Washed Away: Pakistan’s struggle against the floodwaters

Monsoon: a blessing turned curse

The monsoon season occurs between July and September in Pakistan and is truly a sight to behold. With the artistry of large gusts of wind coupled with torrential rain blowing in and through the region,  it is strange to conceive that a season, though beastly, could still be a blessing to its people. Yet, the monsoon rain holds no such qualms about what constitutes being strange and nourishes the land anyway – providing freshwater sources, electricity and keeping the backbone of the economy alive by feeding crops which make up an overwhelming portion of the agricultural produce. However, it is entirely possible to have too much of a good thing, as Pakistan has found out more routinely within the last 30 years than ever before. 

The following are the main factors that depend heavily on the monsoon rain.

Agriculture

The agricultural sector dominates Pakistan’s economy, as befits the backbone of Pakistani society, influencing the lives of around 70% of the population directly or indirectly by providing:

  • Food: Pakistan’s population is rapidly growing, having increased by 2% from 2021 to 2022 (an increase of over 4.5 million people). To cope with the rising levels of food insecurity borne from increasing demand, agricultural production is key. Crops such as rice are staple foods in Pakistan – with 90% of rice being produced and consumed in Asia – provide the life-saving nutrition that is so desperately needed. With approximately a third of people living under the poverty line, individuals rely heavily on staple crops to survive. Agriculture seeks to lift people out of food poverty.
  • Employment: The livelihoods of around 70% of people depend on the agricultural sector, directly or indirectly. Due to Pakistan’s status as a developing country, its economy is predominantly supported by the output from the primary sector. The stability of regular income improves the wellbeing of the people. Disposable income allows individuals to invest into their lives, increasing the quality of the educational and health facilities, improving the quality of life of the population. Investment into a country’s facilities makes it a more prosperous and efficient one, boosting economic growth.
  • Footing in markets: Agriculture makes up 70% of Pakistan’s exports and has given Pakistan a strong standing in the global markets. It is the 4th largest producer and the 12th largest exporter of cotton, making it an invaluable player in the global textile industry. This elevates Pakistan on the global stage, inviting beneficial trade deals and the opportunity to foster new relationships, further strengthening Pakistan.

The wellbeing of the country, both economic and social, therefore lies on the precipice of the monsoon season. The difference between a good monsoon and a bad one is the difference between life and death for many. Lives and livelihoods rise and fall at the whim of the rain. 

Economy

Pakistan’s economy is ultimately at the whim of the monsoon rain since agriculture is at the root of so many industries. monsoon-fed crops feed the people and livestock, keeping the society running. The country’s strong footing in the textiles industry leads back to the large production of cotton fuelling the success. 

Such a dependence on the monsoon leaves a large gap in the country’s economic armour, and when given the chance, water will rust through and the consequences will be long-lasting.

Flowchart of the economic consequences of monsoon damage

Let’s break it down:

  1. Monsoon trouble: An extreme monsoon spells severe damage to the country: lost lives, homes, crops, facilities. Pakistan has faced 20 major floods since 1950 according to the Federal Flood Commission (FFC). A particularly devastating period occurred from 2010 to 2012 – the consecutive battering claimed 3,072 lives altogether and wreaked havoc over a combined total of 194,726 sq km of the country.
  1. Crops destroyed: Too much rain water-logs and rots crops, rendering them unusable. Livestock are also severely impacted, as a lack of human protection leaves them exceedingly susceptible to the floodwaters. In 2022, $13 million USD worth of livestock was lost in Sindh, an area which contributes a majority of the   agricultural output of Pakistan. 
  1. Agricultural output falls: Monsoon-fed crops are the backbone of the agricultural industry and without its input, the sector’s output falls dramatically. Sindh, the country’s agricultural centre faced countless losses like 15.5 million tonnes of losses in the most dominant crops: rice, sugarcane and cotton. In economic terms, this alone lost Pakistan $1.3 billion (USD) from the agricultural sector. Not only had the products been lost, capital such as tractors, irrigation systems, power tillers were irrevocably lost. 
  1. Unemployment rise: The agricultural sector alone employs 42.3% of the population, without even accounting for the other active sectors in the country. As the floodwaters take away countless facilities, people’s livelihoods are washed away with them. 
  1. Disposable income falls: As people lose jobs, money runs short and the population is no longer able to afford the goods and services they were previously able to. Not only have the floods washed away people’s sources of income, it also wipes out accessibility to financial services, yet another hurdle to cross when trying to get help.
  1. Supply falls: Crops fail and the overall availability of subsequent goods fall e.g. rice, mangoes, cotton. This severely impacts the supply chain of the country.
  1. Higher inflation: Inflation is the sustained rise in prices of goods and services in a country. In this instance, it will be mainly caused by a major hit to supply chains. Loss in supply causes increased inflation because when there is a shortage in products on the market, the limiting of prices through competition is no longer at play, therefore a small number of products are able to set increasing prices as consumers have little choice but to choose them. 

