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Pakistan’s Vulnerability to Disaster Was Through the Roof. Then Came the Floods.

Sometimes a weather event is so extreme and so far-reaching, it can be hard to make sense of, particularly from a distance. A third of Pakistan has been submerged by flooding now for at least a week, leading to image after image and video after video of endless water where homes and roads were meant to be. More than a thousand people have died, with more than a million houses destroyed or damaged. More than 100 bridges have collapsed, and thousands of miles of roads have been damaged. Hundreds of thousands of farm animals have died, and as many as 73,000 women are expected to give birth over the next month without adequate medical support.

Almost certainly, the monsoon rains were made worse by climate change, in part because rapidly melting glaciers contributed, and soon after the most striking images began to circulate internationally, there were calls for climate reparations, with which the world’s rich would compensate the world’s poor for the ravages of warming. (Among those making that call was Pakistan’s outspoken climate minister, Sherry Rehman.) Others argued that flooding of this scale, in a country only very fractionally responsible for global warming, made clear the need for a loss-and-damage system — which is what climate advocates say is a more circumscribed approach to help channel support from the rich countries of the world to those suffering most from climate impacts.

But as with any disaster, climate alone does not tell the whole story, and as the flooding wore on, blame has been spread around more widely. In the Pakistani English-language newspaper Dawn, the columnist Arifa Noor outlined many of the country’s policy and preparation failures in the decade since devastating 2010 floods that killed almost 2,000 Pakistanis, caused billions of dollars in damage and at the time were “the worst natural disaster to date attributable to climate change,” according to ClimateWire. Now “Pakistan has been hit by another calamity, but this time around nature has been even more wrathful,” Noor wrote. “The problem is that climate change is also turning into an excuse,” she went on, adding that “the rains and their intensity are beyond our control; the havoc they wreak is not.”

As the flooding continued, Foreign Policy declared that “bad governance exacerbated Pakistan’s flooding,” listing some long-term mistakes: failing water infrastructure, deforestation, poor drainage systems and dangerous, unregulated construction. But there are immediate needs, as well, of course. “Pakistan is at its nadir of political stability,” the climate scientist Fahad Saeed of Climate Analytics wrote last week, citing the ouster, by a messy 13-party coalition, of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf national government, and the fact that the P.T.I. remains in power at the provincial level. “In a recently called all-parties conference, P.T.I. was not even invited,” he wrote, “a reflection of the political bitterness, even during the time of worst flooding of country’s history.”

On Sept. 4, I spoke to Saeed, who was in Islamabad, about the scale of the damage and how to apportion cause and responsibility. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with the big picture. From afar, the numbers are so large, they are almost numbing — a third of the country underwater, more than a million homes destroyed. How does the situation look to you?

I myself am very scared at the moment, considering the political instability and the economic instability in the country. Pakistan was already on the verge of economic collapse and kneeling before the International Monetary Fund, just a week ago, desperate for this $1.17 billion relief package. This flooding can easily cause economic damage of $15 billion to $20 billion or even more.

That much? Most estimates I’ve seen suggest $10 billion.

It may be more. There were 15 to 20 million people affected during Pakistan’s 2010 superfloods, incurring damage of about $10 billion. If you compare it with this year’s floods, we already have about 33 million affected. The scale is much larger.

At $20 billion, that would be almost 5 percent of the country’s G.D.P.

And considering the pre-existing vulnerability of the economy and bringing the effects of the heat wave earlier this year into the equation, the impacts of these floods will be compounded substantially. In the heat wave, we lost a lot of wheat, and here we are going to lose crops such as dates and sugar cane.

I’ve seen estimates that wheat alone in Pakistan is responsible for 2 percent of G.D.P. and 3.5 percent of global production. And even before the flooding, the country was looking at a wheat shortfall of several million tons. Then there’s rice, which has also been affected and accounts for something like a quarter of total calories consumed in Pakistan.

And cotton. Cotton is very important. And it’s going to hit the vegetable crops as well. I’m in Islamabad. I already can see the prices of fruit and vegetables are going through the roof. So the situation — it’s very scary. And I’ve already heard that there have been a few instances where it is reported that waterborne diseases have broken out — malaria, diarrhea, dengue.

I’ve seen some harrowing footage of what looks like whole clouds of mosquitoes.

Yeah, the situation is really very bad at the moment. The media is covering the relief activities. The world is coming together. We have gotten some aid and support from organizations and friendly countries. But going forward, I just cannot imagine any plan for how the government is going to tackle all this. People will be able to get rehabilitated — the people who are affected. But how the country will run, that is very difficult to comprehend for me at that moment.

People are comparing it with the 2010 floods. But in 2010 we had the heaviest rain for just a few days in July.

This time, it’s been weeks.

Months. It’s been months. It was the middle of June when the rains started. And just yesterday water levels reached a new peak in some places on the Indus River.

You wrote about watching someone being carried away by floodwaters while trying to save five children — and that was in early July, before the floods were getting the kind of international attention they are now.

