Floods in Pakistan: A Colossal Human Tragedy


“I have never seen climate carnage on the scale of the floods here in Pakistan. As our planet continues to warm, all countries will increasingly suffer losses and damage from climate beyond their capacity to adapt. This is a global crisis, it demands a global response,” wrote UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in his tweet at the end of his two-day solidarity trip to the flood-affected areas of Pakistan. This tweet encompasses the whole situation. Indubitably, the recent visit by Guterres is expected to greatly help Pakistan in highlighting the devastating impact of the recent floods that have ravaged the country. The agony of the 33 million people in the fallout of the catastrophic floods, which have caused an estimated USD30 billion worth of damages, cannot be explained in words.

The scale of colossal devastation is unimaginable and indescribable. Right now, one third of Pakistan is under flood waters. So far, more than 1,400 flood-related deaths have been recorded. More than half a million more houses in Pakistan were reported damaged or destroyed in the past week, with the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) reporting more than 1.17 million damaged and nearly 566,000 destroyed houses as of 8 September. Nearly 6,700 KM of roads have been damaged or destroyed, with over 1,600 KM reported in the first week of September alone. In addition to impeding people from fleeing to safety or towards services, this has also complicated efforts to deliver aid into affected areas – as has the destruction of at least 246 bridges.

The devastation is of Biblical proportions. Initial information indicates that more than 22,000 schools have been damaged in Sindh, Balochistan, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and over 5,500 other schools are being converted into shelter houses for people who have been displaced from their homes, interrupting education, and learning for over 3.5 million children. The NDMA reports that some 33 million people have been affected by heavy rains and floods and has officially notified 81 districts as ‘calamity hit’ – 32 in Balochistan, 23 in Sindh, 17 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, six in Gilgit-Baltistan and three in Punjab. Some 664,000 people are reportedly living in relief camps. Many more are reportedly living with host communities.

This data shows the numbers only and it does not explain the actual human tragedy that is being witnessed in each household affected by these massive floods and horrendous monsoon rains. No estimate can capture even a fraction of human cost of the tragedy that continues to unfold in the affected parts of the country. These unusual and unprecedented floods is a direct corollary of changing climate patterns due to greenhouse gases being emitted by the industrialised countries. Against this backdrop, a sense of injustice is being seriously felt in the country. Pakistan contributes less than one per cent of the global greenhouse gases that are raising the temperature of our planet, but its geography makes it extremely vulnerable to climate change. Even Guterres has explicitly articulated his assessment that there is “no memory of anything similar to what has happened with the impact of climate change in Pakistan”.

The geographical location of Pakistan on the globe renders it vulnerable to two major weather systems: one can increase temperatures and bring drought, like the heatwave in March, and the other instigates monsoon rains. Most of the Pakistan’s population live along the Indus River, which swells due to monsoon rains and causes floods.

The science linking climate change and more intense monsoons is quite simple. Global warming is making air and sea temperatures rise, leading to more evaporation. Warmer air can hold more moisture, making monsoon rainfall more intense. Scientists predict that the average rainfall in the summer monsoon season will increase due to climate change.  But Pakistan has something else making it susceptible to climate change effects – its immense glaciers. With 7,253 known glaciers, highest outside the polar region, Pakistan has more glacial ice than anywhere on Earth – except for polar region, of course.  That’s why it is sometimes called as third pole. Those glaciers feed rivers that account for about 75 per cent of the stored-water supply in the country of at least 220 million. But global warming has intensified the melting process of these glaciers, which has further aggravated the worst floods in Pakistan in this century. The catastrophe probably started with phenomenal heatwaves in April and May, when temperatures climbed above 40 °C for prolonged periods in many places.

In May, the city of Jacobabad touched 51 °C, making it the hottest place on Earth. Warmer air can hold more moisture. Meteorologists had warned earlier this year that the extreme temperatures would probably result in ‘abnormal’ levels of rain during the country’s monsoon season, from July to September. The intense heat also melted glaciers in the northern mountainous regions, increasing the amount of water flowing into tributaries that eventually make their way into the Indus River. These unusual features were then exacerbated by the early arrival of the monsoon on 30 June, which was wetter generally over a larger region for a very prolonged period. The resultant effect is that Pakistan has received almost three times of its average annual rainfall for the monsoon period, adding more fury to the floods.

So, Pakistan is suffering because of no fault of its own. The global warming and climate change are the main culprits that have brough about the devastations in the country. The people who have the smallest carbon footprints are suffering the most. The real challenge for Pakistan – and international community – is how to deal with this massive devastation and the looming humanitarian crisis. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres is making every sincere effort to mobilise the international community to help Pakistan in tackling unforeseen catastrophe. Pakistan and the United Nations have joined hands to launch ‘2022 Pakistan Floods Response Plan’ with an appeal for immediate need of USD 160 million for flood-hit people for providing relief and rehabilitating them at the earliest, which is still very little compared to estimated damages of USD 30 billion.

Many countries and organisations are engaged in humanitarian assistance for the flood-hit people in Pakistan. In addition to this, Pakistani people, known for philanthropy and generosity, are making all-out efforts to provide relief goods to their brethren and sisters in flood-stricken areas. Innumerable charitable organisations, philanthropist individuals as well as the Armed Forces are working together to provide relief goods to the affected people. For a cash strapped country, these floods have created huge economic problems. Restructuring and rehabilitation of one third of Pakistan needs massive and generous support from the international community, which is still missing. Yes, some countries have started sending relief goods, but that is too small to create any impact, they are minuscule in relation to the level of damages. According to some rough estimates, 65 per cent of Pakistan’s main food crops – including 70 per cent of its rice – have been swept away and 3 million livestock have perished during the floods – ringing the alarms for impending food crisis. The volume of international support is very disappointing, factually speaking. Despite vehement and emotional appeals by Guterres, there is very little awareness about the quantum of the flood damages in Pakistan.

The international community needs to generously give debt relief and financial assistance to help Pakistan come out of this humanitarian and economic crisis quickly.  A gigantic uphill task lies ahead both for the Pakistan government and international community, as well as for the charitable organisations, philanthropists and Pakistan’s friends, for the rehabilitation of the flood-inflicted people, who have lost all their belongings in the unprecedented floods. There is a need for a holistic plan with a multi-sectoral approach covering the thematic clusters of food security, agriculture, health, education, nutrition, shelter, sanitation and hygiene. Guterres did not mince words while appealing for generous financial support for recovery and relief operations and for rehabilitation of the affected people and damaged infrastructure.

The International community and the UN need to come forward with a tangible and sustainable solution to support Pakistan in these testing times. Pakistan is a resilient nation, but it needs reassurance from the international community for the support and assistance to recuperate from this disaster quickly. The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres has been doing his best to plead the case of Pakistan in all possible ways:” We are heading into a disaster. We have waged a war on nature and nature is tracking and striking back in a devastating way. Today in Pakistan, tomorrow in any of your countries.”

By Dr. Imran Khalid