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Climate priorities: Lessons for flood risk mitigation in Pakistan

For millions of devastated people, the response to Pakistan’s unprecedented flooding came too late. Learning from this is essential to averting and mitigating future crises.

Pakistan is all too familiar with floods and droughts. The country, however, has recently been facing increasingly devastating climate disasters. Unprecedented floods in between June and September 2022, left a third of the country underwater, and displaced close to 33 million people. There was also considerable damage to infrastructure, livestock, and agriculture. Several weeks after the rains had halted, and fields began to dry, large segments of agricultural land still remain waterlogged while infectious diseases continued to spread, with a growing risk of food shortages. So far the current economic loss is estimated at close to 2% of Pakistan’s GDP.

The scale of the flooding has foregrounded climate justice and reparations in local and international policy discourse. It has also highlighted the urgency to treat water sustainability as not just a climate change concern but also a management and governance issue. Moreover, the extent of the losses incurred due to the floods has further exposed Pakistan’s underlying vulnerabilities perpetuated by poverty, colonial legacy, and poor overall governance.

 

The risks, costs, and impacts of global climate change in Pakistan

The floods have come as a stark reminder to the global community that consequences of climate change are no longer a problem of the future, and the impacts are disproportionately felt by the most vulnerable communities which are not only the least culpable for climate change but also the least capable of withstanding impact.

Fast changing weather patterns have resulted in increased variability of monsoons, repeated occurrence of heatwaves and rapidly melting glaciers that threaten water inflows into river systems causing floods. The Global Climate Risk Index (2021) shows that between 2000 and 2019, climate change induced catastrophes and recurrent floods cost Pakistan US$ 3.8 billion in economic losses and 30 lives per 100,000.

The unprecedented rainfall experienced in Pakistan this year did not only last much longer than usual, but it was also more intense. Instead of the usual four cycles of rain, this monsoon saw more than eight with average rainfall in some places reaching 500% more than the 30-year average. Ironically, these events were preceded by a period of the hottest temperatures ever experienced in Pakistan, reaching almost 52°C in some places. In May 2022, Sindh was declared drought-hit as the agricultural land became completely barren. These anomalous trends are extremely worrisome for a country that is underprepared and call for critical analysis of these annually worsening patterns.

 

Climate justice in the context of foreign debt

Pakistan’s contribution to global emissions is under 1% compared to over 50% by China, the US, the EU, and India, yet Pakistan is ranked amongst the ten most vulnerable countries to climate change. Two months since the floods, Pakistan is still waiting for the majority of the funds pledged by wealthy nations to arrive. Of the promised US$ 160 million so far only US$ 51 million has been received.

Pakistan’s flood crisis has brought renewed attention to the concept of ‘loss and damage.’ Recognising this would mean countries that gain the most from non-renewable energy and therefore contribute the most to climate change should compensate those adversely affected. A recent study estimated for the first time how much developing countries lose in terms of GDP resulting from burning fossil fuels. In dollar figures the largest emitters, the US and China, cost US$ 60 billion worth of economic losses in Pakistan.

There is now a growing voice within Pakistani policy space, calling for restructuring of Pakistan’s debt and direct climate reparations. Many low-income countries spend on average five times more on paying debt than they do on climate mitigation and adaptation. Pakistan’s floods have mainstreamed policy discussions around debt forgiveness for climate change. There is precedent for this with the US$ 70 billion worth of debt wiped out under the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative across 37 countries.  Pakistan currently owes US$ 22 billion as foreign debt payments over the fiscal year to international money lenders including IMF, China, and World Bank but so far, there are no plans to freeze Pakistan’s billions of dollars in debt obligations.

Most recent estimates place the economic costs of the floods at close to US$ 30 billion, much higher than initial projection of US$ 10 billion. These losses far exceed the US$ 1·5 billion emergency relief that Pakistan negotiated with the IMF over the past year. International aid has also been slow to come in amidst post-pandemic challenges and Ukraine-Russia war.

A recent IGC piece looks at the role of climate finance in addressing Pakistan’s vulnerability to such climate change incidents and underscores the need for leveraging climate finance and Pakistan’s low contribution to global emissions to improve its fiscal situation

 

The disproportionate impacts of climate change

These floods’ devastating human and economic costs are disproportionately borne by the poorest and most marginalised. People’s vulnerability to extreme weather and disasters is further exacerbated by underlying power relations, unstable livelihoods, and weak social and personal protection systems. More than 70% of Pakistan’s labour force is employed in the informal sector while the country has one of the lowest spending on social protection as a percentage of GDP across the world.

Slow economic growth: Economic growth for FY23 has fallen from projected 5% to between 1.8% and 2.3%, in line with estimates of lenders like the World Bank. The trade deficit could widen to 3.5% of GDP from 2.4% currently due to the damage in the agriculture sector with economic activity in other sectors such as industry and services expected to slow down.

Lives and livelihoods: Around 9 to 12 million Pakistanis are expected to fall into poverty and 2 million may lose their jobs. Water-borne diseases like—malaria, dengue, typhoid, cholera—are hitting areas where there are no social safety nets. The World Bank estimates more than 8 million displaced people are now facing a health crisis. A recent report by the Population Council  highlights high vulnerability among flood victims. Of those under five, 5.1 million children are in need of immunisation and nutrition care; 940,000 are senior citizens with special needs; and 610,000 are pregnant women who require antenatal, delivery, and postnatal services.

