September 9, 2022
IntelBrief: Floods in Pakistan a Harbinger of the Devastation of Climate Change
Historic flooding in Pakistan has killed nearly 1400 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless since mid-June. Property damage has been estimated at approximately $10 billion, with that number expected to increase as further damage is surveyed. Some estimate that the total figure will be closer to $20 billion. At one point, nearly one-third of the country (95,000 square miles) was under water, with the government in Islamabad struggling to provide assistance throughout the country, particularly in remote areas with austere terrain. 81 of Pakistan’s 160 districts have been affected, in this country of nearly 220 million. More than 33 million Pakistanis have been impacted by the flooding, with infrastructure submerged and destroyed, including many roads and bridges. Communication networks have also been destroyed, further complicating the relief effort. The current situation is a harbinger for the rest of South Asia, but also globally, as no country in the world remains unscathed by the destabilizing impact of accelerating climate change.
Flooding has begun to recede in some areas, but Sindh province, home to approximately 48 million people, remains one of the most hard-hit regions. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari referred to the crisis as “a climate disaster of biblical proportions.” Balochistan province, the poorest in the entire country, was inundated with more than 500% of its annual average precipitation during the month of August. This is the ‘new normal’ of global climate change, when at any moment, a state could be overwhelmed with extreme weather events, including hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought, or monsoons. Numerous countries throughout South Asia remain vulnerable, including Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and others. As Pakistan is already facing a number of fiscal and economic constraints, the recent flooding is going to compound the difficult conditions under which the government must operate. Pakistan’s army and navy have both been tasked with assisting in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations.
In weak and fragile states, when humanitarian crises impact the nation, it offers opportunities to non-state actors, including militant groups and violent extremist organizations, to fulfill critical functions and, accordingly, gain legitimacy among the population. In previous years, humanitarian disasters, including earthquakes, have provided jihadist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) with avenues to reach the population, bringing in volunteer workers and even medical staff to treat locals. Similar actions occurred during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when across the world, rebel groups and armed militias provided services that governments were either unable or unwilling to offer, helping extremist organizations recruit new members and burnish their own image in the process. Delivering social services has helped extremist groups become more well-rounded, complementing their already potent political and military wings, and as groups like Hezbollah and Hamas have demonstrated, transforming them into a far more formidable force with a loyal following.
Developing countries and large swaths of the Global South are likely to bear the brunt of climate change, even though those these countries have had the least to do with causing carbon emissions (Pakistan is believed to be responsible for less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions) and are also among the least able to marshal the resources to combat this growing threat. While the focus is on Pakistan now, it will soon be another country. There are also second and third-order effects to consider. In Pakistan, flooding has destroyed valuable crops, leading directly to higher food prices, which have also been impacted by food security issues related to Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine. Rice, cotton, wheat, and other essential crops have been destroyed. The impact on cotton crops plays an outsized role, exacerbated by shrinking foreign exchange reserves and record high inflation, which now stands at just over 27%, the highest in more than fifty years.