Pakistan declares a ‘climate catastrophe’ as deaths top 1,000
Flash flooding from ‘monster monsoon’ washes away villages and crops and leaves thousands homeless
It will take at least a decade for Pakistan to recover from this year’s floods.
The figures are numbing, the images terrifying. More than 1,100 people have been killed, one-third of the country is under water, millions of acres of crops have been wiped out, and nearly 33 million people in one of the world’s most populous nations have so far been affected. The rains continue, and the numbers are sure to rise.
Even in a year of extraordinary heatwaves, droughts and storms in the northern hemisphere, this climate disaster has shocked the world, bringing home the human tragedy that is global heating in a crowded, indebted country where nearly one in four people live in extreme poverty.
Yet this year’s flooding, the worst in the county’s history, was entirely predictable and foreseen. Pakistan’s central and provincial governments, its scientists and diplomats, non-government groups and others have all been shouting for years in summits and forums that the country is peculiarly vulnerable to global heating and likely to be hit hard again and again.
With thousands of fast-melting Himalayan glaciers in its north at risk of bursting glacial lakes and releasing billions of cubic metres of water, and increasingly erratic monsoons and cyclones sweeping up from its coast to the south, Pakistan has been a climate catastrophe waiting to happen. This year saw temperatures rise to over 50C.
But heating is far from being the only cause of this disaster. Deforestation, largely to produce millions of acres of new farmland to feed a fast-growing population, has seen vast areas cleared of trees, hillsides left bare, and dams and barrages flood huge forests to provide hydroelectricity for cities. According to the government, just 5% of the country is now forested with as much as 1% of tree cover lost every year for decades. The result has been torrents of water able to rush off the parched land as soon as it rains, overwhelming rivers, eroding fertile soils and silting up reservoirs and irrigation channels.
In the past 20 years Pakistan has suffered at least eight other catastrophic floods. It may be an ecological nightmare, but in the past decade its governments have recognised the dangers and done more than almost any rich country to try to both mitigate their own emissions and adapt to heating.
Since 2017, vulnerable provinces have begun to plant trees on an astonishing scale to try to avoid floods and soak up CO2 emissions. What started with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province pledging in 2011 to plant hundreds of millions of trees in an attempt to slow flooding, has grown into a national plan to restore millions of acres of devastated land by planting 10bn trees – more than any other country in the world.
Many of the provinces most affected by this years’ floods have tried to do the most. The Balochistan government has committed to plant over 4bn trees alone, and large areas of Sind, south Punjab and upper Sindh provinces are now being reforested. Tragically, the floods will have probably killed most of the young trees and set back the planting programme by many years.
Pakistan may now be reaching out to the world for humanitarian help, but tragically, what it receives may be too little, too late. For 10 years or more it and many other equally vulnerable countries like Bangladesh, and Mozambique, have pleaded with the rich world to honour their promise of $100bn a year to enable them to avoid disasters like this – and to prepare for worse to come. But the rich world has done little to help the poor, and the result is now to be seen in Pakistan.