The Floods in Pakistan
‘We are living in hell,’ a resident of Baluchistan told the Guardian in May 2022. Temperatures in the south-western region of Pakistan were averaging 50°C. The year before, they were the world’s highest ever recorded at 54°C. In the north-east of the country, on 7 May, a bridge in Hassanabad, in the Himalayan Hunza Valley, collapsed. A swollen river, carrying icy and debris-strewn water from an upstream glacier, hit the concrete with such force that it appeared to have been detonated. One of the termini of the Muchuhar glacier in the Karakoram mountains had melted in the heat. It flooded the waters of a lake that had been slowly forming at its tip, whose volume surged by over 40 per cent. Seventy-five people died. Part of the main highway was destroyed, as were two hydropower plants. The water pipes of seven downstream villages burst. When the glacier first cracked and splintered open, its surroundings were bleached white by a blanket of frost. ‘It was like doomsday,’ a 67-year-old local said to al-Jazeera.
There are more than three thousand glacial lakes in Pakistan. The Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountains that stretch from Afghanistan to China are host to 55,000 glaciers. It’s the largest freshwater reserve in the world outside the poles. It feeds the ten mightiest rivers in Asia, on whose banks more than two billion people work and live; they also power 250 hydroelectric plants. Thirty-three of Pakistan’s glacial lakes are at risk of releasing millions of cubic metres of water; sixteen flooded during this year’s heatwave, the overflow entering the Indus River basin.
The worst, however, was yet to come. In June, the pre-monsoon rains began, much heavier than usual. Dawn, a national daily, reported that in Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, roofs had collapsed, crops had been ravaged, roads had been swept away and more bridges had fallen. In videos, water could be seen not just entering fields but carrying away entire tracts of land. This was around 20 June. By 1 July, the United Nations Satellite Centre (UNOSAT) showed that more than 33 million people were potentially exposed. Punjab and Sindh seemed to be the worst hit, but reports showed that over a third of Pakistan was underwater. That’s more than 85,000 square kilometres of land – an area the size of Austria, or twice Denmark. ‘This is literally a climate disaster of biblical proportion,’ Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, Pakistan’s foreign minister, said to CNBC. The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, visiting Pakistan, said it was ‘a code-red for humanity’. The brightly painted red, orange and green New Honeymoon Hotel in Kalam crumbled in sixteen seconds, as though made of sand. You can watch it on TikTok.
On 7 September, the Pentagon announced it would be providing Pakistan’s fleet of US-made F-16 fighter jets with ‘sustainment and related equipment’ worth $450 million. It was the first significant arms deal between the nations since Trump stopped giving Pakistan aid in 2018. The reason, according to both nations, was countering terrorism. The flood waters were yet to recede. As of 6 September, according to a satellite-derived report by UNOSAT, twenty million people were still exposed to flooding. More than fifty thousand square kilometres of Pakistan was still underwater (an area the size of Croatia). Some of the floodwater was stagnant, and cases of cholera, malaria and typhoid soared. Transport links had broken down, and what food could be salvaged from storage cost up to five times as much as usual.
On 9 October, nearly four months since the first torrential downpours, thirteen million people were still, according to UNOSAT, ‘potentially exposed or living close to flooded areas’. According to the National Disaster Management Authority, as of early November, the floods have resulted in over 1700 deaths and nearly 13,000 severe injuries. Two million houses have been destroyed, and as many farm animals killed. The UN estimates the cost of damage to infrastructure to be nearly $40 billion. Most alarming, the country is in a severe food crisis: over 80 per cent of crops were damaged. Thousands of hectares of onions, tomatoes, rice, wheat and more have been destroyed. Rejuvenating farmland after such intense flooding could take years. More immediately, people are having difficulty accessing basic nutrition.
An early report by researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar found the flooding to be the result of a deadly mix of heat, melting glaciers and extreme rainfall. The soil was already saturated from prolonged year-round precipitation, and an aggressive increase in water vapour carried by Pakistan’s atmospheric rivers. Warm air holds more water. ‘The frequency of similar precipitation events,’ the report finds, ‘is projected to quadruple under the warming climate.’
Scientists at the World Weather Attribution Initiative found that this year’s heat waves were made worse by the 1.2°C increase in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels. Pakistan produces less than 1 per cent of global greenhouse emissions, which are still rising. Ahead of COP27, which began in Egypt on Sunday, John Kerry, the US climate representative, was asked if the US would ‘step up and actually put money into loss and damage’: ‘You tell me the government in the world that has trillions of dollars,’ he replied, ‘because that’s what it costs.’ They can find the money to service the F-16s though.