Furthermore, a severe labour or raw materials shortage means that goods and services take longer and are more expensive, increasing the costs of a particular firm. Therefore, the firm must react accordingly and raise prices to accommodate their rising costs. 

  1. Cost of living crisis: Combined with short supply and increased imports, people struggle to make ends meet and afford their previous standard of living.
  1. Economic decline: Between catastrophic hits to the agricultural sector, the increase in spending needed to recover and bringing the country to a standstill, the economy takes a devastating blow. Often in times of disaster like this, the country is pushed to seek help from the global community.

The economy stands to lose it all if the benefits of the monsoon season break down as the floodwaters infiltrate all parts of life. Floods occurring with increasing frequency certainly makes the need to establish prevention strategies all the more urgent.

Energy

The torrential monsoon rain is also the driving force behind electricity production in an energy-insecure Pakistan. Dams fill up with rainwater once a year during the monsoon season and then are drained during the cold, dry season. As climate change takes its toll, the seasonal droughts become more common which widens the gap between the amount of energy demanded by the population and the amount produced.

Hydroelectric dams generate electricity controlling the flow of water passing through a water source

Hydropower currently makes up 27% of Pakistan’s energy mix, if this is compared with its coal and natural gas use of 33%, it is making significant steps in going green. However, generation levels are deeply impacted by Pakistan’s climate with the capacity shrinking by 87% as soon as the monsoon season ends. The recipients of this power add another layer of dependency on the monsoon rain, as the agricultural sector is the main consumer of hydropower. Pakistani society is so intrinsically intertwined with the rain, it is both the country’s saviour and doom.

Water resources

The dependency on the monsoon season is made even deeper due to the water crisis in the country. Pakistan ranks 14 out of 17 ‘extremely high water risk’ countries as it hurtles towards severe water insecurity from its previous water abundant status. The agricultural sector, the primary source of income for the economy, consumes 97% of its freshwater sources.  Water insecurity only highlights how crucial the monsoon rain is to Pakistan, since it has become a resource capable of throwing the country off into a dark destitute future. There is a distinct lack of of recycled or reclaimed water resources available in the country – only 1% of Pakistan’s wastewater is treated and 40% of water is lost to spillages and side leakage. Pakistan holds the 160th position in the world ranks for water withdrawals (measured using a ratio of water withdrawal to water resource). The policy has very much been to follow short-term gains but if Pakistan is to remain afloat in an increasingly climate-havoced world, it needs to change tactics. To keep Pakistan’s water supply healthy and long-lasting, the focus must be turned to the efficiency of the irrigation system and the sustainability of water sources. 

The monsoon is one of the few sources of groundwater in the Indus River Basin aquifer. Groundwater is the water found in between the cracks of rocks and underground. It is a resource replenished by rain but as Pakistan has become  more water-insecure, one of the only ways for the satisfactory replenishment of its groundwater is through the monsoon rain. The Indus basin has been ranked the 2nd most over-burdened water source in the world according to NASA Climate Change 2015. The basin provides 70% of drinking water and 100% of industry needs for water. Therefore, this reckless dependency on groundwater and subsequently the monsoon rain in particular, leaves the gate open for many risks to come through. Whether it be droughts creating severe water shortages or disease from too much water, it is a huge liability for the people of Pakistan.

