Vulnerability is the root cause of Pakistan’s susceptibility to disasters
By Joshua Anthony, on 21 November 2022
Author: Dr. Laila Shahzad*
According to the IPCC AR5, the human influence on the planetary climate system is undeniable and emissions from greenhouse gases (GHGs) are at the highest levels ever seen in the history of mankind. These climatic changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems. The most visible effects of changing climate are variation in rainfall pattern, increasing average temperature, glacier melting, rising sea levels, crop diseases, species invasions, weather related disasters and many more. Human activities involved in bringing these changes are industrial processes, fossil fuel burning, vehicular emission, and agriculture. The unpredictable rainfall patterns and variable seasonal precipitation badly influence the soil water availability for crop, loss from floods or drought, and become a serious issue for the farmers of South Asia and policy makers as a greater threat to food security.
South Asia, a region chiefly described as having agricultural-based economies, is considered as the most vulnerable region in the world. As the change in food growth and production will directly affect the food needs of burgeoning population due to disturbance in financial, ecological, and social systems on this part of planet earth. The situation in the region is worsened by locality, topography, socio-political influences, literacy rate, unskilled labourers, economic instability, poverty, and livelihood dependency on natural resources.
Pakistan, a country with 225 million (approx.) inhabitants suffered by the unprecedented floods in June 2022 which lasted for months. Torrential monsoon rains triggered the severe flooding which washed away thousands of houses and crop land leaving people homeless and food insecure.
A little background
Pakistan is the second largest country by its area in South Asia after India, and is highly vulnerable to climatic changes, ranked among the top ten countries by the Global climate risk index of the world in past many years. The country is recurrently affected by the disasters in both the long term index and in the index of a respective year, alluding to the persistent nature of underlying vulnerabilities. The climate of the country ranges from subtropical arid to semi-arid and temperate to alpine. Precipitation varies from 100 to 2000 mm mainly from June to September across the countryside. It is broadly an agrarian country with a contribution of 21% to GDP from agriculture which provides employment to 62% of the population. The main crops are wheat, cotton, and rice grown at different agro-ecological zones of the country with diversified hydrological, soil, and climatic conditions. Temperature and rainfall show constantly increasing and decreasing trends, respectively. Since the start of the 20th century, the rising temperature has caused an increase in demand of evapotranspiration for crops by up to 10-30%. The agricultural system in Pakistan is already worsened by the urbanisation as it has decreased the production due to conversion of fertile land into housing societies. On the other side, recurring floods end up losing the soil fertility and disturbing the crop cycle.
Floods of 2022: a compound disaster
The 2022 Pakistan floods caused unprecedented damage to agriculture crops, livestock, and infrastructure, including damages to storage facilities with tons of grain, posing unmeasurable risk. Badly affected crops include—but are not limited to—rice, sugarcane, cotton, wheat, and small-scale farmers totally lost their livelihood. Pakistan is the world’s fifth-largest producer of cotton and produces about 5% of world’s demand which will affect the supply due to flood damages.
According to the World Bank, the worst hit sectors are housing, agriculture, livestock, and, lately, transport and communications with significant damages of USD 5.6 billion, USD 3.7 billion, and USD 3.3 billion, respectively (Pakistan Floods 2022 Post-Disaster Needs Assessment). This actually calls for cascading effects as such massive disasters have tangible and intangible losses; in terms of water borne diseases, shortage of food, price hike, loss of machinery, post disaster trauma, losing mental health and wellbeing, and disturbing the crop cycle due to water logging.
So now the question arises: could this event be controlled or at least better managed? What Strategies did Pakistan have to minimise flood losses? The government of Pakistan is currently in the phase of recovery, where bringing people back to normal life is not easy. Though time has proved that this tragic event has to be a turning point when it comes to making disaster risk reduction policy for the vulnerable. The policy should have focused on the most vulnerable in enhancing climate resilience and adaptations by developing community-based disaster management at district and tehsil levels. Focus should be on nonstructural risk reduction measures by giving disaster education to the masses. In the shortest way, the emergency health system, training local farmers, introducing livelihood diversification, and emergency cash transfer system can be prioritized. This calls for interactive and integrated polices where communities need to be prepared for future disasters and be a part of policy making. The government tiers have to be more connected than working in isolation as managing the compound impacts will not be an easy job.
With the theme of building back better, Pakistan should not only manage the losses and provide immediate support to families; rather, a long way to go is “to plan” as climatic emergencies will keep coming with more magnitude and frequency, and to the more vulnerable.
*Dr. Laila Shahzad is a post-doctoral fellow in the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction, UCL London and Assistant professor at Sustainable Development Study Centre, GC University, Lahore, Pakistan. | firstname.lastname@example.org