It has long been a well-known fact that, come every summer monsoon season, Pakistan’s Indus River will flood, and that this flooding will displace tens if not hundreds of thousands of vulnerable individuals who live along its banks and tributaries. Those riverine populations, as well as policy makers in Pakistan and in the international donor community, plan accordingly. This annual phenomenon was often highly destructive, but was a regular part of life along the Indus.
The calamitous flooding Pakistan experienced in the summer of 2022, however, and from which it is only slowly recovering, was of a different nature entirely. These floods, which followed hard on the heels of a record heat wave, were far more extensive, and proved far more destructive, than any other such disaster in the country’s recorded history. At their height, the floodwaters covered some 32,800 square miles, or approximately ten percent of the country’s total area, including not just the traditionally vulnerable districts along the Indus in southern Punjab and the province of Sindh, but also parts of the provinces of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan that rarely had proven vulnerable to such calamities. According to the Post-Disaster Needs Assessment issued jointly by the Government of Pakistan and leading multilateral donors, the flooding displaced nearly eight million people, killed over 1,700, and caused damage and losses to Pakistan’s economy totaling over $30 billion. That assessment warns that “Preliminary estimates suggest that, as a direct consequence of the floods, the national poverty rate will increase by 3.7 to 4.0 percentage points, pushing between 8.4 and 9.1 million people into poverty.”
It might once have been possible to view this catastrophe as the “flood of the century” or a “one-hundred-year flood.” There is however an informed consensus that the flooding of 2022 was not simply an extraordinary event, but rather a harbinger of the future. For in the words of Pakistan’s Minister of Climate Change Sherry Rehman, “Global warming is the existential crisis facing the world and Pakistan is ground zero.” Scientific analysis supports Minister Rehman’s assertion: as a report headed by Friederike E. L. Otto of the Grantham Research Institute for Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London found, “The flooding occurred as a direct consequence of the extreme monsoon rainfall throughout the summer 2022 season…” The analysis ascribes this directly to the impact of global warming: “The 5-day maximum rainfall over the provinces Sindh and Balochistan”, it states, “is now about 75% more intense than it would have been had the climate not warmed by 1.2 °C …” The analysis goes on to point out that this is not likely to prove a one-time event; rather, the authors write, “Looking at the future, for a climate 2 °C warmer than in preindustrial times, models suggest that rainfall intensity will significantly increase further.” If this occurs, the extraordinary flooding of 2022 will become the norm rather than the exception.
Pakistan itself can do little to halt or even mitigate the overall worldwide trajectory of climate change; as Minister Rehman has pointed out, the country accounts for less than one percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Yet Pakistan, in partnership with the international donor community, can and should take specific concrete steps now to prepare for and mitigate the impact of such climate-caused disasters in the future.
Fortunately, the international donors appear to recognize the importance of helping Pakistan prepare for what will likely be a series of climate-induced catastrophes. At the January 2023 International Conference on a Climate Resilient Pakistan, donors meeting in Geneva pledged a total of $9 billon to help Pakistan recover and rebuild. The Islamic Development Bank was the largest prospective donor, pledging a total of $4.2 billion; the World Bank followed with a $2 billion commitment, while the Asian Development Bank promised $1.5 billion and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank pledged $1 billion. The United States pledged a total of $100 million. According to Pakistani Deputy Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar, “the final tally came in above a target set for the international community to meet half of the $16 billion that the UN has estimated is needed to respond to the flooding. The rest is expected to come from the Pakistani government itself.”
These commitments are of course welcome. But the challenge Pakistan now faces is two-fold. First, it needs to make sure that the funds pledged are actually delivered, for funding promised does not always result in funding provided. The United States, while a relatively modest contributor to the overall level of resources pledged, is well-placed to assist Pakistan in its efforts to turn these pledges into real money and should make it a priority to do so.
Second, Pakistan must program and spend wisely the resources it does receive. The Pakistani Government’s Flood Response Plan, first issued in August 2022 and revised in October, called for $816 million to cover urgent humanitarian needs – notably, livelihoods assistance, preventing the outbreak of communicable diseases, and restoring conditions of safety for flood-affected peoples – through May 2023. Yet planning for the longer-term challenge of how to strengthen Pakistan’s resilience and prepare for the consequences of climate change is only now beginning.