Too much, too soon: climate change speeds ahead

Floodwaters rising endlessly

This year’s monsoon began in June and continued consistently until August, as on average, 190% of the normal rainfall fell. One province even faced 430% more rain than the 30-year average for the area. The rain started from the west, an area unused to heavy rain, covered in plains. The ground quickly became over-saturated, unable to absorb any more water, and torrential rainfall rapidly filled up the main waterways in the country. The Indus River especially swelled fast and burst into a large temporary lake spanning tens of kilometres due to the extreme pressure of the water. The rain mixed with water from the rivers, increasing the severity of the floods.

At one point one third of Pakistan was underwater during the floods, which is nearly a whopping  300,000 sq km. Everything the people held dear was washed away: lives, livelihoods, livestock and homes. To make matters worse, there was nowhere for the water to go since the ground was at capacity. Drainage was made impossible as the country neighbours the Indian Ocean. The floods brought the whole nation down to its knees.

Social Impact & Health Crisis

The world’s climate refugees group  had 33 million more people join their fold in 2022. With ⅓ of the country under water, it has been a struggle to find dry land for people seeking safety after being ripped away from their lives. It is a heartbreaking statistic. The mere existence of refugees is a devastating notion, let alone to run from the land which once nourished its people. Now, the land rears up ferociously against its inhabitants. 

Over 1,700 people lost their lives in the chaos while 20.6 million people now require humanitarian aid. The sheer scale of the flooding has massively slowed the receipt of aid due to the stark lack of access to the people in need of help as up to 13,115 km of roads and 436 bridges had been damaged. Therefore, as of October 2022, only 15-20% of people have received aid assistance, which is a major detriment to Pakistan’s rebuilding.

People lining up to receive aid packages during the 2022 floods

As the floodwaters are slowly receding, it is leaving behind a major health crisis. Floods bring health issues on two fronts, by what it brings and what it takes away. The floodwaters take away people’s access to necessities such as food and medicine, increasing the severity of treatable diseases as well as causing malnutrition. Malnutrition among children has risen to a dizzying degree as more than 1 in 9 children are suffering from ‘severe acute malnutrition’. Equally, the water itself has become  a source of disease as water-borne diseases are given the perfect conditions to thrive and spread from person to person. Malaria particularly has thrived as the stagnated floodwater has been the optimal breeding ground for mosquitoes, causing outbreaks in Sindh as over 350,000 people are impacted. Severely reduced access to clean water and sanitation has meant that people have resorted to using contaminated water for their daily life – 6 million people so far have reported a lack of sanitation facilities – which increases the likelihood of water-borne diseases. This impact only grows as the healthcare options are limited, meaning that otherwise treatable diseases have the potential to become fatal.

People, especially children, have become more vulnerable as reports of children going missing from their mothers’ arms, either lost to the unfeeling floodwaters or kidnapped, are still coming in. Children have been acutely impacted through education as well. Due to the floods, over 3.5 million children no longer have access to education as over 26,632 schools were damaged in the floods while others have been set up as relief centres. While temporary education centres have been set up, the funding gap has been a detriment to its effectiveness – only 22% of funding requirements for education has been fulfilled. 

Rebuilding Pakistan is set to be a herculean effort for the Pakistani government and it needs all the help it can get. 

Why was it so severe?

Floods in Pakistan have been getting rapidly more severe, with crushing consequences for the country. Despite floods generally being a destructive phenomena, the impact has been keenly felt this year due to two main factors: climate change and the quality of preventative measures. The water crisis had revealed a disturbing dependency on groundwater and monsoon rain, without any planning for the source’s replenishment or waste management. This was only amplified by the scorching heat since April, which saw people facing temperatures of up to 50℃. Water shortages had been announced as Pakistan’s main waterway, the Indus River, shrunk by 65% during the unbearable heat. High temperatures not only posed problems of its own but also provided the perfect set-up for future disasters. Extreme heat threatens to melt Pakistan’s 7,000 glaciers in the mountainous regions. Glacial melt is especially dangerous as it causes severe swelling and spilling of lakes, spitting out ice, rocks and large amounts of water flooding the area. 

