One Nation Under Water

The billions of dollars’ worth of destruction left by the floods in Pakistan offers a strong case for climate-change reparations. Will the world heed it?

A photo of an encampment of tents for people displaced by Pakistan's floods
Fareed Khan / AP

KARACHI, Pakistan—In this part of the world, the monsoon is feted, greeted with song and dance, enshrined in poetry, featured in romantic fantasy. A celebratory menu even exists for the season: in the cities, vegetables deep-fried in chickpea-flour batter, corn on the cob roasted over glowing embers; in the villages, mushrooms stir-fried with fenugreek, spiced slow-cooked lotus roots; and everywhere, mangoes. In rural Pakistan, the monsoon rains are a lifeline. But this year, they brought death, devastation, and disease.

Floods from the torrential rains caused rivers, canals, and lakes to overflow; wiped out entire villages; inundated highways; devastated millions of acres of crops; and made millions of people homeless. We ran out of adjectives to describe the rainfall: unprecedented, incessant, epic, biblical, apocalyptic. We ran out of intelligible numbers to capture the predicament: 15 inches of rain in a day; 44,000 square miles of land flooded; two fathoms of water over towns, homes, and schools; nearly 1,700 dead; some 33 million people affected. And now, after a brief spell of international interest, we are running out of attention.

The spectacular images of people and animals being saved from drowning and people fleeing homes carrying possessions in bundles on their head are past. The tempestuous velocity of water, the menacing roiling, is over. The floods converged on low-lying southeastern Sindh province, which acts as a natural drain for the country with the Indus River’s passage to the sea. But the Indus remained in high flood for more than a month, and even when it regained some capacity, many inundated areas were miles away, unable to drain anywhere. The putrid rainwater that still covers thousands of square miles is standing with a savage stillness, a killer calm.

Waterborne diseases such as cholera and gastroenteritis are rife among the population. Mosquitoes have bred in their billions, bringing malaria and dengue fever. Hundreds of children have died since June. In Sindh alone, more than 370,000 people are now living in hastily established camps. According to volunteers, half of the population in these tent cities is severely sick. Doctors and medicines are in short supply. Parts of flooded Sindh are miles from any outlet that could drain the water. Despite the crucial need, Pakistan’s authorities have neither the machinery nor the technical expertise to pump the water away.

Caught in a pincer between weak governance and climate change, the rural poor battered by these floods are now debilitated by disease and immobilized by fear that a return to life as they knew it may not be possible.

Dilawar Chandio survived the floods in August by wading to safety with his family through waist-deep water. But he fears that his village community’s way of life died in the summer’s deluge. A small-scale farmer from Dadu, in Sindh province, he needs to plant wheat in early November—but doesn’t know if the water will be gone from his fields by then.

Like that of other farmers everywhere, his livelihood depends on the weather—or, put another way, the climate’s stability and predictability. The Indus River basin, which runs through Sindh, is the largest contiguous irrigation system in the world, fed by glacial melt. And agriculture constitutes the largest sector of Pakistan’s economy and employs nearly half its labor force. For Chandio’s wheat, moisture at the wrong time means fungus; dryness at the wrong time means lower yields.

“What next? Hailstorms in May? Monsoon in December? We can’t flatten the mountains, and we can’t stop the cloudbursts,” he told me in a relief camp in Jamshoro, in Sindh. “Farmers work with nature’s cycles. If nature goes rogue, we’re finished. The farmer in me drowned.”

Sindh was dealing with drought before the monsoon. Rice cultivation had been banned in parts of Upper Sindh because of water shortages downstream. Most of the cotton planted is a drought-resistant variety. Earlier this year, the provincial government was arguing about “missing flows” in the irrigation system, raising suspicions of water theft. Two months later, the region was submerged.

All of the government’s contingency plans collapsed in the face of this monsoon’s onslaught. They were based on Meteorological Department predictions of what “above normal precipitation” could be—which were nowhere near what we experienced. In August, it rained nearly 800 percent more than average in Sindh. Similar downpours affected the more mountainous neighboring province to the west, Balochistan, which sent even more water cascading into Sindh, with enough volume and momentum to crash through many flood defenses.

The official emergency simulations made assumptions that highways to transport relief goods would remain intact. In the event, more than 5,000 miles of roads were washed away, and some routes were covered by 10 feet of water.

The country’s needs are changing too rapidly for the government to cope. At first, it scrambled to source tents and tarpaulins, because its own inventory did not cover even a fraction of what was called for. Then it struggled to provide clean drinking water because so many local sources were contaminated. And the demands for resources keep piling up: mosquito nets; birthing facilities for pregnant women; antivenom medicine, because any dry land is infested with snakes flooded out of their regular habitat; fodder, fencing, and veterinary care for people’s livestock.

The government initially had difficulty even finding dry areas on which to place camps for the displaced. Then, when they were established, many people avoided them because they couldn’t take their livestock. In agrarian Pakistan, buffalo are considered “black gold”; owning one changes a family’s entire livelihood. As a result, thousands of families camped wherever they could—on roadsides, on embankments, or anywhere with shelter. The government had no ready way to track where anyone was and who needed what.