Fortunately, there are specific actions that Pakistan, with the assistance and cooperation of the international donor community, might usefully – and quickly – take:
- First, investments in flood resistant infrastructure proved extremely helpful during the worst of the 2022 crisis. In the districts of Dadu and Kambar Shahdakot in upper Sindh Province, for example, a total of 15 schools built with funding from USAID and managed by The Citizens Foundation with funding from the Government of Sindh became safe havens for over a month for people displaced by the flooding. Many other schools in Sindh built or rehabilitated with funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) served the same purpose – just as USAID intended they would when it worked with the Sindh Department of Education to design these schools to be flood resistant and to place them in locations less vulnerable to flooding. At a total cost of between $800,000 to $1 million per new school constructed, this proved an exceptionally valuable investment. Investments in improved water management infrastructure could prove even more valuable. According to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Minister for Local Government and Rural Development Faisal Amin Gandapur, had the Gomal Zam Dam funded by USAID and inaugurated in 2013 not been constructed, “The city of Dera Ismail Khan would have been destroyed.” Investments in such infrastructure need not be limited to major dams such as Gomal Zam: according to Moetasim Ashfaq of the Oakridge National Laboratory, damage from flooding caused by extreme precipitation in the upstream regions of the Indus Basin could have been largely avoided had smaller flood control reservoirs been built on some of the tributaries. “Such small reservoirs can be very effective in controlling flash flooding,” he says, by giving the extra water a place to go. On a larger scale, investment in rehabilitation of the Tarbela and Mangla reservoirs, both of which have lost significant capacity due to siltation, will be crucial to restoring their ability to absorb water from the Himalayas and prevent flooding further downstream.
- Second, Pakistan should take full advantage of the United Nations’ intent “to ensure that every person on Earth is protected by early warning systems within five years.” The UN announced this initiative in March 2022 with an eye toward mitigating just the sort of climate-induced disaster that would strike Pakistan only months later. Early warning systems allow experts to monitor atmospheric conditions and to effectively predict weather and climate events using advanced computer models, thereby affording vulnerable countries and vulnerable populations significant advance time to prepare for the oncoming events. The use of such systems is likely to prove highly cost-effective: a 2019 report from the Global Commission on Adaptation estimated that the cost-benefit ratio from investment in early warning systems would exceed 10:1 – the highest such ratio of any adaptation measure considered in that report.
- Third, Pakistan should mobilize the resources of the private sector to help mitigate the effects of climate change by developing insurance schemes both to help prepare for the impact of disasters before they strike and to help farmers, businesses, and households recover after the disaster. Pilot projects under the aegis of the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) provide an example of one such approach. In collaboration with governments, private insurance firms, local communities, and non-governmental organizations, IWMI is piloting “Index-based flood insurance (IBFI)” plans in Bangladesh and India. IBFI aims to better target and accelerate post-disaster relief for low-income, flood-prone communities by integrating high tech modelling and satellite imagery with other data to predetermine flood thresholds and thereby trigger speedy compensation payouts. A similar effort could prove extremely effective in Pakistan.
- Finally, Pakistan should request, and the international financial community should provide, significant relief of Pakistan’s crushing external debt. The World Bank estimates that, as of the end of 2021, Pakistan’s external debt had reached over $130 billion, or 360 percent of the value of its annual exports. It is estimated that, to avoid a debt default, Pakistan will have to pay $33 billion by the end of 2023 – an amount challenging under any circumstances but one rendered all but unmanageable in the aftermath of last year’s floods. Pakistan estimates that it will be able to pay some $20 billion of this amount; the balance of $13 billion is unaccounted for. These figures dwarf the $9 billion in pledges for flood recovery Pakistan received last month in Geneva. To be sure, debt relief should not be granted absent continued commitment by Pakistan to, and its implementation of, the economic policy reform measures agreed on with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) under its current Extended Fund Facility (EFF) arrangement. These include reduction in untargeted subsidies, scaling up social protection, allowing the exchange rate to be market determined, and enhancing energy provision. But if the international community is serious about increasing net resource flows to Pakistan to allow it to recover from the 2022 floods and prepare for the future climate-induced disasters that are looming, there is no more important or impactful set of actions it could take than to restructure or forgive this enormous debt burden.
