Pakistan’s Flood Problem Is Supercharged by Climate Change. Recovery Means Going Beyond Damage Control

Homes surrounded by floodwaters in Sohbat Pur, Jaffarabad, a district of Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan province, Aug. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Zahid Hussain, File)

The savage floods of July and August 2022 devastated Pakistan, putting over one-third of the country under water and driving millions from their homes during a monsoon season described as “on steroids.” Since then, Pakistan has languished under its aftereffects, suffering everything from food shortages to outbreaks of waterborne disease.  The event triggered an immense $16.3 billion reconstruction bill, and raised the question of if Pakistan’s recovery could incorporate more climate resilience, given its significant financial constraints.

Pakistan has experienced a high incidence of severe and deadly floods in recent decades. The country is also faced with addressing land degradation and improving water management while keeping the economy afloat in the midst of an unprecedented debt crisis, all under constant threat of new climate change-related disasters—a delicate balancing act. In charting its course, Pakistan could become a vanguard of climate resilience, but it faces tremendous hurdles in doing so, and will be heavily dependent upon the goodwill of its international partners to achieve success.

Aftermath of 2022 Floods

Pakistan is only responsible for 0.3 percent of global emissions thus far, and yet is disproportionately and adversely affected by climate change through increased variability and extremes in weather. In 2022, climate change increased extreme monsoon rainfall, ultimately causing the floods.

The flood’s aftereffects were still being addressed over two months later, when the UN Climate Conference of Parties (COP27) began in Sharm El-Sheikh in early November 2022. In the lead-up to the conference, Pakistani Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman pointed to the disaster as an indication of how Pakistan is being impacted by a climate crisis that is mainly caused by other countries’ emissions. “We are on the frontline and intend to keep loss and damage […] at the core of our arguments and negotiations,” she said. “There will be no moving away from that.”

While developed countries managed to keep loss and damage off the agenda of the UN climate negotiations for years, funding for loss and damage from climate change finally became a central discussion point at COP27. Pakistan, during its tenure as chairman for the G77, was successful in negotiating the creation of a dedicated fund on loss and damage, with the exact format of the fund to be determined at this year’s COP starting November 30 in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

However, as much as this fund is a political breakthrough, it will come too late and be too small to address Pakistan’s urgent needs. The country is already seeking monetary aid from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) among other sources, though these efforts are mainly focused on tackling the ongoing debt crisis or economic development in general, and not for aiding the much-needed reconstruction efforts. Thus, Pakistan is challenged not only with recovering from the current flood damage, but also with addressing systemic challenges related to land degradation and water management that pose real threats to the well-being of the country in the coming decades.

Improve Water Management and Install Early Warning Systems

Because of Pakistan’s diverse geography, climate change causes faster glacial melting in the north, increases the frequency of droughts, and raises flood risks and salinity levels in Pakistan’s Indus River delta. This means Pakistan will have to address fundamental problems with its national water management. Multiple floods in recent years have caused thousands of casualties, and yet over 80 percent of the population currently experiences severe water scarcity. Pakistan has gone from being a water-rich country in 1962 to a water-scarce one, largely due to the overdrawing of groundwater. In addition, Pakistan only treats 1 percent of its wastewater before it is discharged into rivers and drains, further limiting the supply of usable water.

As a result, Pakistan’s sustainable future involves finding ways to support water-saving measures that help maximize the return on current water withdrawals while also minimizing polluting the supply as a whole. One way is through wastewater treatment and the renovation of existing pipe infrastructure. Treatment plants would ensure that less water is deemed unusable due to toxic residue from industrial processes, while renovation efforts can help to limit spillage of water.

There is also a lot of potential to improve water management practices in the agricultural sector through education. Currently, over 93 percent of freshwater use is dedicated to this sector, suggesting that water-saving measures would net big returns. This could primarily take the form of discouraging the flooding of farmlands (as has been the norm in many parts of Pakistan); shifting to less water-intensive crops; and using rainwater capturing techniques. Alongside infrastructure improvements, educating local farmers on how to conserve water by using only what is needed for maximum effect would help take some pressure of Pakistan’s water resources.

National plans for water management reform present relatively easy avenues for international partners to dedicate funding. One example is an ongoing project to improve agriculture resilience and water management capacity in the Indus River basin through the help of the Green Climate Fund. Though the project lacks the budget to support a total revamp of Pakistani agricultural and water use practices, if successful it could serve as a blueprint for future projects by helping to inform a national strategy and approach to how Pakistan can reform past practices. However, the underlying problem of funding remains. As it stands, there is insufficient funding that can meet the high price tag for Pakistan’s reconstruction and subsequent adaptation efforts. This illustrates both the clear need for developed countries to meet their funding pledges of US$100B per year, and to raise existing ambitions through initiatives such as the loss and damage fund.

