Since the outbreak of unprecedented catastrophic floods in Pakistan in June this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that over 1,325 people have lost their lives, while an estimated 12,700 people have been injured. The WHO estimates that over 33 million people have been affected as one third of the country is currently submerged under water, while 6,34,000 people have been displaced from their homes. The country, which is experiencing the highest rainfall in the last three decades, is reeling from the impact of incessant flooding. This has taken a toll on infrastructure, livelihoods, and lives, while access to healthcare facilities, essential medication, and other lifesaving supplies continue to dwindle.
There is a state of national emergency in the country, with damages exceeding US$10 billion. Estimates suggest that the torrential rain is likely to continue for another month, leading to more deaths, injuries, and displacement of thousands of more people. The WHO has also pointed towards the increasing probability of disease outbreak in areas that have been more affected by the floods, especially as the number of cases of acute diarrhoea, typhoid, leishmaniasis, polio, and malaria continue to rise.
Satellite images have shown that a third of Pakistan is now under water and more than 1.6 million homes have been damaged since mid-June. Infrastructure damage inflicted by the floods includes the damage to roads and bridges, which has cut off parts of Pakistan from the rest of the nation. Over 5,000 kilometres of roads, 240 bridges, and 18,000 schools have been affected. As per the WHO, nearly 1,460 health facilities have been disrupted, impacting people’s access to lifesaving treatments and medication. It is estimated that at least half a million people are seeking relief in temporary shelters, while some have had to resort to fleeing to elevated highways and railway tracks to escape the floods.
The agricultural sector, which is the primary source of income for the country’s population and contributes to nearly 23 per cent of the economy, has been gravely impacted by the catastrophe. It is estimated that the floods have washed away nearly two million acres of crops and killed over 795,000 cattle. Kharif crops including tomatoes, chillies, onions, cotton, and rice have sustained the most damage. Damages to the cotton crop alone have led to a loss of around $2.6 billion. The flooding has also impacted government surplus grain reserves, which has increased the prices of certain food items by 40 per cent. Livestock is another important sector in Pakistan’s economy and contributes to 14 per cent of GDP. Close to a million cattle heads (one unit of cattle in a herd) have already been lost, and this is likely to have long term implications on the food security and economy of the country.
The cost of rebuilding is likely to take a toll on the economy, which was already riddled with high inflationary pressures and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before the floods, Pakistan was struggling with record high inflation, and the country’s inflation rate as of 2nd September 2022 of 27 per cent has been the highest in 49 years. The Pakistani rupee has also tanked, while the foreign reserves of the country have reduced to $8 billion as per figures shared by the State Bank of Pakistan.
As people continue to seek temporary shelters, early surveillance has indicated that thousands of people are suffering from acute malaria, respiratory infections, skin and eye infections, and typhoid, amongst other diseases. People have access to limited medication and supplies in relief shelters but the outbreak of waterborne diseases continues to be a huge threat.
REASONS BEHIND THE FLOODING
The devastating state of the floods in Pakistan is due to a combination of reasons, including geographical conditions, climate change, and a lack of infrastructure to deal with rainfall. The main cause of the flooding is the record-breaking rainfall in the country. As of 25th August 2022, Pakistan has experienced 375.4 millimetres (mm) of rainfall, which is 2.87 times higher than the national 30-year average of 130.8 mm. Tarbela and Mangla reservoirs on either side of Islamabad have become choked with silt sweeping down from the Himalayas, and are losing their ability to swallow floodwaters and prevent inundation downstream. In addition to this, the country’s geography, which involves steep mountain slopes in certain areas, has actually increased the acceleration of water, causing floods with greater intensity.
Climate change, which has caused the South Asian monsoon to be more erratic and intense, is another major reason behind the vicious flooding. It is estimated that with every degree increase in global temperature caused by climate change, the world experiences 5-10 per cent more rainfall. Prior to the flooding, Pakistan, along with other South Asian countries, experienced a series of serious heatwaves, and temperatures in certain parts of the country had exceeded 51 Celsius in May this year. Experts state that lack of infrastructure adjustments such as altering rivers’ natural pathways away from human habitation and continued illegal construction in flood-prone areas have also contributed to the calamity. In 2002, an ordinance was passed by the country’s provincial assembly, followed by a 2014 amendment to stop the illegal construction, but this has not yet been implemented.
CLIMATE CHANGE ALARM BELLS
Several recent calamities, such as the catastrophe in Pakistan, a wave of wildfire in the Americas, and the unprecedented heat waves in Europe, have served as a stark reminder of the seriousness of climate change and its impact on our ecosystem. The continuous rapid melting of ice and snow in the Himalayas and in the European Alps has substantially increased this year due to the heat waves. Researchers estimate that glaciers have lost around 40 per cent of their area to around 19,600 square kilometres in 2021. The Himalaya, Karakoram, and Hindu Kush mountain ranges contain around 55,000 glaciers that feed river systems on which around 1.3 billion people in the Indian subcontinent region rely. In fact, India itself has 16,627 glaciers which have also started melting at an alarming rate, which could have a wide range of environmental implications and consequences similar to those seen in Pakistan already. Climate change experts suggest this is an “absolute wake-up call” for the global community to take strict and urgent steps to combat climate change, which has already permanently altered global temperatures.
The global community has come to the aid of Pakistan, as the European Union announced humanitarian aid worth 350,000 euros ($348,000); the Red Cross Society of China announced $300,000 in emergency cash, and the United States offered $30 million in humanitarian aid. The country has also secured $1.1 billion in a loan from the International Monetary Fund and the United Nations has issued a flash appeal to all countries to donate at least $35 billion to help flood victims.
While the devastation being caused by the rain and floods in Pakistan is far from over, the country is attempting to provide relief to victims while rebuilding its economy and infrastructure with the various aid packages. The flooding signals a need to invest in maintenance and setting up of new dams and canals, which can be used to divert waters in such cases. Early-warning systems, which can help countries prepare for the aftermath of such rainfalls in a more efficient manner, are going to be essential as well.