By Ameera Adil and Faraz Haider
Last year, Pakistan faced the most devastating floods in the history of the country, which is notable because the country lies on a geographical floodplain. The Indus is an ancient and powerful river. The floodplain of the river covers nearly half of Pakistan, where most of the country’s population resides. When the Indus breathes, as rivers do, the lives and livelihoods on the floodplains are quietly absorbed by the water.
Climate change had a significant role to play in the 2022 floods. The affected areas received 900mm of rainfall between June to August, which is nearly 350 percent more than the long-term average. Nevertheless, the disaster that happened should not have been a surprise since climate-induced disaster projections by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have been repeatedly stating the increase in frequency and severity of floods. Climate change alone was not the only cause of the devastation, however. Poor governance also played a role increating a cascade of security impacts that can still be witnessed at the moment of writing and have now been conjoined with other dynamics of political instability, resulting in a chasm of insecurities. To unpack this, it is crucial to consider the dynamics of inequalities and discrepancies of governance in Pakistan, and the chain of events from before, during and after the 2022 floods.
Anyone wishing to understand climate injustice needs only to look at Pakistan.The homes that housed the poor were washed away while those that housed the wealthy stood their ground. As a result of these floods, an additional 8.4 to 9.1 million people will now be pushed into poverty, on top of the existing 47 million. As the worsening socioeconomic situation intersects with political instability and recent protests, that have now decreased due to a strict clampdown by the Pakistani government, the conditions are ripe for further social unrest.
Though climate change caused the extreme rains, the subsequent inequality of the impact of these rains is evidence of the deep underlying socioeconomic disparity and complex issues of governance that are revealed with every climate-induced calamity that Pakistanis endure. Climate change hazards interact with the fault lines in Pakistan’s governance system and practices to multiply threats. Therefore, to attribute all of this only to climate change would be inappropriate and lacking a comprehensive view.
Flooding, Governance, and Climate Security in Pakistan: A Recent Timeline
Examining Pakistan’s recent history of flooding demonstrates how climate hazards and responses can intersect with poor governance, compounding over time.
In 2010, Pakistan faced extreme flooding in the provinces of Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. About 1,700 people lost their lives, 20 million were affected adversely, and 6 million were displaced. These floods were similar to the 2022 floods, and were attributed to intense monsoon rains and glacial melt. Political unrest following the floods may not be completely attributable to the calamity itself, but the floods were a contributing factor as anti-government sentiments arose across Pakistan – a good example of the threat multiplier effect of climate change on national security, whereby political security of the state came under question. Additionally, 30,000 – 60,000 military troops were diverted away from their primary deployments for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) purposes. This was a commendable role of the military for HADR, however, may cause force dilution and add to security concerns.
In 2013, as a small step toward replacing some of the 1.9 million homes that were lost in the 2010 floods, the Government of Punjab built 1,885 houses in 22 model villages in Southern Punjab, as a step towards climate resilience. The 2022 flood map included these villages but there has been a lack of data depicting how well the houses fared, since they were built.
In April 2022, the ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan was ousted from power in Pakistan, leading to a political shift that left the government unstable and vulnerable. Rumors of the shutdown of the country’s social protection umbrella initiative, the Ehsaas program, ) were rampant, and despite denial by the new Government, many of the government sponsored langar (free food distribution systems) and panahgah (shelters) disappeared, even within the capital. The social safety nets that many individuals and families relied on were suddenly unreliable, just weeks before a new round of flooding would hit and communities would need such services. It is crucial to note that this exposed another faultline of political unrest, the questionable legitimacy of the government, and subsequent protest that would go on to interact with the aftermath of the 2022 floods.
In August 2022, floods struck a third of the country. 1,700 people lost their lives, and an additional 33 million were affected. People lost their families, homes, animals, livelihoods, and assets. A massive emergency response was seen, donations poured in, and people were desperate to help. Data from the World Bank showed that the affected areas were poorer than the national average, making them even more vulnerable. The military security again was impacted through force dilution since more than 7,500 military troops were deployed for HADR duties. The military also lost senior officers in the Lasbela helicopter crash as those officers were overseeing the HADR activities of the military. While the military’s role in terms of HADR has been pivotal, it has also been a target of the security threats and impacts that have stemmed from the 2010 and 2022 floods.
In October 2022, the world received an initial report of the extent of the damage. The Ministry of Planning, Development and Special Initiatives, heavily assisted by several international organizations, released the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment (PDNA), which stated that total damages exceeded USD 14.9 billion and USD 16.3 billion would be needed for rehabilitation.
In December 2022, the Ministry of Planning released the Resilient Recovery, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Framework (4RF) which quoted figures from the PDNA and provided a way forward.
In August 2023, the Government of Pakistan released the National Adaptation Plan (NAP), detailing a solid, strategic response to climate adaptation. However, the NAP was produced with zero consultation from frontline communities, and is a strictly top-down strategic document. Additionally, exactly a year after one of the worst disasters Pakistan has ever faced, the river Sutlej reached its highest levels in 35 years. The flooding killed 196 people, forced 100,000 people to evacuate, e, damaged 3,703 houses and destroyed 1,114 livestock between June and August of 2023. This disaster only adds to the preexisting 2022 displacements, agricultural losses and subsequent economic and food security impacts, and questions around the legitimacy of the government and whether it can adequately alleviate and address the insecurities faced by its people.
Implications for the Future
This timeline reveals that the post-disaster outflow of strategic documents and reports in Pakistan were not only timely but also well-structured and comprehensive. However, implementation has lagged, both because of repeated climate-driven disasters as well as a much larger underlying issue: a seeming absence of localized or consistent governance. This case study shows a trend of prioritizing short-term gains over long-term well-being of the poorest of the country at the detriment of national security, as seen in the intersection of climate change induced floods with the fault lines of bad governance and political instability.
Building resilience to climate change is not a short-term task. Without stability in governance, Pakistan’s efforts towards climate resilience can only be planned in independent 5-year projects. Debilitating debt and socioeconomic inequality aside, until the political parties of Pakistan cease to fixate on their incessant drive to be in power over a crumbling nation, climate insecurity in Pakistan is going to worsen exponentially. More leaders must recognize the threat climate change poses to national security in the societal, political, and economic sectors if the country is going to manage these risks successfully.
Ameera Adil is the Head of Sustainability at the National University of Sciences and Technology in Pakistan.
Faraz Haider is a Climate Security Researcher and Lecturer at Air University in Pakistan.