Climate Crisis and Poor Government Planning Are Blamed for Pakistan Floods
Floods have affected all four provinces of Pakistan.

MAHANDRI, Pakistan – The village of Mahandri was once a scenic stopover for tourists visiting the valley of Kaghan in Pakistan’s northernmost province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but recent flash floods have destroyed most of its infrastructure.

The monsoon floods have killed about 14 people, washed away five restaurants, all 30 shops in the local market and destroyed health infrastructure in the village, which located on the Kunhar River. The river starts in the glaciers of the Kaghan valley, and melting ice has added to the deluge.

“The estimated cost of the commercial and domestic damage in the area is above $600,000,” said Babu Ashraf, a local councillor.

The Pakistani government has announced a national emergency amidst reports by the National Disaster Management Authority that over 1191 people have died and 33 million people have been affected from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the far north to Baluchistan, Punjab, and Sindh province in the far south.

One-third of the country is under water

UNOSAT image of Pakistan flood damage from 1-29 August – from Kyber Pakhtunkhwa to Punjab and the worst-affected Balochistan and Sindh provinces.

According to Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Climate Change, Senator Sherry Rehman, one-third of Pakistan is under water, with the rainfall in some parts of the country almost 400% more than average.  Some 22 million people have been exposed to flood-related risks -about 10% of the country’s population, according to United Nations estimates. 

At a briefing on Wednesday, Rehman said that Pakistan was at “ground zero of this climate catastrophe created by the greenhouse gas emissions of richer countries”.

While the country needed to improve its planning by “not building close to river beds, and better drainage”, that is not why the deluge took place, she stressed: “Make no mistake, climate change has caused this catastrophe.”

“The rains in Sindh and Balochistan have surpassed 30-year averages and have taken more than 1191 lives, with well over 33 million severely affected. More than 5000 kms of roads and 243 bridges have been destroyed, and nearly a million homes have been fully or partially damaged,” Rehman said.

“If we are to build back better, it will honestly require more than the $10 billion that is being talked about,” said Rehman, adding that temperatures in Sindh province had exceeded 53ºC which is “unlivable”.

Pakistan floods – summary of damage to date.

Glacier melt further exacerbates moonsoon floods

Earlier, Rehman noted to the Associated Press that Pakistan had the largest number of glaciers outside the polar region, and as these are melting, as well, they are exacerbating the monsoon floods. Pakistan is home to over 7,200 glaciers.

World Health Organisation (WHO) Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing on Wednesday that “damage to health infrastructure, shortages of health workers and limited health supplies are disrupting health services, leaving children and pregnant and lactating women at increased risk”.

“Pakistan was already facing health threats including COVID-19, cholera, typhoid, measles, leishmaniasis, HIV and polio,” said Tedros.

“Now the flooding has led to new outbreaks of dengue and skin infections, respiratory tract infections, malaria and more. In addition, the loss of crops and livestock will have a significant impact on the nutrition and health of many communities that depend on these resources. And more rain is expected.”

Government planning failures 

Pakistan floods have destroyed bridges and other infrastructure along rivers.

However, some also blame the Pakistan government for its failure to plan for climate crises and for allowing construction to alter the rivers’ natural pathways and human settlements on floodplains.

Mohammed Hanif, District Community Officer in Kaghan, said that most of the damage done in his province of Khyber Pakthunkhwa was in areas where the course of the rivers Sindh, Kabul, Swat, and Kunhar have been encroached on by commercial activities.

“People have encroached and made construction on the beds of rivers and natural streams for commercial benefits,” said Hanif.

Back in 2002, a River Act was passed by the provincial assembly, followed by a 2014 amendment to stop the illegal construction, but this had not been implementation, he pointed out.

Hanif added that Pakistan is on the list of the top ten countries vulnerable to climate change impacts and it needs a clear policy to deal with such natural disasters.

“The country even does not have the required departments to deal with such natural calamities,” he said.

Stronger climate adaptation efforts needed

People who have been displaced as a result of flooding.