These steps alone, of course, will not allow Pakistan to halt the growing impact of climate change. To accomplish that, the country and its partners will need to undertake a vast, long-term, and significantly resourced effort. But these measures represent a start; they are things Pakistan and the international community can do now, and they would be useful first steps in what will be a very long journey. And it is of considerable importance to the United States that Pakistan undertake and be successful on this journey, for there is little doubt that Pakistan’s stability and security, and thus U.S. security, will be adversely affected if (or rather when) similar disasters happen again.
Leon S. Waskin, the Senior Executive Director for Operations at DevTech Systems, Inc., was the Coordinator for Economic and Development Assistance at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan from 2015 to 2018.
 USAID/Pakistan, Pakistan Floods Fact Sheet #8, September 30, 2022. https://www.usaid.gov/sites/default/files/2022-12/2022-09-30_USG_Pakistan_Floods_Fact_Sheet_8.pdf
 The Government of Pakistan, Asian Development Bank, European Union, United Nations Development Programme, World Bank, “Pakistan Floods 2022 Post-Disaster Needs Assessment”, October 2022. https://thedocs.worldbank.org/en/doc/4a0114eb7d1cecbbbf2f65c5ce0789db-0310012022/original/Pakistan-Floods-2022-PDNA-Main-Report.pdf
 The Guardian, September 4, 2022, “Rich Countries Owe Reparations to Counties Facing Climate Disaster, Says Pakistan Minister”. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/sep/04/pakistan-floods-reparations-climate-disaster
 World Weather Attribution “Climate change likely increased extreme monsoon rainfall, flooding highly vulnerable communities in Pakistan”. https://www.worldweatherattribution.org/wp-content/uploads/Pakistan-floods-scientific-report.pdf
 Op. cit., The Guardian, September 4, 2022.
 Reuters, January 9, 2023. “Donors Pledge $9 Billion for Pakistan’s Flood Recovery”. https://www.rferl.org/a/pakistan-floods-climate-aid-conference/32215053.html
 Pakistan 2022 Flood Response Plan (Revised), October 4, 2022. https://reliefweb.int/report/pakistan/revised-pakistan-2022-floods-response-plan-01-sep-2022-31-may-2023-issued-04-oct-2022
 Courtesy of The Citizens Foundation.
 National Geographic, October 10, 2022, “Is Building More Dams the Way to Save Rivers?” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/is-building-more-dams-the-way-to-save-rivers
 The Washington Post, August 31, 2022, “Pakistan Could Have Averted Its Climate Catastrophe”,. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/energy/pakistan-could-have-averted-its-climate-catastrophe/2022/08/30/4c2d3d92-28b8-11ed-a90a-fce4015dfc8f_story.html
 World Meteorological Organization Press Release, March 23, 2022, “Early Warning systems must protect everyone within five years”. https://public.wmo.int/en/media/press-release/%E2%80%8Bearly-warning-systems-must-protect-everyone-within-five-years
 Global Commission on Adaptation, “Adapt Now: A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience”, September 2019. https://files.wri.org/s3fs-public/uploads/GlobalCommission_Report_FINAL.pdf
 World Bank. 2022. International Debt Report 2022: Updated International Debt Statistics. https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/38045/9781464819025.pdf?sequence=5&isAllowed=y
 Business Today, “Pakistan Economic Crisis is Getting Worse”, January 4, 2023. https://www.businesstoday.in/latest/world/story/pakistan-economic-crisis-is-getting-worse-from-debt-to-inflation-to-forex-heres-what-is-happening-358943-2023-01-04. Note that these estimates already take into account disbursements from the $6 billion bailout package Pakistan negotiated with the IMF in 2019.
 “IMF Staff Concludes Visit to Pakistan”, IMF Press Release No. PR23/40, February 9, 2023. https://www.imf.org/en/News/Articles/2023/02/10/imf-staff-concludes-visit-to-pakistan