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Moment that mattered: Monsoon flooding in Pakistan is declared a national disaster

A man rides on his donkey cart during heavy rainfall in the flood-hit town of Dera Allah Yar in Jaffarabad district, Pakistan, 30th August 2022

A man rides on his donkey cart during heavy rainfall in the flood-hit town of Dera Allah Yar in Jaffarabad district, Pakistan, 30th August 2022. Photo: Fida Hussain/AFP via Getty Images

“For nearly two months it didn’t stop raining, it was devastating,” says Nazar Rehman, a specialist in water supply sanitation, who watched this year’s relentless monsoon rains in Pakistan with horror. Between June and September, Pakistan’s rainfall was nearly three times higher than average and the country, which had previously suffered extreme drought in April, experienced severe flooding.

On 6th July Sherry Rehman, the country’s minister for climate change, announced that 77 people had died in rain-related incidents, declaring the flooding a national disaster. But worse was to come. Within weeks it would be estimated that a third of Pakistan was underwater, with over 33 million people affected. In August the town of Padidan in Sindh, the south-east province worst hit by the floods, received more than 1,200 millimetres of rain. Its previous record for August rainfall was 300 mm. “I was about to leave on an international mission, but every day the news coming out of our field offices across Pakistan was getting worse and worse,” says Nazar, who helped coordinate disaster relief efforts in Nepal after the devastating earthquake in 2015 and in flood-hit Myanmar in 2019. “It soon became clear one of the biggest disasters in Pakistan’s history was happening right now.”

Rehman cancelled his mission abroad and instead became part of the regional disaster response team at humanitarian organisation the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies [IFRC]. In early September he travelled to Sindh. Even now, two months later, and after more than 17 years working in emergency relief operations, he struggles to articulate what he witnessed.  “There are things which you cannot describe,” he says, shaking his head. “We were in villages no other organisation had reached and people were in desperate need of help. It was up to 40°C and people were lying on the side of the road with nothing. They had fled their houses for higher ground and now they were homeless: no food, no shelter, no clean water to drink.”

Rehman describes life in Sindh as being “almost feudal”. “The vast majority of people do not own the land they farm,” he says. “The landowner is often miles away; the workers live there in mud houses and work the land for very little pay. They were poor before the floods, now they have nothing.” Rehman remembers taking a picture of the flood waters to try to capture the scale of the destruction. “I posted it on social media and somebody said ‘where’s that lake?’ I replied, ‘that’s not a lake – it’s a village.’ It was completely drowned, its residents all displaced.”

Rehman and the team from the IFRC quickly got to work. Within weeks they had distributed nearly 30,000 tents, 35,000 mosquito nets and countless food packages. Thirteen mobile health units were put into operation and a series of water treatment plants were established, each capable of producing 3,000 litres of clean drinking water an hour, helping at least 350 families per plant per day.

Despite the overwhelming scale of the destruction and desperation he has witnessed, Rehman saw what he describes as “great moments of humanity” among the hardship. “The places I visited used to be very divided, usually along caste lines,” he says. “We are talking about some of the most marginalised people in Pakistan, and they have come together – along with the national and international aid workers – to form a community.”

Rehman says the resolve of that community will be tested in the coming months after the initial flooding set off a fresh chain of disasters. “The flood was the first emergency,” he says. “Then hunger was the second emergency and now we’re in the third emergency which is the health of these people living in extreme conditions.”

It seems impossible that the fields will be able to be cultivated at all in the next year due to the damage caused by flooding”

This health crisis is mostly caused by disease. By November more than 1,000 cases of cholera and 64,000 of dengue fever had been reported. “We are trying to combat this through providing clean water and facilities and through education – explaining to people the importance of sanitation and hygiene – but it is difficult,” says Rehman. “The worst affected people are in places with high illiteracy rates. It is difficult to get the information to them.”

Rehman is also concerned with what happens in the months to come. “The next emergency will be in maybe five or six months, with food scarcity and damage to livelihoods,” he says. “It seems impossible that the fields will be able to be cultivated at all in the next year due to the damage caused by flooding. People need those crops to eat and to earn money.” According to Pakistan’s government, a total of 30,000 square miles of farmland were flooded – an area roughly the size of Austria – damaging 80 percent of crops across the country and resulting in the loss of over a million head of livestock.

All these emergencies are taking place against a backdrop of political instability. In April, prime minister Imran Khan lost a vote of no confidence and was removed from his job. He was later disqualified from holding public office over breaking fundraising rules. The multi-party coalition led by new prime minister Shehbaz Sharif that took over is deeply divided and has struggled to contain rocketing inflation and rising unemployment. In November Khan was shot at a march in what he described as an assassination attempt, prompting a fresh wave of protests against the government.

“The lack of stability is definitely affecting the situation,” says Rehman. “It’s difficult to know what is happening with the government from one day to the next.” The accompanying financial crisis has added to the strain – and the global economic picture isn’t helping either. “IFRC launched an appeal for 40 million Swiss francs (US$42m), to reach the most vulnerable by providing shelter, food, NFI [non-food items], health, water and sanitation,” says Rehman. “We are not even close to that amount.”

What Rehman finds so frustrating about the disaster, which to date has left over 1,700 people dead, is that he’s been here before. In 2010 he was part of relief efforts after flooding killed 1,985 people in Pakistan and caused an estimated US$43 billion worth of damage to the economy. “What have we learned since then?” he asks. “Nothing.” Rehman says that the warnings of 2010 have not just been ignored but that the country has become even more exposed to flooding. “Climate change is causing the greatest impact, but we have a problem with construction planning, particularly in Sindh,” he says. “We have natural causeways that allow safe passage of rainwater to the sea that could minimise the risk, but we have built a lot of buildings and covered them. We have blocked that outlet and we are seeing the consequences. Right after a disaster the government says, ‘we have learned our lesson and we will act and implement something to reduce the risk of this type of disaster’, but we don’t get that. Another year comes, another disaster, more promises – it’s the same cycle all over again.”

Rehman hopes that the declarations made at the COP27 climate change conference held in Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2022 might help break the cycle. As co-chair of the conference, Pakistan was key to getting the issue of “loss and damage” – whereby richer nations, responsible for the vast majority of carbon emissions, would pay compensation to vulnerable states hit by climate change-fuelled disasters – onto the agenda. As the conference ended it was announced that a global loss and damage fund would be established, with Pakistan’s role in securing the deal widely praised.

According to IFRC data, 93 percent of those most impacted by climate disasters live in low-resource countries that contribute the least to climate change – Pakistan itself contributes less than one percent of the world’s emissions. “Wealthy countries are responsible for half of the world’s emissions since 1850,” says Rehman. “High-polluting nations that historically and currently contribute to climate change must provide support to address its impacts.” Rehman believes that if spent wisely the new funds could allow Pakistan and other low-income countries to better prepare for extreme weather. “Adaptation to climate change and building resilience to threats are relatively new concepts,” he says. “There is a lot to be done for the people to recover and build back better. When communities are prepared, extreme weather doesn’t have to become a disaster.”

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