Climate change activists believe that Pakistan should adopt a climate governance model to prevent such calamities. Aftab Alam Khan, CEO of Resilient Future International (RSI), a research and training social enterprise focused on climate change in Pakistan, said the country has to move towards the climate governance system because it cannot handle such calamities with ordinary governance.

“Much more seriousness is required at federal, provincial, and down to district level governments towards climate adaptability,” he said.

Khan said the government should learn from the 2010 floods, which affected 20 million people, and the 2005 earthquake,  and improve the coordination amongst all the departments.

Comparing the 2010 floods with current floods, he said this year’s floods were more devastating, affecting over 30 million people. The damage to livestock in 2010 were around $0.27 million whereas it was already around $0.7 million so far and likely to increase.

Some 45 % of crops had been lost in some areas, including devastating damage to the cotton crop upon which much of Pakistan’s GDP depends, in comparison to 11% in 2010,.

Khan said as Pakistan has been marked in the top ten countries being affected by climate change, the government has to take some emergency measures and develop a national adaptation plan.

Health crises loom

These floods can lead to infectious and waterborne diseases in stagnant pools of water across the country.

“Floods have already started affecting the health of the people and a large number of people are facing issues of gastroenteritis, malaria, dengue, snake bites and typhoid in the flood-affected areas,’ said Khan.

Health experts also believe that the damage will not stop here and floods will bring long-term health challenges for millions of affected people.

“With the change in temperature, the whole environment is changing and even the diseases which were well under control are being unleashed again because of the temperate conditions,” warned Dr Zafar Mirza, a public health expert and Pakistan’s former health minister.

He predicted that waterborne diseases including diarrhoea, cholera, malaria, and dengue will spread in the medium term because there will be stagnant pools of water on vast areas of land across Pakistan.

Satellite images released on Wednesday show that overflow from the Indus River has turned part of Sindh Province into a 100 km-wide lake, according to CNN.

“If this is not addressed, it will cause mortality there,” Mirza said, adding that, in the longer-term, lack of food and healthcare would make people more vulnerable to many secondary infections.

Mirza said the government’s biggest challenge is putting all its relief and rescue departments in the coordination and raising funds to reach the public suffering from floods.

“Financial resources are also needed and the United Nations (UN) has flashed an appeal to help Pakistan but the amount is very small. Much more would be required,” Mirza.

WHO warning after damage to health facilities

Millions displaced by floods have been left without access to health care.

The WHO reported on Tuesday that around 888 health facilities had been damaged, of which 180 are completely destroyed, leaving millions of people without access to health care.

WHO has diverted mobile medical camps, including teams responding to COVID-19, to affected districts, delivered over one million water purifying tablets and provided sample collection kits to ensure clinical testing of samples to ensure early detection of infectious diseases.

“According to a preliminary assessment conducted by WHO and humanitarian partners, the current level of devastation is much more severe than that caused by floods in Pakistan in previous years, including those that devastated the country in 2010,” said Dr Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO’s Regional Director for the Eastern Mediterranean.

Ongoing disease outbreaks in Pakistan, including acute watery diarrhoea, dengue fever, malaria, polio, and COVID-19 are being further aggravated, particularly in camps and where water and sanitation facilities have been damaged

“WHO is working with health authorities to respond quickly and effectively on the ground. Our key priorities now are to ensure rapid access to essential health services to the flood-affected population strengthen and expand disease surveillance, outbreak prevention and control, and ensure robust health cluster coordination,” said Dr Palitha Mahipala, WHO Representative in Pakistan.

The spokesperson for the Ministry of National Health Services and Regulations, Sajid Hussain Shah, said these floods are testing times for the country and the ministry is taking all efforts to control the disease spread in flood-affected areas.

He said though health is a provincial matter in the country, but the federal ministry is coordinating with provinces to provide them with maximum facilities.

Shah said over 600,000 medicated mosquito nets have been distributed in 22 districts of Sindh and above $2.5 million worth of medicine has been provided to people affected.

“This is a huge calamity and the government cannot recover from it without international community help,” said Shah.

Image Credits: Rahul Rajput, UNOSAT , UNHCR .

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