Pakistan’s Flood Disaster Shows the Perils of Climate Shortsightedness

“We have never had a really good plan in terms of how we counter climate change,” one expert noted.

By , a freelance journalist based in Pakistan and the founder of Perspective Magazine.
A child stands in front of a makeshift shelter on the banks of a body of water.
A child stands in front of a makeshift shelter on the banks of a body of water.
An internally displaced flood-affected child stands in his makeshift shelter in a flood-hit area following heavy rains in the town of Dera Allah Yar in Pakistan’s Balochistan province on Sept. 8. FIDA HUSSAIN/AFP via Getty Images

As one-third of Pakistan remains submerged after devastating floods, Muzammil Kakar, general secretary of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Party (HKP), worries about his own family amid on-the-ground efforts to help flood victims near his hometown in Balochistan province, Pakistan. Although Kakar has long been involved in advocacy with the HKP and has since moved to Lahore, Pakistan, following his studies, his family is still back in Quetta—mainly earning money through farming their apple orchards, like much of the Baloch population who live mainly off of agriculture.

But with transportation at a halt and major roadways and railways covered with water, Kakar said despite a good initial harvest, the harvested fruits are rotting in wait because there is no way to send them to consumers or markets. Yet Kakar said the impact of these lost harvests is far from understood. “People here just aren’t realizing that losing the crop means losing a year’s worth of income. We are not prepared for the difficulties that are to come,” he said.

This is hardly the kind of story that’s immediately being highlighted in the aftermath of the floods’ devastation because most efforts are focused on immediate relief of the 33 million internally displaced persons who have lost everything in the disaster. Kakar, however, pointed out this particular story in an effort to share his concern on what will happen next when immediate relief efforts end and the news cycle moves on.

As one-third of Pakistan remains submerged after devastating floods, Muzammil Kakar, general secretary of the Haqooq-e-Khalq Party (HKP), worries about his own family amid on-the-ground efforts to help flood victims near his hometown in Balochistan province, Pakistan. Although Kakar has long been involved in advocacy with the HKP and has since moved to Lahore, Pakistan, following his studies, his family is still back in Quetta—mainly earning money through farming their apple orchards, like much of the Baloch population who live mainly off of agriculture.

But with transportation at a halt and major roadways and railways covered with water, Kakar said despite a good initial harvest, the harvested fruits are rotting in wait because there is no way to send them to consumers or markets. Yet Kakar said the impact of these lost harvests is far from understood. “People here just aren’t realizing that losing the crop means losing a year’s worth of income. We are not prepared for the difficulties that are to come,” he said.

This is hardly the kind of story that’s immediately being highlighted in the aftermath of the floods’ devastation because most efforts are focused on immediate relief of the 33 million internally displaced persons who have lost everything in the disaster. Kakar, however, pointed out this particular story in an effort to share his concern on what will happen next when immediate relief efforts end and the news cycle moves on.

His concerns are well founded. What with Pakistan’s lack of preparation for disaster management and media attention hardly being focused on one event for too long, it’s almost impossible to see long-term impacts being covered or addressed anywhere.

But while it may not be immediate, the story of Kakar’s family is crucial to understanding the long-term impact of this disaster and the history of how it got here in the first place by changing the lens the world has viewed the situation with.

Part of the shortsightedness that Kakar has pointed out can be seen in the mismanagement of flood relief operations—with most organizations and individuals who are coordinating relief efforts homing in on a few select areas while others are left wanting. Aftab Lashari, a retired pediatric specialist in Khairpur, Sindh province, has been working with locals to set up medical camps in Khairpur and nearby towns and villages to address the spread of waterborne diseases that are plaguing flood-stricken areas.

He said these camps have previously been a fixture of their lives here because of how little attention Sindh and Balochistan get from the federal government—which many Sindhis and Balochis believe is because of the excess attention and resources awarded to Punjab province. The ethnic divides that have ruled Pakistani sentiments since partition may not be front and center anymore, but they continue to shape social structures and politics every day.

“People don’t even consider Sindhis and Balochis Pakistani. Balochistan was drowning, and all we cared about was politics,” Lashari said. “Even when the disaster was peaking, the media did not cover it at all. They realized only when railways and trains closed and when the highways were flooded, which impacted their transport.”

The helplessness that many remote communities are facing is even more heartbreaking when paired with just how much damage they’ve had to deal with. The death toll neared 1,400 people as of last week, and overall damage has been estimated to be worth $18 billion.

