Pakistan dispatch: Pakistan’s monster monsoon is a climate catastrophe and a debt dilemma
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Pakistan dispatch: Pakistan’s monster monsoon is a climate catastrophe and a debt dilemma

Law students and law graduates in Pakistan are reporting for JURIST on events in that country impacting its legal system. Here, Eisha Chaudhry, a law student in the final year of her external LL.B. program at the University of London, reflects on the floods that have lately devastated so much of Pakistan and have prompted Pakistani lawyers both in-country and abroad to organize relief efforts and press for more remedial and humanitarian action from all levels of government. She files this dispatch from Islamabad.

Sixteen hundred people have died in the wake of Pakistan’s fatal floods. More than 400 of the dead are children. Thirty-three million people have been uprooted and are now internally displaced, according to Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). The entire nation, home to 225 million people, is utterly devastated as floods erase lives, roads and buildings alike, spawning healthcare and food crises on top of the country’s already precarious political and economic situation.

According to climate change minister Sherry Rehman, “one third of the country is underwater right now, which has exceeded every boundary, every norm we’ve seen in the past.” Indeed, the floods have been described as the deadliest “in the history of Pakistan” by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif. Sharif undertook several aerial visits to drop relief packages in places where drowning was an imminent danger and bedframes were being deployed in rescue efforts.

The Cause

But what caused this ‘climate carnage’? The floods were heralded by an extreme heat wave in March; Pakistan is more prone to extreme weather conditions due to its location on the globe – the conjunction of two major weather systems: one causes high temperatures and drought, like March’s heatwave, and the other brings torrential monsoon rains. This is why Pakistan ranks 8th on the list of countries most vulnerable to the aftereffects of climate change according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, making it a climate crisis “hotspot” where people are 15 times more likely to die from climate disasters.

There is also a man-made element to the deluge: global warming. Global warming is making air and sea temperatures rise, leading to increased evaporation as warmer air can retain more moisture. Increased evaporation during the heatwave led to unprecedented levels of rainfall beginning in mid-June of the country’s monsoon season. The provinces of Sindh and Balochistan received record rainfall, with 784% and 500% more respectively than the August average. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres aptly described the flooding as a “monsoon on steroids,” a “climate catastrophe.” Pakistan’s contribution to Global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions, however, is less than one percent (0.8% as per GHG inventory, 2018)– almost negligible.  Its share of the catastrophic ramifications of climate change is colossal. Poorer nations like Pakistan are bearing the brunt of the pain, damage and death brought on by the world’s disastrous and apocalyptic “sleepwalk” into climate change negligence.

But there is another factor making Pakistan more susceptible to the effects of climate change: its massive glaciers. Pakistan’s northern region has more glacial ice than anywhere outside of the polar regions, which is why it is often referred to as part of the ‘third pole.’ This glacial ice melts as the world warms, causing surrounding rivers and alpine lakes already swollen due to rainfall  to inundate the surrounding population. Most of Pakistan’s population lives around the river Indus and are at imminent risk of drowning. The UNDP said that glaciers in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan region are melting rapidly, creating more than 3000 lakes. Around 33 of these are prone to sudden bursting, unleashing millions of cubic meters of water and debris and endangering 7 million people.

Flood Crisis as Food Crisis

With human losses comes the very real threat of food shortages and malnutrition, as half the country’s crops have been washed away. Pakistan is an agro-based economy which means it is heavily reliant on agriculture yields and half of its population is involved in agricultural activity. Pakistan’s agriculture sector, which contributes 24% to the country’s gross domestic product, has been devastated as floods have wreaked havoc across 8 million acres of crops, jeopardizing food security, disrupting agricultural exports and destroying people’s livelihoods. Pakistan is the world’s fourth rice exporter and fifth cotton exporter, but floods have ravaged these crops, affecting export revenue and global supply. Nearly 15% of the rice crop and 40% of its cotton crop were wiped away. Agriculture related losses are estimated at $3.84 billion. Total economic damage incidental to the floods is estimated at $30 billion.