Land Use and Degradation

Pakistan faces severe land degradation issues due to heavy deforestation and the intensive use of agricultural land. Land degradation exacerbates both the effects climate change has on the country and threatens biodiversity. Pakistan—and almost every other country—will have to navigate a previously uncharted path forward if it is to reform past practices and build a sustainable economic foundation that can weather climate shocks. Doing this will strengthen the local ecosystems that provide services vital for Pakistan. It will also provide an opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially through reform of the agricultural sector, which currently accounts for 46 percent of Pakistani emissions.

Addressing land degradation can also help the country’s impoverished rural population that is dependent on agriculture as a source of both food and income. Without interventions, there are risks of higher rates of malnutrition and migration to urban areas due to increased aridity or natural disasters.

A first step would be to scale up existing programs that already seek to address gaps in Pakistan’s domestic agricultural production, and support rural inhabitants to become more resilient to climate shocks. Knowledge sharing and capacity building are key if farmers are to have the skills needed to weather coming droughts and floods, but they will also require institutional and infrastructure reform if they are to succeed. This will be dependent upon the political will of the national government in Islamabad and its success in leveraging foreign support for adaptation projects.

There should also be a focus in these rural areas on repairing dilapidated and underfunded water management and storage systems, incentivizing the reduction in overconsumption of water, and promoting regenerative agricultural practices that help to limit soil degradation and preserve it as a carbon sink.

Pakistan can also seek to build on its earlier success at COP27 by mobilizing a global coalition toward lobbying for increased rural capacity building, incorporating existing initiatives and knowledge shared at COP27. Alvaro Lario, head of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, has already warned against failing to invest in greater support for rural populations and highlighted the need to increase investment in capacity building.

Adjacent to these efforts to make the agricultural sector more climate resilient, Pakistan should also seek to restore local ecosystems, particularly its forests. Forests accounted for around 30 percent of Pakistan’s total land area at its independence in 1947, but currently account for only 4 percent. Restoration could provide economic as well as ecological returns for the country. Pakistan has already begun addressing these concerns in its “10 billion trees project,” which highlights how forestation projects will help support agri-industries and provide employment for thousands in the most impoverished areas. The province of Baluchistan, which has experienced heavy deforestation in the north, would in particular benefit from such projects.

Pakistan would also see economic benefits as restoration can help to prevent flooding by restoring riverine forests, particularly in the Sindh province where much of the devastation from the 2022 flood occurred. Though the project has garnered significant criticism from environmentalists, it still presents a strong first attempt toward a comprehensive transformation of Pakistani land use practices.

Finance and insurance

The Pakistani government is under great pressure as it struggles to find the capacity to lead flood recovery and improve land and water management. The government has repeatedly had to negotiate bailouts with the IMF to ensure that it remains financially solvent, and has become heavily dependent upon external streams of credit and finance to fund its climate adaptation and mitigation efforts. However, there are several ideas that could combine funding streams with reconstruction and building reliance.

Improved land and water management, while offering limited direct financial benefits to the state in the short term, can help to stem the damage from disasters such as flooding by improving people’s resilience. This can also provide the foundation for future economic development, though this depends heavily on regional contexts.

In line with other countries, Pakistan could also develop a green taxonomy to help define which economic activities are detrimental for future resilience, and which economic activities are beneficial to achieving environmental goals. A green taxonomy can help to track the share of investments in particular sectors that are climate resilient. The World Bank has established a procedural guide for how to create a coherent and business-friendly green taxonomic system.

Yet even if the proposed financial schemes net high returns, Pakistan will continue to be dependent on foreign funding to recover from climate change fuelled disasters and meet its adaptation targets.

An option for international support would be debt for nature swaps with its creditors in an effort to lessen the country’s debt burden in exchange for environmental protection measures. Pakistan could negotiate such swaps and supercharge them by implementing related conservation and restoration efforts.

Pakistan could also identify options to scale up ongoing projects with organizations such as the Green Climate Fund that are able to fund projects in high-risk environments and mobilize private investments. Finally, Pakistan should continue to lobby for funding to deal with loss and damage caused by climate change, while building strong partnerships with global development banks and funds.

What does this all mean for Pakistan’s future? Amid a climate crisis largely caused by greenhouse gas emissions of industrialized countries, Pakistan will have to simultaneously ensure that it addresses its national-level crises with sustainable and long-term responses while ensuring a steady and reliable source of financing. This balancing act will require a significant national reform effort and overhaul of inefficient governance structures. Though such reform will have to come from nationally coordinated projects, the funding to make these projects a reality rests with Pakistan’s debt holders, climate funds, and developed countries. As such, the country faces many hurdles if it is to succeed in not just recovering from its current state of crisis, but to be a leader in building a sustainable future.

Emil Marc Havstrup is an intern with the Planetary Security Initiative at the Clingendael Institute and a master’s student in governance of sustainability at Leiden University. Pieter Pauw is Research Associate at Clingendael Institute and Senior Researcher on climate policy and climate finance at the Eindhoven University of Technology.