Deadliest floods in Pakistan within the last 70 years

Climate Change

Pakistan truly felt just how destructive climate change can be. Just as extreme and bone-drying the heat was, the monsoon floods drenched the country with the same ferocity. The country had not faced a normal spring season in 2022, instead it experienced four heat waves which even resulted in forest fires. One extreme can be linked to the other using a causal link – warmer air from the consecutive heatwaves can hold more moisture, giving rise to more intense precipitation. This created areas of low pressure in the atmosphere, known as ‘thermal lows’, over Pakistan. These thermal lows are the reason why the monsoon rain happens. Its impact has been exacerbated by the severe heat waves – as heat  waves help thermal lows pick up stronger winds from the ocean, bringing down the most intense rain the nation has seen in 30 years. The extreme heatwaves earlier this year have also begun to melt the glaciers in the north of Pakistan which had been dubbed ‘The Third Pole’ by climate scientists. This caused glacial floods during this monsoon season too. While there has not been concrete evidence that glacial melt played a major role, it is an inauspicious sign for what is to come.

The Barpu glacier in Gilgit-Baltistan

Precipitation fell much earlier in the year and spread from areas in Pakistan covered in plains. The water-holding capacity of these plains is very low due to their unfamiliarity with such intense rainfall. Combined with a lack of drainage, the natural course of action for the water was severe flooding. The water pressure during the floods was simply too high, even for Pakistan’s main river, which normally welcomes the monsoon rain and subsequent breaches which occur by creating a huge ‘lake’, inundating the surrounding area.

Climate change was a volatile trigger, overwhelming non-monsoon regions. The floods took advantage of the shock of torrential rain and compounded the havoc wreaked in the region. People were not expecting it. 

We are often too comfortable in our blanket of expected results, but there is not always going to be an empirical answer to the question: How severe will next year’s monsoon be? It is time to stop pretending that neat statistics can always encompass such a grand prediction.Climate change is a violent process, and while it is possible to predict a small arc, previous averages will not help preparations for the next disaster. We live in unprecedented times, thus it naturally follows that normal routes will not suit our purpose. There is an urgent need to critically re-evaluate the world’s mentality surrounding water. Now is the time to abandon  the thought that waterways are a mindless resource for sanitation, irrigation and agriculture. The riverways are living, breathing ecosystems that come with severe social and ecological consequences if man-made systems of living interrupt their flow. Once the core limitation of our tools is accepted – that the world we live in is, more often than not, an unpredictable entity –  we can reach genuine decisive conclusions and save our world.

Preventative measures

Through this lens of embracing the uncertain, we may seek to critique the current water management policies currently established. 

The mechanical and heavy structural methods of control of the Indus basin in the past have certainly been a very visible way of regulating the extent of floods. The installation of levees and dams have been established to prevent low-lying areas from becoming inundated by riverine floods. However, such hard engineering has significant disadvantages too, and the 2022 floods of the Sindh River are a clear example Leeves,  built on the right-hand side of the riverbank leading to Manchar Lake to protect low-lying areas on that side from flooding, rather became a blockage to water drainage –  causing more severe flooding as this year, flooding had begun on the right-hand side. While hard engineering techniques may look strong and stable, when broken down, it costs even more lives than it would have saved. In 2005, heavy rain broke down the Shadi Kaur dam, claiming the lives of 135 people. When the severity of the monsoon season cannot be predicted, hard engineering techniques cause greater backlash. 

