In May this year, weeks before one of history’s heaviest downpours hit Pakistan, Lt. Gen. Akhtar Nawaz, the chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), addressed the 7th session of the Global Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction in Bali, Indonesia. During the session, Nawaz assured the audience that Pakistan had filled the gaps in its capacities since the Kashmir Earthquake of 2005 and the devastating floods that have occurred several times since. “Pakistan had made ‘significant progress’ since then,” he said.
This progress, as per the NDMA’ chairman’s statement, included national frameworks, policies, plans, guidelines, and risk assessments, as well as well-stocked warehouses for emergencies and revised building codes specially formulated for disaster preparedness and resilience. “All these were done keeping the earlier experiences in mind,” he repeated.
Yet, when rains in June-September began to inundate villages, logistically the country was hardly prepared. It took at least two months for Pakistan to accept the scale of the destruction and loss. Even still, in the aftermath of the disaster there was hardly any emphasis on the country’s total lack of preparation.
The Timeline of Destruction
When the government issued an alert declaring this year’s floods a “national emergency,” it was already too late. Millions had been affected, more than a thousand people had already lost their lives, hundreds of bridges had collapsed and thousands of kilometers of road has been completely washed away, making it almost impossible for millions of people to receive any kind of support.
“Initially, we hardly had access to the affected villages, but we somehow managed to reach to several villages where I met many families that had lost everything,” said Hafsa Qadir Roonjah, a volunteer with the WANG organization actively working with the relief efforts. “These villages hardly had any pakka [concrete] houses before, let alone houses with any building codes, they had no electric supply and no access to information whatsoever.”
Having no early warning system, Hafsa added, “People only left their homes when the water had already entered. But they had nowhere to go and were left stranded under pouring down rain with no roof over their head.”
The NDMA published its first report on the flooding in the last week of June. By then, many had already lost their lives, hundreds of houses had been destroyed, and the collapse of several bridges had made it difficult to get to some of the most vulnerable villages across the country. And this was just the beginning of a massive wave of devastation.
Within a month, as per the NDMA, more than 300 people had lost their lives. Three in every ten deaths occurred in Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest province, and two in every ten in Sindh. Thousands of people had lost a roof over their head amid continuous rains. Six major rivers across the country had overflown and were expected to cause even more damage.
“The most affected are the poorest population of Pakistan, They already did not have much; the floods made things worse for them and exposed the extreme poverty people have been living in,” Jalila Haidar, a lawyer and activist volunteering for the relief work, told The Diplomat.
By August, almost 3,000 kilometers of road and hundreds of bridges had been washed away. More than 40,000 houses had been affected. As of October 19, these numbers have increased further still. More than 13,000 kilometers of roads have now been destroyed, more than 2 million houses affected, and nearly 2,000 people killed. With one-third of the country under water, water-borne diseases are now making the situation even worse.
Past Experiences with No Lessons Learned
Despite the heavy toll, there are fears that Pakistan and the world will soon forget this humanitarian crisis, like many of its kind before have been forgotten. This fear is not without basis. As per government data, since 1950 Pakistan has been no stranger to intense floods. The last 17 years have been some of the most difficult for the country when it comes to natural disasters, including the 2005 earthquake and the floods of 2010, 2011, and 2012. Almost half of the total deaths caused by floods in Pakistan since 1950 came between 2010 and 2022.
After the 2010 floods, the government of Pakistan and several international organizations conducted studies and published many reports about the country’s experience, risk, and vulnerabilities. It was then that the country established the NDMA at the federal level and a Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) in each of province for early preparedness and minimizing loss.
In the following years, several policies were developed to reduce risks. One example was the National Disaster Risk Reduction Policy of 2013, which focused on “advocating a management approach that focuses on reducing risks and loss.” Given the increase in the number of unpredictable extreme weather events, the country also formed a Ministry of Climate Change in 2017.
Despite the fact that Pakistan among the 10 countries at the highest risk of natural disasters, as per the World Risk Index, all the institutions, policies, plans, and strategies put in place to cope with emergencies are merely limited to paper. In a practical sense, the country has never taken disaster management as a serious matter. There is hardly any work done on improving the institutions that work on disaster management.
“There has to be political interest for any field to be taken seriously, be that disaster management or any other. Here, political interest is aligned with hard infrastructure; roads, buildings, as these are tangible and noticeable,” explained Rafiuallah Kakar, a public policy and development specialist from Balochistan, “It is easier to get votes on that basis. Secondly, these bring large commissions and kickbacks.”
Kakar continued: “For disaster management, lack of technical capacity is just one problem. Primarily political interest is just not aligned with it. There is no such demand for disaster management, and no organized media advocacy around it from civil society. Unless there is a disaster, no one even remembers to write, talk, or work on it.”
This is well evident. Reports on Pakistan’s lack of disaster preparedness – including this one – only started to pour in after the floods hit.
“A participatory approach for better disaster management is crucial,” said Pazeer Ahmed, a geologist and researcher. “Pakistan has a very diverse landscape, which requires different planning in different regions. Therefore along with investing and focusing on research and policies, disaster-resilient infrastructure is an important aspect to minimize risks for the future.”
The Climate Crisis and Justice
Where a weak management system, under-preparedness, and doing little to prevent losses has worsened the situation, Pakistan’s grievances over the climate crisis are legitimate. According to a report by the World Bank, with the ongoing climate crisis, Pakistan will likely have an increased number of extreme river and coastal floods in the next few decades.
However, the advocacy around climate justice – the argument that the developed nations contributed the most to the heat-trapping emissions and thus these richer nations should pay the developing world for climate damage – is a very new phenomenon in Pakistan. Not that it was not talked about before, but it is only after the recent floods that politicians, the media, and activists have collectively spoken out against climate injustice. As with attention to disaster preparedness, the fear is that this discourse will fade away over time.
In 2009, the developed countries set a target to provide $100 billion as climate finance annually to the developing world. As of yet, the target has gone unmet.
In a country with the world’s fifth-largest population, already struggling with spiking inflation, mounting international debt, and an unstable political situation, the damages caused by the climate crisis are a much larger challenge for Pakistan to figure out on its own. Yet the country’s recent appeals for help have not had the desired response, with the United Nations declaring as of October 12 that it had only received $90 million of the $816 million it requested to help assist Pakistan’s flood recovery efforts.
“We are responding with what we have, but it is not enough. We appeal to the world: Please speed up the response,” the U.N. said in a statement, emphasizing the urgent need for immediate action.
Though some humanitarian relief did arrive, the damage caused to the infrastructure defies a short-term fix. With damage or outright destruction to millions of houses and shops, hundreds of bridges, and thousands of kilometers of roads, as well as agricultural land, schools, and hospitals, it is very hard to predict if Pakistan will be able to rebuild its lost infrastructure in this decade.