floods have impacted over 4.2 million people; almost 1,400 people have died, including 458 children, more than 1,600 are injured, and half a million are displaced. Since mid-June, the flooding has damaged over 1 million homes and destroyed 130 bridges and 3,000 kilometers of roads. Authorities warn the flood waters could take up to six months to recede.
The destruction of critical infrastructure has created severe access constraints for civilians and government officials working to reach affected populations. The disaster aggravates preexisting climate, economic, and public health crises, with women, girls, and other vulnerable groups bearing the brunt. More than 6.4 million people are in “dire need” of humanitarian aid, requiring the international community to work collaboratively with local actors and the government of Pakistan to address immediate needs while providing support for longer-term prevention and rehabilitation efforts.
Q1: What is the situation in flood-affected areas?
A1: Satellite images reveal the extent of the devastation. The retaining wall of Lake Manchar—the largest lake in Pakistan, located near Sehwan Sharif in the southeastern province of Sindh—burst last week, causing thousands to flee and drowning hundreds of villages. After flood waters inundated two rural towns, the Pakistani government made a controversial, last-ditch attempt to ease pressure on the structure by engineering two intentional breaches. The government hoped to divert flood waters from densely populated areas and save the resting grounds of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, a renowned and revered Sufi saint. Its efforts proved futile: the ruptured wall inundated approximately 400 villages, affecting nearly 135,000 people and increasing water levels as much as six feet.
Lake Manchar, Sindh, Pakistan
The Sindh province continues to see record rainfall, and water is permeating into the overflowing water channel of the Indus River, swollen by tributaries such as Lake Manchar. Several flood survivors from villages on the banks of the Indus made the treacherous journey to Sukkur, approximately 230 kilometers from Sehwan Sharif, hoping to obtain food and medical assistance. However, Sukkur is now also submerged under water.
Sukkur, Sindh, Pakistan
Sindh has been the province worst affected by the floods, with 522 deaths reported, including 219 children, but other regions also face “apocalyptic” levels of destruction. In southwestern Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest province, flooding has destroyed 60 percent of the houses. Nearly 300 people, including over 100 children, have been killed in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since mid-June. The floods have damaged dozens of bridges, hundreds of kilometers of roads and water supply lines, and more than 1,000 houses in Pakistan-administered Gilgit-Baltistan. Over 900,000 acres of crops in Punjab, including nearly half of the country’s cotton, have been destroyed.
Q2: What factors are contributing to the devastation?
A2: In April and May 2022, Pakistan experienced its hottest months in 61 years, causing nearly 100 deaths in northwest India and southeast Pakistan. The heatwave “[tested] the limits of human survivability,” with temperatures in parts of the country exceeding 122 degrees Fahrenheit. Earlier this year, forest fires destroyed 45 acres of Margalla Hills National Park. A NASA study suggests that some areas in Pakistan will soon become uninhabitable. Karachi, Pakistan’s financial and industrial capital, with a population of 16 million, is forecast to be submerged in seawater by 2060. Jacobabad, considered the world’s hottest city, is already underwater.
Despite early speculation, climate experts say Pakistan’s floods are not primarily attributable to glacial melt. The country is home to more than 7,200 glaciers, the highest number outside the Antarctic and Arctic polar caps. Although rising temperatures have caused the glaciers to melt at increased rates, Islamabad-based ecologist Parvaiz Naim claims that “such floods have so far been of local significance only because of the relatively small volumes of discharge."
According to Shafqat Munir, a research fellow at the Islamabad-based think tank Sustainable Development Institute, southbound rains prompted the catastrophic flooding. Pakistan, located on the far western edge of the South Asian monsoon region, with a predominantly arid desert climate, generally receives far less rainfall than parts of India. However, the volume of rainfall in Pakistan this year has been historic; the country has seen 190 percent more rain than the 30-year average, and meteorologists forecast more unabating precipitation in the weeks to come. Sindh and Balochistan have received 784 percent and 496 percent of their average rainfall this season, respectively.
