Original publication by Max Bearak, Raymond Zhong and Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud for nytimes.com on 29 August 2022
Across Pakistan, torrents of floodwater have ripped away mountainsides, swept buildings off their foundations and roared through the countryside, turning whole districts into inland seas. More than 1,100 people have died so far, and more than one million homes have been damaged or destroyed.
After nearly three months of incessant rain, much of Pakistan’s farmland is now underwater, raising the specter of food shortages in what is likely to be the most destructive monsoon season in the country’s recent history.
“We are using boats, camels, whatever means possible to deliver relief items to worst-hit areas,” said Faisal Amin Khan, a minister in the mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, which has been severely affected. “We’re trying our best, but our province was hit worse now than in the 2010 floods.”
That year, flooding killed more than 1,700 people and left millions homeless. At the time, the secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, described the disaster as the worst he had ever seen.
The crisis unfolding this summer is the latest extreme weather event in a country often ranked as one of the most vulnerable to climate change. Pakistan this spring began experiencing record-breaking, drought-intensifying heat, which scientists concluded had been 30 times as likely to occur because of human-caused global warming. Now much of the country is underwater.
While scientists can’t yet say how much the current rainfall and flooding may have been worsened by climate change, researchers agree that in South Asia and elsewhere, global warming is increasing the likelihood of severe rain. When it falls in an area also grappling with drought, it can be particularly damaging by causing sharp swings between far too little water and far too much, too quickly.
“If that rainfall was distributed over the season, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad,” said Deepti Singh, a climate scientist at Washington State University Vancouver. Instead, strong cloudbursts are ruining crops and washing away infrastructure, with huge consequences for vulnerable societies, she said. “Our systems are just not designed to manage that.”
Pakistan is already beset by skyrocketing food prices as well as political instability, leaving the country’s government shaky precisely when leadership is most critical. The former prime minister, Imran Khan, was forced out of office in April and this month was charged under antiterrorism laws amid a power struggle with the current leadership.
In the port city of Karachi, Afzal Ali, a 35-year-old garment-factory worker who earns just over $100 a month, said on Monday that prices for basic food items like tomatoes had quadrupled in the past few days since the rains intensified again. “Everything has already become expensive because of rising petrol prices, and the recent floods will further worsen the situation,” he said.
On Monday, Pakistan’s finance minister, Miftah Ismail, was quoted by local news agencies as saying that the floods and accompanying increases in food prices could lead the government to reopen certain trade routes to India to ease supply issues despite persistent tensions between the two countries.
India itself has been so hard-hit by drought this year that it has dramatically decreased its food exports. That decision deepened fears of a prolonged global food crisis, spurred in part by huge reductions in wheat and fertilizer supply after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a major wheat producer.
Pakistan’s compounding economic and political crises — exacerbated by pandemic-era economic sluggishness and a weakening currency — will be further entrenched by this year’s floods. Ahsan Iqbal, the country’s planning minister, said he estimated damages to exceed $10 billion and that it will take the better part of a decade for the nation to rebuild.
Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate change minister, called the flooding a “climate-induced humanitarian disaster” of “epic proportions” and appealed for international aid. Only around $50 million is allocated to Pakistan’s climate change ministry in this year’s budget, reflecting a cut of almost one-third as the government tries to curtail spending.
One business owner hopeful for government assistance was Muhammad Saad Khan, owner of the Riverdale Resort, a hotel along the steep banks of the Swat River in the Hindu Kush mountains near the border with Afghanistan. The hotel’s parking lot and part of its main building were swept away over the weekend.
“The flow of the river was so high that the water gushed into the rooms even though the hotel is constructed away from the river and at a height,” he said. “And we were actually the lucky ones.”
Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority said 162 bridges had so far been damaged by this year’s floods and that more than 2,000 miles of roads were washed away. Abrar ul Haq, chairman of the Pakistan Red Crescent, said that the mixture of flooding and high temperatures meant the “worst is yet to come” because conditions were perfect for the spread of waterborne diseases.
Pakistan’s low levels of resilience and repeated need for disaster aid are not just matters of weak governance but of historical injustices, some argue. A long-running debate over the obligations of rich, polluting nations to help poor, developing countries cope with climate change has become a sticking point in global climate negotiations.
Countries like Pakistan are far less industrialized than wealthier nations like the United States or Britain, which colonized Pakistan. As a result, over time Pakistan and other countries have emitted only a tiny fraction of the greenhouse gases that are warming the world, yet they suffer outsized damage and are also expected to pay for costly modernization to limit their current pollution.
“Any flood relief that is given should not be seen as ‘aid,’ but rather as reparations for injustices accumulated over the past few centuries,” said Nida Kirmani, a professor of sociology at the Lahore School for Management Sciences.
The summer monsoon is central to life in South Asia, where a relatively reliable rainy season is essential for agriculture to thrive across a region of well over one billion people. But scientists expect more of these seasonal rains to come down in dangerous, unpredictable bursts as the planet continues to heat up, largely for the simple reason that warmer air holds more moisture.
When the right atmospheric factors come together to generate heavy precipitation, there is more water available to fall from the clouds than there had been before greenhouse-gas emissions began warming the planet, said Noah S. Diffenbaugh, a climate scientist at Stanford University who has studied the South Asian monsoon.
This is true even though average precipitation at the height of the rainy season over central India, which scientists call the monsoon “core,” declined somewhat between 1951 and 2011, Dr. Diffenbaugh and his colleagues found in a 2014 study. The reason for this apparent “paradox,” he said, is that the monsoon has become more erratic: Stronger downpours have been interspersed with longer dry spells. Instead of the steady rains that reliably nourish crops, more precipitation comes intermittently.
In the process, extreme swings between dry periods and deluges can become part of a broader cycle of social and economic pressures.
“The floods are devastating, yes, and affect a lot of people in a short amount of time,” said Jumaina Siddiqui, the senior program officer for South Asia at the United States Institute for Peace. “But drought, food security, inflation — these are climate-related disasters that are playing out broadly, before, during and after these floods.”
Zia ur-Rehman contributed reporting.