Opinion | Pakistan did not contribute to climate change but is paying the price

I have covered wars across the world. I have also reported on many natural disasters. I’ve seen more than my share of death and destruction, but I’ve never wept.

Lately I have been traveling in the flood-affected areas of Pakistan, and I cannot control my tears. My country is drowning in one of the worst environmental disasters the world has ever experienced. After visiting some of the areas hit by the floods, UN Secretary General António Guterres said he had never seen climate-related destruction on such a scale, and he appealed to the international community to help. Guterres noted that Pakistan is a victim of climate change produced by the more heavily industrialized countries.

This was an important statement. Experts say Pakistan is responsible for less than 1 percent of global emissions. Now it is paying a heavy price for mistakes committed by others.

One-third of Pakistan is under water, an area equivalent to the size of Britain. Most of the flooded areas I was able to visit only by boat. I am short of words to explain this human tragedy. Why can’t I control my tears?

When women and children besieged by floodwater saw me, they started crying for help from the rooftops of their homes. They were desperate to be evacuated. I did my best to help, but sometimes I was unable to because my boat was too small. Many people told me that they had gone for days without eating or drinking. I never thought I would find myself reporting on the death of children in Pakistan from hunger, but this flood has changed all that by stirring up a storm of destruction and disease. In Baluchistan I saw children dying at the sides of the road because, lacking any alternatives, they’d been forced to drink contaminated water from the floods. The most common question I heard in the disaster areas was “Where is the government?”

Interestingly, all four provinces affected by the flood are ruled by different political parties. Imran Khan’s party, the PTI, runs Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s allies control Sindh and Baluchistan. People in the flooded areas were unhappy with all of them. Most of their parliamentary representatives were missing in action. Flooding victims complained to me again and again about bad governance and mismanagement. Their helplessness brought tears to my eyes many times.

Millions of flood-affected people are living under open skies, without tents or other shelter. They don’t even have graveyards to bury family members who died while fighting the floodwaters. Many have died from snake bites. On several occasions, the appalling conditions forced me into the role of relief worker — but then I had to remind myself that I am a journalist. My job, as I see it, is to give voice to millions of my voiceless countrymen.

Two months ago, I warned through one of my columns in The Post that climate change is becoming a bigger threat to Pakistan than terrorism. I wrote that article at the beginning of the monsoon season. Only about 150 people died in the storms that took place around then. Now the death toll is approaching 1,400. More than 33 million people, including 16 million children, have been affected by this catastrophe; 3.4 million children need urgent humanitarian assistance to protect them from the threats of waterborne diseases or drowning. Among the millions of affected people are at least 650,000 pregnant women, 73,000 of whom are expected to deliver next month.

The floods have destroyed more than 1,800 miles of roads and 149 bridges. The waters have damaged 19,000 schools and 900 health facilities. Jail authorities are moving inmates away from prisons facing the threat of flooding. I saw hundreds of dates, banana and coconut farms washed away by floodwater. Wheat, rice and cotton crops have suffered immense damage.

The Pakistani economy has suffered losses estimated at $30 billion. The disaster is likely to exacerbate unemployment and hunger. Don’t forget that poverty has always contributed to extremism in countries such as Pakistan.

Our country has the right to demand climate justice. Happily, the United States has already announced an aid package.

This isn’t to say that we don’t need to address the problems that are also our own fault. Last week, I visited the flood-hit area of ​​Kalam, where many hotels on the Swat River were washed away. Local people told me heavy flooding had destroyed these hotels in 2010. Some hotels were constructed again inside the river area after local authorities were bribed. The river has now taken its own revenge on these illegal structures.

Pakistan apparently learned no lessons from the 2010 floods. Deforestation was a major cause of those floods, and it has played a similar role again in the floods of 2022. Climate change activists estimate that Pakistan faces some of the highest levels of disaster risk in the world. We, and the world, need to stop repeating our mistakes if we don’t want matters to get even worse.

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