Access to services: Almost 27,000 schools have been destroyed with severe damage to the road network and bridges, causing disruption in the schooling of an estimated 3.5 million children. With the damage to infrastructure, access to energy has also been affected and is concerning given that 60% of the rural population is already without electricity.

Food security: Agriculture makes up nearly a quarter of the country’s economy. The disruption of global food supply chains as a result of Russia-Ukraine War further exacerbated inflationary pressures on food prices. Over 70% of the onion, rice, and corn harvest is feared to have been lost to the floods with almost 3.6 million acres of crops destroyed and a million livestock animals perished. Growth in all major crops like cotton, rice, maize, and sugarcane is expected to remain negative.

A series of analytical pieces by IGC researchers looks at how building resilience to climate change of the most vulnerable is not just an important outcome in itself but also critical to ensure success of large-scale development programmes.

Poor governance and planning exacerbated flooding crisis

Notwithstanding the scale of the floods, recent climate related events have demonstrated federal and provincial governments’ lack of preparedness in mitigating effects of such disasters. A joint study by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (2021) revealed that Pakistan has high exposure to flooding (ranked eighth). Yet there is a big gap between early warnings and early response. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), Meteorological Department and Flood Control System issued an early warning in June about more than usual rainfall, glacier melts, and the likelihood of super floods in Pakistan. However, the NDMA and Provincial Disaster Management Authority’s (PDMA) all failed to take precautionary measures in time.

Moreover, the water management structure is unable to meet the demands of the population and is hazardous in the face of intensified weather patterns. Over the past decades, donors have funded the construction of many dams, barrages, and irrigation channels which have severely hampered the natural flow of water to the River Indus. These projects have curbed high frequency low-intensity flood events crucial to the ecosystem resulting in less frequent but high intensity events like the 2010 and super floods, worsened of course by climate change.

Climate change impacts have also been exacerbated by lack of governance and weak regulatory policies. Structures along rivers and other water bodies constructed by communities with insecure access to land are extremely vulnerable to flooding and cannot withstand shocks of extreme weather. The absence of comprehensive flood plans leaves entire villages and communities exposed to the risks amplified by climate change. 

Disaster management receives no funding from the national budget, as it’s a provincial subject where provinces are mandated to address these disasters from their own budget. In Pakistan, the 18th Constitutional Amendment devolved key responsibilities for environment, climate change, disaster management, health and education to provinces. However, many years later the process remains in transition, and financial autonomy is a particular concern.

 

Improving preparedness for future  

Learning from others: Amongst the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) member states, Bangladesh has taken the lead for both climate change adaptation and investments in disaster risk reduction. Their related sector-wise projects accordingly present a successful case of improving disaster management. In 2019, Bangladesh had a total of 54 such projects while Pakistan’s share remains the lowest with just eight projects. Bangladesh has created a robust institutional mechanism under its Ministry of Disaster and Relief whereby the government has identified priorities that include strengthening existing networks, along with investing in development and research institutes, and provision of accurate assessment of risks through comprehensive hazard mapping for informed planning.

Strengthening social protection: Pakistan at the forefront of climate change, needs shock-responsive social protection systems to address core vulnerabilities to build their resilience. The Ehsaas programme in Pakistan is the largest cash transfer programme in South Asia with a socioeconomic registry spanning 38 million households with only women eligible for the stipend. It is best placed to make decisions about which households need to be targeted for vulnerability to climate change. This has been tried and tested during the COVID-19 pandemic, where emergency cash transfers were immediately provided to 15 million additional families through the information in the registry. This can also be used for shock-response to climate disasters.

Improving land use regulations: With the extent of the damage observed, it is imperative that illegal human encroachment along river corridors/banks should be checked by enforcing land-use regulations.

Encouraging eco-based adaptation: Governments around the world, with support from development partners, are implementing nature-based solutions to the climate crisis referred to as ecosystem-based adaptation. Restoring forests can increase the resilience of ecosystems, prevent soil erosion and reduce the risk of flash floods. The Pakistan government has already launched the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami project, a tree-planting initiative to revive forests and wildlife resources in the country. For example, planting and cultivating mangrove forests has been found to help prevent coastal erosion. Such programmes also create green jobs, and help communities come together.  Other initiatives like Recharge Pakistan look to reduce flood risk and enhance water storage and recharge through wetlands, floodplains and hill-torrents management at six initial sites across the Indus Basin. Lessons emerging from such initiatives should inform scale up.

 

Evidence and research to inform preparedness

A key challenge governments continue to face in developing and implementing effective adaptation and disaster risk reduction policies is collating accurate data on risks and vulnerabilities to guide policy interventions. To do that granular level data is required and hydro-meteorological observations and remote sensing technologies can be invaluable. Mapping vulnerabilities across different regions can also strengthen the backbone of disaster management in Pakistan. Flood vulnerability mapping as a non-structural strategy can be a precursor to more structural measures in the management of flood risks.

Regional perspective will also help. The trends observed in Pakistan are not unique to the country and have been experienced across Asia. These trends can trigger floods and there is an opportunity for the scientific community to explore links between these events and improve long-term flood forecasting and develop early warning systems at a regional scale so countries can prepare better.

Indeed, the path to recovery is long and uncertain. Pakistan is not a major emitter of greenhouse gases, yet it incurs a huge cost related to climate disasters. Greater investments are needed to enhance capacity and leadership of local governments and communities to respond.

To learn more about the climate priorities in developing countries discussed during the LSE Environment Week view the policy memos tabled and other recordings here and read IGC’s latest growth brief on sustainable growth for a changing climate.

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