In addition to climate change, several other factors account for the extreme impact of the flooding. Experts claim the Pakistani government is “paying the price for years of delays in addressing the problem.” Corruption, mismanagement of the country’s water resources, a lack of necessary infrastructure, and weak governance have fueled the crisis, hitting the poorest and middle class the hardest. Many structures were built illegally or so poorly that they could not withstand the rains and subsequent floods, and some were constructed in places previously affected by the 2010 floods. Local government authorities often lack the capacity to combat illegal construction. Pakistan’s army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, has called for legal action against those responsible for erecting structures on vulnerable sites.
Illegal logging persists across Pakistan, despite claims the government controlled the situation through the deployment of paramilitary forces. Pakistan, already in a forest deficit with only 5 percent of areas forested, compared with a global average of 31 percent, has experienced higher deforestation rates than average due to rampant forest fires and uncontrolled logging. Trees restrict sediment deposition and stabilize soil during extreme rain events. With increased deforestation, Pakistan will become more susceptible to severe flooding.
Political instability has exacerbated the situation further. A power struggle between the Pakistan Democratic Movement coalition government and ousted leader Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, dominated media coverage in earlier months of the crisis. The heat wave that began in April and the floods that hit Balochistan province in July received little attention from politicians or news organizations. While the immediate political crisis has ceased, underlying tensions may affect the long-term response.
The excessive production of carbon emissions by industrialized countries in the Global North is also causing severe climate impacts in the Global South. Pakistan is home to 2.6 percent of the world’s population, yet it has contributed only 0.4 percent of global carbon emissions since 1959, well below its fair share of safe emissions. Countries in the Global North, on the other hand, have exceeded their quotas by 92 percent, with 100 companies responsible for 71 percent of emissions. The United States accounts for 4 percent of the world’s population but is responsible for 13 percent of global carbon emissions, bearing a “disproportionate liability.” Continued inaction from the Global North to reduce its emissions will further contribute to climate-induced humanitarian disasters in countries across the Global South.
Q3: What are the short- and long-term impacts of the floods?
A3: This year’s calamity alone would have been disastrous, but the flooding compounds preexisting economic and public health crises in Pakistan. The government reported a record 27 percent inflation rate for August, requiring it to meet conditions to restart an International Monetary Fund (IMF) plan, including ending subsidies on oil and increasing tariffs on electricity consumption. The government accepted the requirements, which has helped stave off default but inflicted strains on the poorest and middle class.
As part of the bailout, the IMF approved a $1.17 billion loan that will go toward relief efforts. Pakistan is also expected to receive $16 billion in commercial loans, $14 billion from other international institutions, and $2 billion in foreign direct investment. According to Ahsan Iqbal, the minister of planning and development, the cost of damage the country has incurred thus far will likely be “far greater” than current estimates of $12.5 billion. Some experts argue the loans will further weaken Pakistan’s economic position.
Pakistan has been facing heightened food insecurity due to inflated food prices resulting from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The widespread destruction of Pakistan’s agriculture and livestock will trigger additional severe food shortages. The flooding has drowned 900,000 livestock and obliterated 80 to 90 percent of crops and over 4 million acres of farmland. Faisal Edhi, head of the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan’s largest social welfare organization, says that those who have survived the floods now risk death by starvation. The United Nations warns of increasing risks of mortality and severe acute malnutrition among newborns, with health services unable to meet growing needs.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the flooding has damaged more than 1,460 health centers, 432 of which are inoperable, primarily in Sindh province. Health officials are concerned about large-scale outbreaks of waterborne diseases—namely cholera, diarrhea, and malaria—and respiratory illnesses, which have caused significant strains on health facilities and killed almost 1,200 people. According to the WHO, diarrhea, measles, respiratory infections, skin diseases, typhoid, and vector-borne diseases, such as dengue and malaria, have been reported, especially in badly affected areas. With half a million people crowded into emergency relief camps, the health crisis will likely deteriorate further. The need for clean drinking water, hygiene kits, and sanitation is ever-present. There is also an urgent need to scale up disease surveillance, replenish health supplies, and restore damaged medical facilities.
