Authors: Manita Raut and Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, ANU
The catchphrase ‘water is life’ took on a deeper meaning in 2022 as floods submerged two-thirds of Pakistan, affecting over 33 million people, displacing tens of millions and killing 1400 people.
While the Indus River helped Pakistan’s rural prosperity to grow over generations, the frequency and intensity of floods have been steadily increasing in recent decades. More than 13 floods have occurred in Pakistan since 1992 — and each flood has killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The wrath of climate change, a history of poor water resource planning and indiscriminate infrastructure development have turned the Indus into a symbol of danger.
As of September 2022, the floods have killed eight million animals and destroyed around two million acres of crops — 90 per cent of the country’s crops and 8 million animals have perished. These figures are expected to soar. The recovery from the catastrophe will be difficult as crops and livestock comprise an essential part of Pakistan’s rural economy and livelihoods.
Given that approximately 40 per cent of Pakistan’s workforce is employed in agriculture, inflation is likely to worsen and underemployment to rise. Pakistan’s transportation, health and education sectors will suffer in the long term. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 5000 km of roads and railways are severely damaged. The lack of mobility in the immediate future will challenge the delivery of aid and medical supplies to village households.
Both human-induced and climate-related factors are responsible for the damage caused by floods. But the 2022 floods were undeniably linked to climate change. Pakistan has experienced extreme heat, with temperatures hovering well above 45 degrees Celsius for extended periods during the summer. Temperatures in Jacobabad, one of the world’s hottest places, rose to a staggering 51 degrees Celsius. Melting glaciers in the high Himalayas brought excess meltwater into Pakistan’s river systems.
Once the monsoon season arrived, the already swollen rivers were not able to drain the waters quickly enough into the Arabian Sea. According to a Third Pole article, the 2022 monsoon has steered away from its usual course and this change is likely to have serious impacts on Pakistan. Increased water flows from the early and prolonged monsoon added to the glacial melt. Pakistan received twice the average annual rainfall, with some provinces, such as Sindh and Baluchistan, receiving seven to eight times the average.
The other ‘human-induced’ factor was rampant and pervasive infrastructure development. The infrastructure that was constructed along and around the rivers intensified the human losses. By ignoring the natural slope of the land, the infrastructure prevented the smooth flow of the excess water into the sea. It also instilled a false sense of security in people who occupied lands that were previously taken up by the river whenever it spilt over its banks to deal with excess water.
Two views have emerged over whether or not the construction of infrastructure caused the Indus to behave erratically. One group criticises the extensive infrastructure development, such as embankments and roads, without consideration for natural drainage or the slope of the land. The other argues that the poor do not always have a choice but to live in vulnerable areas.
In Pakistan, nearby farms have long been supplied with water from the Indus River in order to expand irrigation systems and support agricultural growth. Over the years, embankments along the rivers have been built with government assistance to shield the farming land from sporadic floods. Settlements constructed along the riverbanks and in flood-prone areas contributed by choking the natural drainage through which the excess waters move towards the sea.
The majority of farms receiving irrigation water from the Indus are owned by wealthier farmers. Wealthy farmers have prospered from these irrigation infrastructures, leaving the poor to bear the burden of flooding and devastation. That has raised questions about equity and justice in Pakistan.
The floods have also drawn attention to global climate inequality. Though Pakistan contributes to less than 1 per cent of global greenhouse and carbon emissions, it was ranked among the top ten most vulnerable nations to the effects of climate change by the Global Climate Risk Index.
To address these multifaceted challenges and combat the climate crisis, Pakistan will need to implement a diverse set of short- and long-term strategies that are carefully designed, discussed and inclusively implemented. Science and policy must connect climate change risks and mitigation measures in an actionable way.
Better climate preparation is required for South Asia as a whole, not only in Pakistan. The entire region has experienced extreme weather events, such as flooding, droughts and heatwaves. The tragedy in Pakistan is a wake-up call to this world’s most densely populated region. If immediate measures are not taken to improve climate crisis preparedness, mitigation and adaptation, disasters will worsen. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres urges — ‘today it’s Pakistan. Tomorrow, it could be your country’.
Manita Raut is PhD student and John Allwright fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU.
Kuntala Lahiri–Dutt is Professor at the Resource, Environment and Development Program at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU.