Deadly Pakistan floods show how climate change hits poorest nations the hardest
A set of deadly floods in Pakistan shows how the South Asian nation and other developing countries are bearing a disproportionate burden from climate change, according to Pakistan’s government and outside experts.
Due to a particularly intense monsoon season, about one-third of Pakistan’s landmass has been submerged — over 95,000 square miles, or approximately the size of Wyoming. The Pakistani government has reported that more than 1,300 people have been killed, 1.2 million homes have been destroyed and property damage is expected to reach $10 billion. Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told CNBC last Thursday that the floods are “a climate disaster of biblical proportions.”
With a per capita GDP of less than $1,600, Pakistan contributes less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions despite its large population. But Pakistan is among the countries most at-risk from climate change because of its warm, wet climate. More than 33 million of Pakistan’s 220 million residents are in areas currently affected by flooding. Lost crops have led to higher food prices, contributing to a 27% increase in the country’s consumer price index in August, the highest month-over-month rate in 27 years.
“Pakistanis at this point in time, are paying in their lives and in their livelihoods for a climate disaster that is not of their making,” Bhutto Zadari said.
Although the nation has always experienced heavy rains in summer, the risk of flooding has been exacerbated by climate change, because warmer average temperatures lead to more extreme rainfall.
“The extreme rainfall that we’re seeing is consistent with what we'd expect from climate change, because as you warm the atmosphere, the air can hold more water and so you get more extreme rainfall events,” Kristy Dahl, principal climate scientist for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Yahoo News.
Pakistan is also suffering from more severe heat waves, which may have played a role in the flooding; glaciers melting in the mountains increased water levels in the rivers that are now overflowing. This spring, the Pakistani city of Jacobabad experienced 51 straight days of temperatures breaching 100°F. A report by the World Weather Attribution initiative concluded that the extraordinary heat was made 30 times more likely by climate change.
“Pakistan’s a country with a lot of glaciers, and that early-season heat wave could have contributed to enhanced melting of the glaciers that then led to more water flowing into tributaries of the Indus River and then priming the river for this flooding,” Dahl said. “The extreme rain, the melting of glaciers, is something that we see worldwide and can expect more with climate change.”
Pakistan’s lack of wealth also leaves it vulnerable to flooding damage. Buildings, roads,power lines in flood-prone areas are all less fortified than in developed countries, while weather tracking, communication and emergency services are not as advanced.
“There are not strong early warning systems in place, and you have millions of people living in flood prone areas,” Dahl said. “They're exposed to climate hazards and they have enhanced vulnerability because of socioeconomic conditions and disaster preparedness conditions on the ground.”
International humanitarian organizations sometimes refer to this unfair burden as climate injustice, and they call for wealthier nations that have emitted much more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere to provide funding to compensate poorer countries for the damages caused by climate change and to cut their emissions to minimize the future harm of climate change.
“We have to say it as it is — the humanitarian and environmental devastation we are experiencing is a result of climate change,” Syed Shahnawaz Ali, country director of Oxfam Pakistan, said in a statement last Wednesday. “Floods are not uncommon in Pakistan, but this is flooding on a scale bigger than anything we have ever seen. It remains deeply unjust that Pakistan, which is responsible for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, is one of the countries most vulnerable to severe weather due to the effects of climate change. It should be clear that Pakistan should not be made to pay the price for the carbon emissions of the richest countries in the world.”
Climate justice activists say that developed countries should establish a mechanism for providing relief for climate change-related disasters to developing countries at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP27, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, this November.
“We’re a couple of weeks before COP27 and witnessing the devastating climate impacts hitting people and communities in ways that are extremely horrifying,” Eddy Perez, international climate diplomacy manager at Climate Action Network Canada, told Yahoo News. “[The floods] are exposing how there is currently nothing within the U.N. system that properly addresses the losses and damages that have been caused by this event and by the climate crisis.”
The U.N. has launched a $160 million relief program for Pakistan with the goal of delivering health services, food, clean water and shelter to the displaced and preventing outbreaks of diseases such as cholera. But that’s just disaster relief, not a climate-specific program. At previous climate negotiations, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has urged developed countries to commit to funding for losses and damages.
On Tuesday, over 400 organizations signed a letter initiated by Climate Action Network calling on the heads of climate delegations to ensure that loss-and-damage finance is on the agenda at COP27.
To make matters worse, Perez noted that developing countries such as Pakistan often take on loans from international lending institutions to deal with the costs of climate-change-related disasters, leaving them with burdensome debt. The International Monetary Fund agreed last week to release $1.1 billion to Pakistan as part of a bailout program to help the country avoid defaulting on its existing debt.
“Pakistan is one of the worst-affected countries by climate change,” Pakistani Finance Minister Miftah Ismail told CNBC’s “Street Signs Asia” on Monday. “I think that [the world] has to come together right now and think about climate change and the effect on developing countries.”