AS the world acknowledged the significance of water to lives, livelihoods and ecosystems during World Water Week, Pakistan continued to grapple with one of the biggest water-induced disasters in its history — one that definitively spells out the dependency between climate change and water. One could not help but nod in agreement with the author of the article ‘Man-made catastrophes’ that this newspaper published recently, wherein it was posited fairly that the current catastrophe is as much a man-made one as it is nature-induced.

The ‘organic’ growth of towns and cities on greenfield lands that absorbed water (recharging water aquifers), the development of infrastructure (electric, transport and human settlements) that does not allow water to flow through — or worse, infrastructure built upon pre-existing monsoon season water channels — has certainly created a situation where our urban areas especially, and human settlements in general, have become vulnerable to the atrocities that nature might mete out to us.

But there is an argument to be made that this flawed developmental approach, though undoubtedly one of the several faulty avenues that our story of development leads to, is not at the heart of the story.

The quantum of change that has taken place in global weather systems recently because of changing living patterns and resultant climate change is undeniably the biggest cause of this year’s havoc and misery. From forest fires ravaging lives and livelihoods across Europe to floods across Asia that have done the same, the underlying factor remains climate change.

The quantum of change is the biggest cause of the havoc.

What is vastly different about an emerging economy like ours is, on the one hand, severe financial constraints (for response, recovery and rebuilding). But, on the other hand, we have been directly hit by the storm. We have been identified as, and remain, one of the countries most prone to disaster induced by climate change. We need to accept that what remains different for us is the sheer scale of what had already been predicted — and has happened this year.

When Jackson, Mississippi, faces flooding (as it did this week), how it is affected is vastly different from when floods hit smaller towns in Sindh. When Jackson’s water treatment plant floods, it leaves the 180,000 population without clean drinking water — and probably with no immediate access to it for several weeks or months. When towns in Sindh flood, people’s homes are swept away, lives are lost, livestock (a source of essential nutrition, wealth, income and social power) perishes, crops are destroyed, leaving families with no income for the coming year, and there is no access to healthcare, education or safety and well-being for entire populations for the foreseeable future.

The National Disaster Management Authority had estimated that more than 33 million people had been affected (among them 8.2m were declared as the ‘most affected’) across all the four provinces as well as Gilgit-Baltistan. More than a million houses had been damaged or destroyed. Over half the districts had been officially declared by the government of Pakistan to be ‘calamity hit’ out of the 110 affected overall. Besides, some 4.5m cropped acreage has been affected, 730,000 livestock perished and there have been human deaths and injuries in the thousands. The numbers have been increasing.

But what underlies this sheer scale of destruction and human misery is, as per reports, this year’s 190 per cent incre­ase in rainfall over the average the country received in the last 30 years. This deviation is also possibly the ‘new norm’ that we ought to etch in our memories. Pakistan had been cited as being highly vulnerable to climate change for some time — the cogs in the wheels have now begun a new dance and to play another tune. And we ought to hear them, accept them.

As the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the government of Pakistan roll out the country’s 2022 flood response plan, we must not be looking for scapegoats. Emotions are rarely discussed in academia — or economics or politics for that matter — yet they remain the foundation of response and resilience.

In the face of calamities such as the ones we face today (as architect Arif Hasan said in these pages recently: ‘It’ll flood again’), the need is to accept the sheer scale and source of the catastrophe. And that it will strike again. And again.

We must also appreciate that which has been done right. Great resilience comes from remaining steadfast and positive in the face of (recurring) calamities — regardless of the cause.

The writer is an academic with an interest in renewable energy and project management.
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Published in Dawn, September 4th, 2022

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