The floods have severely exacerbated the situation for women, girls, and other vulnerable groups. According to CARE Pakistan country director Adil Sheraz, “It’s women, girls, and other marginalized groups who face the biggest challenges including access to humanitarian assistance.” The UN Population Fund estimates more than 8 million women and girls of reproductive age are affected, with 1.6 million needing humanitarian assistance. Pakistan’s crumbling healthcare infrastructure has rendered at least 650,000 pregnant women without the facilities and support they need to deliver their children safely. Of the 100,000 pregnant women in Sindh province, only 891 have been able to relocate to emergency relief camps. Up to 73,000 women have delivery dates in the next month and require skilled birth attendants, newborn care, and support. With over 1 million homes damaged, women and girls face a heightened risk of sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV). Pakistan’s Khwaja Sira (transgender) community, who already face daily discrimination, are also at heightened risk of violence.
During the “super-floods'' of 2010, extremist attacks against religious minorities—particularly Ahmadis and Shias—increased, sparking violent protests against the police for failing to protect them. Minority groups had been denied services by aid workers, an offense likely to reoccur in the absence of protective measures and safeguards for vulnerable groups. Reports of SGBV against women and girls from minority religious communities, including Hindus, have already surfaced.
Q4: How have domestic, regional, and international actors responded thus far?
A4: During his recent visit to flood-affected areas in Pakistan, UN secretary-general António Guterres said he “never [has] seen climate carnage” at this scale, warning “today it is Pakistan, tomorrow it could be your country.” Guterres calls on the world to stop “sleepwalking” through the crisis. The United Nations announced a flash appeal for $160 million to “provide critical food and cash assistance to Pakistan.” The United States has allocated $50 million in humanitarian assistance to support flood survivors, using the funds to supply food, multipurpose cash, nutrition, safe water, improved sanitation and hygiene, and shelter assistance.
The European Union will provide $1.8 million to relief efforts in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and Sindh provinces. The United Kingdom has announced $17.3 million in funding, and other European countries have followed suit, including Germany, which has pledged $13 million to Pakistan. However, Germany is facing growing criticism over deporting Pakistani asylum seekers amidst the catastrophic flooding, with one refugee group describing the deportations as “humanitarian bankruptcy.” Bangladesh, China, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates, are also contributing, yet current funding levels are nowhere close to what is needed, according to Finance Minister Miftah Ismail.
Although Pakistan is facing a massive humanitarian crisis, the international response to date is minuscule compared to Ukraine, where around 12 million people were displaced—around a third of the displaced population in Pakistan. World leaders have criticized the international community’s focus on the war in Ukraine, arguing that crises elsewhere are not being given the same attention. WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebre claims the world “is not treating the human race the same way.” Columnist Fatima Bhutto argues that “it is either a snide form of racism—that terrible things happen to places like Pakistan—or an utter failure of compassion.”
Civilians and local government authorities are doing the heavy lifting on the ground, conducting rescue operations and delivering emergency relief to the country’s most vulnerable. Organizations such as Women Democratic Front are developing mechanisms to distribute cash and in-kind goods to families affected by the floods. Yet volunteers on the frontlines are facing severe access issues. Floodwater has inundated miles of roads, making some towns almost impossible to reach. The government has been unable to deploy helicopters to rescue survivors due to the relentless rain, with nowhere to pump the water. Only 10 percent of survivors have received any assistance so far.
Relief efforts should draw lessons from the response to the 2010 floods when Pakistanis turned out in full force to coordinate relief efforts, donate, and volunteer with local organizations or government-led operations, as they have in recent months. Donors and international actors should act in support of Pakistani organizations, such as the Aga Khan Development Network, the Edhi Foundation, and the Hidaya Foundation, and make a concerted effort to give back agency and leadership to domestic response organizations more capable and attuned to the needs of affected populations.
Second, in the months after the initial response to the 2010 floods, funding and international attention on the crisis dwindled. The scale of destruction and needs is expected to worsen with time. All stakeholders should develop means to provide funding and resources for a sustained period while keeping longer-term disaster prevention and rehabilitation in mind. This assistance should focus on grants and mechanisms that can support local actors rather than large loan packages that can exacerbate existing economic challenges.
Pakistan has a long way to go toward recovering from the current crisis and preparing for future disasters. International actors can do their part by supporting local actors in their short-term response and longer-term prevention and rehabilitation efforts. The floods should also serve as a wake-up call for countries in the Global North to drastically reduce emissions so that countries in the Global South contributing the least to climate change no longer are faced with the consequences.
Hareem Fatima Abdullah is a program coordinator with the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jacob Kurtzer is director and senior fellow with the CSIS Humanitarian Agenda.
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