The heat and the flooding — it’s a huge, huge setback to the country as a whole.

How should we think about how all these dynamics interact? There’s some natural weather variation, of course, and also climate change powering everything. There’s government instability and economic instability and considerable lack of planning infrastructure development.

Consider the risk framing of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: We have hazards, we have exposure, and then we have vulnerability. These are three components of the overall risk framework. And all three components play their role in exacerbating damage.

Another way of thinking about them is: how bad the weather is, how many people experience it and how prepared they are to deal with the impacts.

In this case, hazard is the flooding and the heat, and the role of climate change is to increase their intensity and frequency. We did a study for the heat wave and concluded it was 30 times more likely, compared to a world without climate change.

Do you expect we’ll be able to say something similar about the flooding event? Or will the effect be less dramatic?

I would say, with my experience, that climate change has definitely played a role. And if you go into more detail, what I believe is that the heat wave, which is attributed to climate change, also contributed to the heavy downfalls we have witnessed this year.

How is that?

It’s been long established that a heat low develops over Pakistan and the adjoining region of India before the onset of the monsoon. And because of the temperature gradient between the ocean and the land, we receive monsoon depressions from the Bay of Bengal. And so the heat wave we had this spring, that unprecedented heat wave — that is also one of the factors in the intensity of this particular monsoon.

Then we have exposure. In 1947 the population of this part of Pakistan was 35 million. And now it is more than 200 million. The more people, the more the exposure level will go higher.

And vulnerability?

You must have seen videos of all those structures being washed away — concrete structures. And of course, governance has to play a part here not only for managing and protecting the population but also for managing all this construction, even the illegal construction, to make sure it is in line with the climate of the country.

Especially the poorer and more vulnerable.

If you are poor, you are more vulnerable. If you’re poor, it means that you do not have a strong house, a well-built house. You are living in a mud house.

Much more easily washed away.

Or you are a small farmer. You have a small piece of land where you can cultivate your crops. You’re going to be stranded after the flooding. So there are many factors to vulnerability, especially poverty. But there are also very few safety nets.

That’s why Pakistan is one of the 10 countries most at risk from climate change.

I’ve heard you say elsewhere that these floods were so significant that no country in the world, no matter how rich, could’ve fared very well.

Of course, they would struggle, any country. You receive 400 percent more rainfall in a single season or 600 percent more in a single month, any part of the world would definitely struggle to cope with it. Look at the hurricanes hitting the U.S. People do struggle. But of course, in a country with resources, they would be more resilient. That’s pretty simple.

But sometimes, David, climate change surprises you. I mean, think of the 2003 heat wave in Europe. It took the whole continent off their toes. They were just not expecting it. The toll, if memory serves me well, was 70,000. They could not respond because they were caught on their heels. They were not expecting it. And the Russian heat wave 2010 — how much was it? Tens of thousands of people died.

I think the official total is 55,000 for 2010.

This is what we talked about a few months ago. I argued that the next time, after that, they would be better prepared. And there has been heat in Europe, but in no cases were there anything close to 50,000 deaths, because they developed systems to respond to such events.

But when I compare the 2010 flooding with this flooding, it’s just a different level. In 2010 we had riverine flooding. But this time, even the far-flung areas of Balochistan and Sindh Provinces were flooded. And there’s a huge incidence of poverty there, too.

What should be done?

We always struggle asking the world, the U.N., for climate finance. But it’s high time for Pakistan to put its house in order.

In what way do you mean?

For example, in South Asia, Bangladesh and India are receiving much more climate finance from developed countries than Pakistan. That means that the country is not making a strong case, in terms of climate diplomacy. They’re not doing enough.

And overall, the rich countries of the world are still falling short in delivering their promised level of support.

And considering the vulnerability — it is just going through the roof. And even then, despite that, Pakistan is not able to access the available climate finance. You need to do the homework in order to access that kind of funding. And if Pakistan is receiving just a fraction of what Bangladesh is receiving, it tells you that the homework is not done.

It seems already likely that these issues are going to be central to the U.N. climate conference this fall. There’s already been a lot of talk in the wake of the floods of climate reparations and the need for a facility for loss and damage to facilitate support from the Global North to the Global South in times of disasters like these. What do you think the prospects are there?

I can only wish. The history is not great. But Pakistan is actually the chair of the G77 group at the moment — the group of vulnerable countries. And if I were in the driver’s seat, I would make a huge case out of it. We’re at 1.2 degrees of warming, and we are witnessing all this. So the developed countries must, No. 1, do climate action, reduce emissions. But at the same time, they must compensate the ones who are poor. And they can decide on the mechanism they want to follow. But, you know, most climate finance is in the form of loans. I would argue it needs to be grants, not loans.

What are the stakes of that debate, then? What would it mean for Pakistan if more support wasn’t forthcoming?

Considering the state of governance in Pakistan and what it has been in the last few decades, I would say that it would be a death sentence for many, many, many poor families. So it’s a very crucial time for the world to come together.

David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”


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