Floods persist as one of the most frequent and devastating natural disasters, affecting millions worldwide, especially in developing countries. The likelihood of such events has increased due to the rising frequency of extreme weather conditions. In 2022, Pakistan experienced unprecedented flooding that submerged a third of the country, displacing 30 million people and resulting in a staggering cost of US$ 30 billion and 2,000 lives. This immediate human toll was compounded by the financial burden of flood adaptation and mitigation measures.
Despite contributing just 0.3% to global emissions, Pakistan's people are confronted with a staggering 15-fold higher risk of death from climate-related disasters compared to other countries. The failure of high-income countries to reduce emissions places immense pressure to adapt to the consequences of climate change. The 2022 floods in Pakistan emphasise the need for both global and local policies to prioritise climate justice and reparations. Pakistanis face vulnerabilities rooted in poverty, colonial legacy, and weak governance, necessitating a socially and environmentally equitable response. Accordingly, it is vital to recognise the multidimensional impact of climate-induced disasters to effectively address this pressing issue.The blog discusses Pakistan’s experience with floods, identifying key sustainability, justice and equity gaps in policy responses and a way forward based on elements of a transformative climate justice framework.
How do floods expose injustices?
Floods expose vulnerabilities by uncovering (and exacerbating) existing inequalities and injustices in society, such as poverty, gender discrimination, ethnic marginalisation, and lack of access to basic services. These can cause loss of life, displacement, damage infrastructure, disrupt livelihoods, and increase health risks. Vulnerability to floods isn't uniform; some individuals lack the resources and opportunities necessary to cope, recover, or adapt, exacerbating disparities. These disasters not only devastate lives but also impede progress towards achieving SDGs related to poverty eradication, health, education, gender equality, and environmental protection. Floods thus illuminate systemic injustices and underscore the need for equitable and sustainable finance. Climate-induced events like floods are not just natural phenomena, they are inextricably linked to social and environmental justice, as the poor populations bear the disproportionate burden of these events' impacts. These issues raise serious concerns about climate justice.
What is climate justice?
Climate justice can be approached in various ways within policy discourse. One approach views it as a conflict between wealthy and poorer nations, developed and developing countries, centred on historical culpability for emissions. Alternatively, it can be framed as a transition towards a low-carbon economy, seeking to balance mitigation efforts with adaptation, development, and equity considerations. Another perspective focuses on vulnerability, emphasising the need to protect the most affected and least responsible parties from the impacts of climate change.
Climate justice has gained attention among activists, scholars, and policymakers, yet its translation into concrete policies and practices remains a work in progress, with specific implementation pathways still being developed. There is more discussion on distributional aspects (who will be affected by floods and climate change) than procedural aspects (i.e., who gets a say in decisions). There is therefore limited empirical evidence on the impact of different forms of participation on outcomes of flood management. Additionally, efforts tend to prioritise short-term emergency responses over long-term systemic solutions, including addressing the root causes of flood risks.
The concept of transformative climate justice bridges the gap between idealistic climate justice notions and practical policymaking by recognising and addressing local vulnerabilities. It targets the root causes of the climate crisis, focusing on economic and social inequalities, and advocates for inclusive and participatory governance to challenge prevailing power structures. In the context of floods, these frameworks highlight the north-south divide, the plight of marginalised communities, and the paramount importance of equitable representation in critical funding decisions.
Differing priorities between high-income and low- and middle-income countries on sustainability highlight contrasting perspectives. As historically major emitters, high-income countries benefited from fossil fuels, while low- and middle-income countries face climate vulnerabilities, lacking access to clean energy and finance due to historical injustices. Low- and middle-income countries call for support in adaptation and mitigation, while high-income countries stress collective action and shared responsibility in addressing climate change.
Achieving climate justice is an endeavour, fraught with trade-offs and uncertainties. It necessitates addressing root causes and long-term consequences while respecting and upholding the rights and needs of those affected. Additionally, there is a pressing need for more research on climate justice led by the developing countries, as current studies are predominantly shaped by high-income countries’ viewpoints and agendas. The distinct interests and obligations of the rich and poor countries significantly shape international climate negotiations and outcomes. Moreover, the landscape of climate justice is continually evolving, introducing new ideas, concepts, and challenges. All of this limits the scope for transformative change and raises the question of how justice can be practically applied to the ways developing countries adapt to growing and on-ground impact of climate change.
Pakistan’s experience with 2022 Floods
In 2022, Pakistan witnessed record-breaking floods during the summer, displacing a sixth of its population and causing extensive damage to infrastructure, livestock, and agriculture. These floods surpassed the devastation of the 2010 floods, earlier deemed as the worst disaster seen by the UN. The economic loss was projected at 2.2% of Pakistan's GDP, with around 2,000 deaths along with the destruction of 2 million homes. It is thought that global warming may have increased rainfall intensity by 50%, leading to eight cycles of monsoon rain instead of the usual four, with certain areas experiencing rainfall exceeding 500% of the 30-year average.
The burden of the devastating human and economic costs of the floods falls disproportionately on the poor. Pakistan allocates less than 7% of its GDP to social protection while as many as 9.1 million Pakistanis fell into poverty due to these floods. Areas lacking social safety nets experienced outbreaks of water-borne diseases. Many of the displaced were children needing immunisation and nutrition, elderly with special needs, and pregnant women with reproductive care needs.
