PAKISTAN is widely branded as the seventh country most affected by climate change. We call attention to our negligible contribution to global warming compared to other parts of the world. Yet, on our 75th anniversary, nature’s wrath has exposed how callous we too have been as a nation in ignoring warning signals of the looming threats of climate change and rampant population growth — with dire consequences.
It is no coincidence that the hundreds of harrowing stories emerging from this calamity focus on the predicament of poor and pregnant women with more than five children. Already severely disadvantaged, the floods have only exacerbated their situation and the media is transmitting images of those who are most powerless and most affected by the devastation. These women must now deliver babies and nurse them in precarious circumstances unfit even for animals.
A large part of this was avoidable. We have neglected the reproductive health of the millions of women and children already lacking family planning, delivery and maternal care services. Much alarm has been expressed that close to a million women in the most severely affected areas are currently pregnant. But it should come as no surprise that those regions most adversely affected by the floods are the ones with the highest fertility, maternal and child mortality rates. These areas are largely deprived of family planning services and essential information, for instance, most rural women in Sindh and Balochistan still deliver in unsafe conditions remote from any health facilities. In contrast, most pregnant women in urban Pakistan deliver in institutions.
In a catastrophe of the kind, unseen anywhere in the world, we — the educated — are culpable for many injustices because this was a tragedy foretold. We lament that national and international relief are only reaching a fraction of the millions whose lives and livelihoods were swept away last month. But these were the same populations who were living in makeshift housing and who eked out a living far from major roadways and with no access to services. Living on the edge with their multiple vulnerabilities and now displaced under open skies, they desperately await our help. The saddest part is that most want to return to their wretched conditions, resigned to their fate of toiling in the fields and tending livestock under the scorching sun. We prefer to look away from living conditions we ourselves would never endure.
We have neglected the health of millions of women and children.
For a study on Impacts of Climate Change in Vulnerable Communities in Sindh, Pakistan, in 2021, the Population Council conducted interviews in poor communities in two districts most prone to climate risk — Umerkot and Thatta. We confirmed that climate change was already a known reality in these communities. Unseasonable weather patterns leading to droughts followed by floods were already posing threats to health and livelihoods.
A man from Kambhar Badha, Umerkot, said: “If the family must evacuate, then women suffer the most, they must face difficulties during and after the move. Men can live anywhere but women suffer [more] on account of insecurity and [lack of] privacy.”
Many focused on women’s suffering from multiple hazards: “Our villages are submerged in water. We have no safe place to live. We don’t even have a place to keep our livestock and there is no fodder available for them when heavy rains hit. During heavy rainfall, no one can reach our village and many pregnant women are likely to die,” said a woman from Izzat Khan Lashari, Thatta.
For a decade or more, thousands have been forced to migrate annually from their homes devastated by droughts, forest fires and floods. Year after year, they must give up everything and start again. Despite their poverty and illiteracy, many living in the climate vulnerable zones know that their best chance for survival is to move to an urban area. Only a few fortunate enough to own land or have an education make it to the urbanised districts which are more resilient to climate change. Yet even there, the glaringly obvious exponential increase in urban populations that puts a strain on existing resources goes unaddressed. Elsewhere, climate change strategies ignore the mushrooming of fragile structures being built for shelter that encroach upon river and canal beds.
The important point is that from Gilgit-Baltistan to Sindh, climate and population pressures were manifesting even before the deadly floods. This has led to shortages in food because of the negative impact on our ecology and biodiversity as well as livelihoods, thereby exacerbating regional inequalities. Most apparent are the contrasts between better-off regions like the irrigated plains of Punjab and wet mountains and plains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa versus the sandy desert of southern Punjab, the southern irrigated plains of Sindh and the western dry plateau of Balochistan. According to the Council’s research, the former areas with lower temperatures were able to build considerable resilience through migration, remittances, and investments in infrastructure. The latter, where temperature rises are most pronounced, had no adaptation strategies. These areas rely mainly on agriculture and livestock, now destroyed by the floods.
The tragedy facing Pakistan is sounding a loud alarm for our collective conscience. Sustainable solutions to climate change must take an honest look at the circumstances and explanations of this tragedy. We must focus on our own injustices, find our own solutions, rather than clamouring for and depending on international assistance.
Obvious recommendations are building resilience through adaptation in agriculture, dams for water storage and energy usage, and infrastructure development. However, the underlying deeper problems which face our nation in its 75th year of existence, need to be tackled with greater urgency.
Have we consciously neglected the escalation of inequalities and rising swathes of poverty over the last two decades?
Could the scale of the tragedy have been mitigated, had we been more vigilant about rebuilding outdated crumbling infrastructure, focused on the agricultural sector and, above all, prioritised health services and education in agro-climatic regions prone to climate risk?
And finally, had we addressed rapid population growth as a national priority, would we have avoided the shocking numbers severely affected by this catastrophe?
The writer is Country Director, Population Council.
Published in Dawn, September 10th, 2022