Some of the post-monsoon mess stems from prior administrative incompetence. The provincial governments in Sindh and Balochistan did not have a comprehensive evacuation plan in case of flash floods. Maintenance problems meant that many of the canals had not been dredged effectively, and the country’s infrastructure for shedding water was simply overwhelmed. As if this was not scandal enough, Pakistan’s chief meteorologist was accused of embezzlement and dismissed after the rains had come.

Worse, some of the flooding was exacerbated by man-made measures taken earlier to control flooding. In 2010, Pakistan was hit by a disastrous “super flood” caused by the swollen Indus River overflowing its banks. In the aftermath, the government raised the river’s embankments. This time, when the exceptional monsoon rains came, the Indus stayed within its regular seasonal flow—but those higher levees were now holding back the stormwater from draining into the river.

Another part of the mess is simply the sort of chaos intrinsic to natural disasters. Sindh’s education minister issued an order to all the relief camps to establish schools for the displaced children of the new tent cities. Local officials in some districts understood this to mean that all the school buildings that had been adapted to make relief accommodation had to revert to functioning as schools. To obey the ministerial guidance, they evicted flood victims from classrooms in the middle of the night so that regular schooling could resume. No students showed up in the morning, of course, and no one knows where those people went.

Such problems were exacerbated by institutional overreach and failures of coordination. Sindh’s high court elbowed its way into relief distribution and ordered the government to set up committees headed by judges to monitor the work. As a result, when aid trucks were handed over to district commissioners, many officials refused to distribute any supplies until the judges came in person. The commissioners say they don’t want to risk being hauled before courts. Meanwhile, people saw trucks lined up with goods they couldn’t access, which led to suspicion that officials were misappropriating the aid. And because crisis profiteering occurs in every disaster, scattered instances of hoarding are seen as proof of widespread corruption.

More of the mess involves wrangling over difficult decisions and their political costs. To help the floodwaters drain, relief cuts have to be dug. But in almost every case, these cuts will result in collateral damage to villages and fields. And those affected are not easily persuaded that choices about the sites of these drainage ditches have been based on purely technical considerations. The existing deficit of trust between the people and government creates a rumor mill about how such flood-remediation measures are a means of settling political scores by deluging opponents’ property.

The flooding has not led to any abatement in the country’s political turmoil. The populist political opposition led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan is continuing its rallies and campaigns, heckling ministers during appeals for flood donations. His party tacitly encourages its followers to use social media to lobby world leaders not to assist the government with aid, claiming that the money will be siphoned off. So what is true locally also applies nationally: The suffering of the rural poor in the flood zone has become partisan hackery.

Salma, a schoolteacher and nonprofit worker (I learned only her first name), fled with her family from her home in the Sindh countryside to Karachi. Her district of Shahdadkot is still under feet of water. “I’ve heard the buzzwords,” she told me. “Climate adaptation and whatnot, telling us to change the way we build our houses, change the way we live. Why don’t you tell the rest of the world that? To change the way it lives? Why should we adapt to the consequences of their actions?”

Her point: Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent to the world’s greenhouse gases, yet it is now suffering disproportionately from the effects of global warming. According to World Weather Attribution estimates, the monsoon rains from June to August were 50 percent more intense than they would have been had the climate not already warmed by 1.2 degrees Celsius. Scientists debate exactly how much of this year’s rain flooding is due to climate change, but most agree that past data are no longer a predictive guide. The summer floods followed an unusual springtime heat wave of 50-degree temperatures, forest fires, and crop destruction. Monsoon depressions typically travel north to south in the country, losing intensity as they go. This time, repeated storm cycles hit the south first and stayed there.

The federal and provincial governments are trying frantically to control the damage. Some cash has already been disbursed to the neediest in the flooded areas, and a wider compensation scheme for deaths and losses such as damaged homes, lost livestock, and destroyed crops has been promised. The estimated losses caused by the floods are equivalent to 10 percent of the country’s economic output—at a time when the country was already drowning in debt. The government had been in talks with the IMF about a bailout, barring which Pakistan was sure to default. The loan has now been approved—but with stringent conditions such as ending fuel subsidies, which will make everything more expensive.

The Pakistani government says that recovery from the devastation could cost $30 billion. Amid distractions such as the war in Ukraine, the related energy crisis in Europe, and economic difficulties across the West, donor fatigue may be setting in. The United Nations’ initial $160 million appeal for such basic needs as food, water, sanitation, and health care met a lukewarm response. Three weeks after the UN started requesting funds, less than half the target amount was raised.

Pakistan’s government is now preparing for the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, COP 27, next month in Egypt. At the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September, Pakistan proposed a financial mechanism by which wealthy countries would compensate developing countries for bearing a disproportionate share of the costs of a climate-change crisis that they did far less to create. It will renew such calls for climate justice at COP 27, arguing that this year’s catastrophic floods are a global problem caused by global actions and require global solutions. Will the rest of the world heed Pakistan?

Abdul Razaq, a 70-year-old farmworker sheltering at a relief camp in Hyderabad, cannot read, but he sees the unfolding ecological disaster clearly enough. “The mango trees are flowering too much, way too much. The ants were climbing up and making their nests on higher branches,” he told me. “Look around: The hills have become thinner, so the water slides down faster; the trees are cut down; the wheatears are smaller; everything is changing. I keep telling them something is wrong, but no one listens to me.”