Reaching the affected populations proved difficult in the aftermath of the floods. Of 33 million affected people across 72 districts, only 5.2 million were targeted by the Flood Response Plan. Inaccessibility due to security concerns or damaged infrastructure, as well as specific challenges related to gender, age, disability, or ethnicity, further exacerbated the situation.
Figure 1: Before and after satellite imagery of the 2022 monsoon floods in Pakistan
Note: These juxtaposed satellite images depict the floods that ravaged Pakistan between August 4, 2022, and August 29, 2022. The right-hand image reveals a dramatic transformation, where once-clear areas are blue, signifying a massive surge in water coverage caused by the floods. The overflowing rivers inundated the surrounding land underscoring the dramatic impact of heavy rainfall within the span of less than a month. Source: Shehzad, K. (2023).
The protracted arrival of over US$ 10 billion for flood relief in international aid exacerbated Pakistan's recovery efforts, further straining recovery as the economy contracted by 0.6% in 2023, and the trade deficit widened. Pakistan now faces a double burden: the impact of climate chaos and an outdated global financial system hampering access to vital resources for adaptation and resilience. The current scale of response remains insufficient compared to the urgent needs of the situation.
Figure 2: UNOCHA's humanitarian reach in the 2022 Pakistan flood response efforts
Note: This bar chart presents the scale of the humanitarian response required following the floods. It illustrates that while the floods have affected 33 million people, there are 20.6 million who are in urgent need of assistance. The response plan targets 9.5 million of the most vulnerable individuals; however, aid has only reached 1.6 million people. Source: Lazer, K. (2022).
Compensation for the loss – where does Pakistan stand?
Pakistan’s floods starkly demonstrate three ways in which the principals of climate justice are challenged:
- Responsibility: Pakistan continues to bear the brunt of actions by other countries with higher emissions and more historical responsibility for causing climate change
- Vulnerability: The floods disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable populations, who are more likely to live in flood-prone/affected areas.
- Climate politics: Pakistan’s insufficient resources and access to climate finance hinder its ability to undertake a just transition to a low-carbon economy.
Pakistan’s floods have rekindled discussions about 'loss and damage,' prompting calls for compensation from the countries that significantly contribute to climate change. Pakistan’s emissions are negligible (less than 1%) compared to the over 50% share of China, US, EU, and India. However, Pakistan ranks amongst the ten most vulnerable countries to climate change. A recent study quantified economic losses for the first time, attributing US$ 60 billion of losses in Pakistan to the largest emitters, notably the US and China, as a consequence of their fossil fuel-driven emissions.
Pakistan's situation highlights crucial questions in the climate justice agenda for developing countries. It prompts discussions on the accountability of high-income countries for historical and current emissions, as well as their obligation to provide adequate support to the developing countries for adaptation, mitigation, and development. Existing literature, however, provides limited guidance on practical pathways to tackle these challenges, underscoring complexity of the issue.
Despite Pakistan's high vulnerability to climate change and its efforts to garner global support, its voice in international climate forums remains ineffective. Pakistan struggles with limited participation and influence in the UNFCCC process due to a lack of capacity and resources. Additionally, its dependence on fossil fuels hampers its ability to commit to ambitious emission reduction targets, undermining its credibility as a leader in climate action.
In a significant shift, high-income countries, previously reluctant to discuss loss and damage in UN climate negotiations, made it a focal point at COP27. Pakistan played a crucial role in negotiating the establishment of a dedicated fund for climate-related loss and damage. The specific structure of this fund will be decided at the upcoming COP in the United Arab Emirates in 2023. Pakistan, as the chair of the G77 group of developing nations and China, had called for the creation of a finance facility at COP27 to compensate countries for the "loss and damage" incurred due to extreme weather events. However, ahead of COP28, the modalities of the fund still remain unclear.
Pakistan’s floods are not an isolated incidents but rather manifestations of an escalating climate change pattern spanning decades. Addressing these events in isolation would be a dereliction of duty to those most affected, further perpetuating ongoing “cycles of crisis”. Climate injustice is deeply rooted in social and economic disparities influenced by power structures, extending beyond climate issues. However, a transformative approach challenging these dynamics could face resistance from vested interests. Powerful nations often evade accountability for their historical actions, including colonialism, slavery, or climate-related harm.
It is crucial to focus on what the global community and historical emitters can do to reduce emissions and establish climate compensation mechanisms, beyond what Pakistan's government and its citizens can do (and they can do plenty). Pakistan expects debt relief, time-bound financing for energy transition, and emission reduction commitments from the developed countries. Despite initiatives like the Debt Service Suspension Initiative by the World Bank and IMF in 2020 for COVID-19, similar support has not been extended for extreme climate events, highlighting ongoing challenges in climate politics. Moreover, new funding for fossil fuel exploration continues unabated.
To ensure climate justice and integrate different frameworks in flood response, it is imperative to adopt flexible, adaptive, and inclusive approaches. This entails establishing a global mechanism to provide financial support to vulnerable countries, based on common but differentiated responsibilities. Achieving consensus on climate financing at COP28 will require navigating resistance from high-income nations. It's crucial to promote low-carbon, resilient, and equitable development pathways in Pakistan that respect ecological limits and cultural diversity. Additionally, empowering the voices of the most affected, including farmers, women, children, minorities, and displaced individuals, in decision-making processes remains paramount.