The Pakistani government prioritised hard engineering techniques to reduce the damage over non-structural ones, such as natural disaster education for the rural population who live in the most high-risk areas. The country installed a functioning warning system project, called “Improvement of River and Flood Forecasting and Warning System”, that sought to improve hydrological data collection and  the establishment of a ‘satellite readout station’ in Lahore. However, the effectiveness of the warning system ultimately means very little when the people themselves do not know above or have the resources to protect themselves from flooding. The total literacy rate for rural areas was 55% in 2019, and was even lower for women in the same categories, placing women and children at a greater risk of harm. Evacuation procedures in rural areas are informal at best, where local police may inform passers-by. There is a distinct lack of robust planning procedure before, during and after floods occur.

In order to reduce the risk to people, there needs to be a major shift in resource distribution as relief funds are often distributed unequally and partially – often in the favour of those living in areas near the city. A greater focus must be placed on human resources and non-structural management, and it must target the vulnerability present in the population rather than attempt to change the course of nature. Once vulnerability is significantly reduced, Pakistan will not have to face days of such devastation. Climate change, despite using nature as its vehicle, was very much a man-made phenomenon and therefore, the solutions to the effects of it must also put people at the fore-front. 

Monsoon floods of this year’s severity are no match for the highly expensive dams brought forward by overconfident governments. It is difficult to predict the destructive nature of next year’s monsoon season. Therefore, it is in the interest of the country to prepare in areas which are not only feasible within their failing economy but also will reap the greatest rewards if a disaster were to strike again.

Climate change: A cross forged by the West, beared by the East

“We are in a war against climate change-induced havoc, and we have become a victim, tomorrow another country can […] we don’t want that to happen”

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, leader of Pakistan on the impending climate crisis

Unfairness and COP26

A country which only contributes 1% to the total greenhouse gas emissions has been named the 8th most vulnerable country to climate change for long-term risk, according to the Global Climate Risk Index Report in 2021. Climate change is a problem created primarily by the West and yet, the global effort seems to be lacking. It is an age-old story; developing countries wracked by the devastating impacts of a problem caused by the more developed countries, all the while receiving little to no help.

COP26, though promised to be a united war cry against climate change – a new start for nations, has instead been shaped into quite the ‘greenwash[ed]’ event, as stated by climate activist Greta Thunberg. The conference had many high hopes attached to it, namely the situation of loss, damages and ‘reparations’ to less developed countries who contributed a miniscule amount to climate change when compared to the current and coming climate hell that its people go through yearly. However, such hopes were dispelled due to the progressional standstill in the matter.  Empty promises coughed out by the leaders of the developed world, pledging to reduce carbon emissions without outlining any concrete and robust method of doing so, were convenient statements which bought – and even now buys – them time, protecting them from taking any action. The tone of the event unfortunately had been set long before the speeches had begun, as global leaders flew into Scotland in a total of 4,000 private jets, releasing 13,000 tons of carbon dioxide. 

The UN has since reported that there is no ‘credible pathway’ in which the world will be able to curb the rise in global temperatures of 2.5 degrees Celsius without a drastic change in the structure of our societies. Climate change has ravaged less developed countries such as Pakistan with merely a 1 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures. Climate change has brought locust plagues in the Horn of Africa and  the world’s first climate famine in Madagascar, both of which are incredibly heartbreaking milestones to reach. 

It is made even more disheartening considering that less developed countries are policed disproportionately on their fossil fuel usage, despite those who do the policing refusing to curb their own usage in any meaningful way. It had also been released that these wealthy countries lobbied against the UN’s climate recommendations ahead of the COP26 summit and even against reaching the $100bn the developed countries had pledged towards the plight of climate change. Unless the global community seriously throws its weight behind the cause, chooses action over passivity, we will be set to reach more devastating headlines as the most vulnerable pay the price. It’s time to take responsibility for our world.

Climate change protesters during Extinction Rebellion’s Autumn Protests in Melbourne, 2021- climate change protests are on the rise as the issue becomes more prevalent

Contribute to the cause

The following is a link to the Pakistan Flood Appeal by the charity Human Relief Foundation (HRF) providing life-saving support, distributing aid packages on the ground:

https://www.hrf.org.uk/emergency-appeals/pakistan-flood-2022/

Leave a Reply