Many families have lost their only source of sustenance – their crops and livestock – in the recent floods. Others have been left stranded and homeless, while waterborne diseases infest the affected areas. Children flood hospitals, feverish and malnourished, with bulging eyes and protruding ribs. Every day, the number of infants wrapped in white increases. Ten children breathe their last each day at Sindh province’s Mother and Child Healthcare Hospital alone. Untold numbers die in makeshift camps, unable to reach medical care. Malnourishment and cholera have become twin secondary disasters, unfurling misery on the impoverished and vulnerable. As floodwaters recede, tens of thousands grapple with a plethora of other diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, dengue fever and malaria.

What is even more alarming is the onset of the winter season, and the downsized production of the staple winter crop: wheat. With the destruction of arable lands and continued inundation, land has become unsuitable for planting winter crops, especially wheat, which contributes 72% of the nation’s daily caloric intake.  A food crisis could come to light if pre-emptive measures are not taken. One such action could be immediate planting of winter crops to ensure food security and cut import bills. While lands in Sindh may not yet be suitable, lands in Punjab may suffice to meet wheat and other crop production targets.

The responsibility now lies with the government to equip farmers with special incentives to cover their losses and help get them back on their feet, says Muhammad Azeem Khan, Chairman of the Pakistan Agricultural Research Council. The loans sought by growers in the flood affected areas should be rescheduled and interest on agriculture loans abolished, Khan added.

If nothing is done, hunger and starvation are not only looming, but are already here.

Were There Warnings?

Since 2010’s mega Indus floods, some of Pakistan has been submerged every year. So although the level of destruction wreaked by the 2022 floods was unanticipated, it cannot be said that the disaster itself was wholly unprecedented.

Record high temperatures in March and April led to flash floods in the country’s Northern region, wiping out a key bridge and damaging homes and buildings. Flooding that damaged Karakoram Highway followed the hottest April on record since 1961, fueled by climate change. While most glacial lakes typically formed in May, rapid snowmelt caused the lake adjacent to Mount Shishpar to form a month earlier in April. Pakistan’s climate change minister warned that the country’s vulnerability to flooding is high because of the heatwave hitting the region as early as April.

Climate impact scientist Fahad Saeed explains that Pakistan’s meteorological service did a “reasonable” job of warning people in advance about the floods. And Pakistan does have some flood defenses, but they could be improved, he adds. In the past, developing countries with weaker defenses or lower quality housing have been less able to cope with extreme rainfall. But even a rich nation would be overwhelmed by the catastrophic floods this summer. “This is a different type of animal – the scale of floods is so high and the rain is so extreme that even robust defenses would struggle,” Dr Saeed elaborates. He refers to the floods in Germany and Belgium that killed dozens in 2021.

A Broken Promise

Twelve years ago at a United Nations climate Summit in Copenhagen, developed nations made a significant pledge. They vowed to finance US$100 billion a year to less developed nations by 2020, to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises in temperature.

That promise was broken. A 2020 UN report concluded that “the only realistic scenarios” showed the $100 billion target was out of reach. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres conceded, “We are not there yet.”

Highlighting the adversity borne by poorer nations as they shoulder the carbon footprint of the rich, Pakistan has called on developed countries to fulfill their US$100 billion commitment to help developing countries in adapting to global warming.

In July, Ambassador Aamir Khan, Pakistan’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, said during a briefing on the Petersburg Climate Dialogue 2022: “Enhanced commitments for annual climate finance from the floor of $100 billion goal must be achieved in the new Collective Quantified Goal on Climate Finance by 2024.” He stated that concessional finance must be significantly scaled up and “climate finance should not be a source of additional external debt for developing countries,” stressing the need for establishing an independent loss and damage financial facility. “The specific challenges faced by developing countries in climate change must be recognized.”

He also called for expedition and simplification of existing procedures to access financing for climate projects, such as from the Green Climate Fund, and demanded its early replenishment.