Although there is no doubt that what has happened is an unprecedented climate anomaly, there is also a manmade element to this disaster—one that needs to be talked about constructively rather than just pointing fingers at political opponents. Most relief efforts are being conducted by civilians and nongovernmental organizations. While the government has set up funds and rescue efforts, a mix of mismanagement and severe distrust of political leadership among civilians has put them in the back seat.

But where media narratives are attributing this lack of action to corruption, water professional and geographer Simi Kamal said that claim doesn’t do justice to the big picture. “Our first governance failure is we have never had a really good plan in terms of how we counter climate change; just planting trees is never going to do it,” she said, adding that “local governments run by locals have to be built from the grassroots up. Preparedness at a local level is much easier than having to be prepared to manage 220 million people together.”

In fact, many of those affected are complaining that local voices being silenced is one of the main reasons they are now dealing with such losses. This debate has manifested recently on whether rural women being affected by the flooding need disposable sanitary pads for their menstrual hygiene. With the flooding’s devastation, many women are struggling to maintain safe menstrual hygiene. That’s why certain groups have been pushing to provide sanitary products to flood victims in an effort to protect them from menstrual health issues both in the short and long term.

Yet many privileged urban women took opposing stances on this issue, and the matter became a social media debate when the focus instead should have been on the nuanced requirements of each area that has been affected. While Ehtesham Hassan, a graphic designer and climate activist working in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, said women in the area have responded positively to the introduction of disposable sanitary products, not everyone has had the same experience.

“I haven’t seen women demand pads on the ground. The sanitation system in this area is very primitive, and so they can’t use or dispose of pads,” said Akhtar Hussain Jabbar, a former civil servant and lawyer organizing relief in Larkana, Sindh. The gap between rural and urban voices and a constant silencing of rural voices in the media means even the most well-meaning people often fail to understand what is needed on the ground.

This is just one example of what disaster and climate expert Fatima Yamin said is one of the biggest flaws in how Pakistan’s leadership has been dealing with disaster management. For her, affected areas in Sindh and Balochistan cannot be treated or helped the same way because the climate crisis in both areas needs to be understood differently. She points out that while Sindh always received rain and the issue was more about draining water the right way, Balochistan never received rain in summer—and therefore, flash floods and mountain torrents need to be dealt with differently in the long term.

The lack of nuance in understanding the climate crisis has played a big role in leading Pakistan to where it is today. “There’s a lack of attention to detail, whether it’s by the federal government, local government, or even the meteorological department,” Yamin said. “We have climate denialists widely in the governance structures and systems.”

Both Hassan and Jabbar are part of collective civilian efforts that have organized aid all across the country, but despite their best efforts, they are all too aware that nothing will come of it until long-term strategies are implemented.

It’s not that there haven’t been plans put in place or discussions that have happened. It’s that the lack of local involvement and red tape in government have helped make implementing anything nearly impossible. In 2010, then-Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari carried out the groundbreaking ceremony for the Winder Dam, which initially was projected to be completed by 2013; as of this year, however, projections for the completion of the dam extend to 2025.

As Pakistan pays the price for a climate crisis created mainly by other countries, managing the aftereffects with such a system is proving disastrous. As Mohsin Hafeez, Pakistan’s representative for the International Water Management Institute, put it, “Pakistan is a policy graveyard.”

It’s time to focus on what’s actually possible now—according to Kamal, that means a severe shift in lifestyles. The first step includes geographical planning and, for many rural communities, shifting the spaces they’ve known as home. A large number of rural communities live in areas prone to flooding; as the flood areas continue to increase, a more permanent housing solution will have to be found. “Given these things will continue to happen, any future planning should include places people can be taken,” Kamal said, noting that many villages built on riverbanks will have to be relocated.

Yet currently, it seems there are two completely separate avenues being taken. One is led by experts and the government talking about what needs to be done next, and the other is led by locals and civilians scrambling for aid themselves. But it isn’t until the two come together that a solution can be found.

Correction, Sept. 16, 2022: A previous version of this article misstated where a source works. Graphic designer and climate activist Ehtesham Hassan works in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, not Punjab.

Anmol Irfan is a freelance journalist based in Pakistan and the founder of Perspective Magazine. Her work focuses on gender justice, climate change, media diversity, and religion. Twitter: @anmolirfan22

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