Efforts for Mitigation

Pakistan’s government and the UN are attempting to reduce the risks of these sudden outburst floods by installing early-warning systems and protective infrastructure. The UN has launched a $160 million flash appeal to help Pakistan amid ‘epochal’ floods. The UN’s World Food Program has so far delivered food to 600,000 flood survivors

A compensation mechanism at a global level should be introduced to help developing nations that are facing huge losses due to climate change. The international community could start with fulfilling its US $100 billion pledge, in the form of a grant not a loan, although estimated trillions are needed to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

The World Bank has pledged US $2 billion for flood relief in Pakistan including US$66.1 million in aid already announced by Washington.

Support is also being organized by local members of Pakistan’s legal community galvanizing action through donation. For example, a community of law students at The Institute of Legal Studies (TILS) Multan, Islamabad and Lahore have raised over PKR 10 lac through bakesales and cricket match screenings. Efforts such as these are in abundance as the Pakistani legal community bands together in times of crisis through its rich donation culture.

Pakistan has no option but to fight climate change through effective mitigation and adaptation measures to save its future generations from the dire consequences of climate change. At COP25 in 2019, Pakistan successfully launched its Ecosystem Restoration fund along with development partners and also laid out its five-point agenda for climate change mitigation: planting 10 billion trees, transforming transport into electric vehicles, 30pc clean energy transformation target by 2030, materializing nature-based solutions, making Pakistan plastic-bag free and recharging Pakistan’s programme to tackle floods.

Flood management in Pakistan is integrated through its fourth National Flood Protection Plan (2015-2025) devised by The National Engineering Services of Pakistan with assistance from the Netherlands-based Deltares institute. For the first time, the national strategy emphasizes integrated management and ‘soft’ measures such as mapping floodplains and restoring the watershed and forests upstream. In addition, a River Act was drafted to stop encroachment on flood plains. The plan also envisaged the construction of large reservoirs in already identified areas, including the Kalabagh, Diamer Bhasha, Akhroi, Munda, Chiniot and Kurram Tangi dams and upgrading the early warning system. Pakistan, it seems, has failed to live up to its plans as the policy has not been carried forward to fruition. The climate change minister, Sherry Rehman, recently apprised that the Billion Tree Tsunami Project implemented in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was under investigation by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and investigation and audit were also underway for Ten Billion Tree Tsunami Project , which was partially funded by the Provinces.

What of the Future?

Pakistan was already in a debt crisis before the flash floods triggered widespread destruction- with US $12.5 billion of debt repayments due this year alone. Deteriorating global economic conditions have already pushed Pakistan to the brink of economic collapse. The country is left at the mercy of climate disasters as money that might be spent on building climate resilience and investing in essential public services at a time of national emergency is diverted to foreign creditors, including Western banks and bondholders, to manage its debt repayments at soaring interest rates.

A UN Development Programme memorandum, which it will share with Pakistan’s government this week, states that the country should suspend debt repayments and restructure loans with creditors in light of the devastating floods. Pakistan’s creditors should consider debt relief so that policymakers can prioritize financing its disaster response over loan repayment. The memo further proposed debt restructuring or swaps, where creditors would let go of payments in exchange for Pakistan agreeing to invest in climate change-resilient infrastructure.

As for further climate change-related disasters, Pakistan remains prone to such catastrophes in the future. Anja Katzenberger of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research explains that average rainfall in the Indian summer monsoon season will increase due to climate change. Global warming is currently at 1.2 degrees Celsius a year. Any more warming translates to a death sentence for many people in Pakistan, according to climate impact scientist Fahad Saeed in Islamabad.

Even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the more ambitious goal under the Paris Climate Agreement, a third of Pakistan’s glaciers could still melt. And as they shrink, they could near a tipping point, according to Ulrich Kamp, who has studied glaciers for 20 years. “Suddenly, when they are that small, everything turns around 180 degrees, from too much water and flooding to drought.”

It seems Pakistan will have to persevere amid the death and devastation, remaining sure-footed in the face of calamity.