PAKISTAN is experiencing its fourth major floods in the past five years. The increasing frequency and intensity of the flooding not only underscores Pakistan’s — and South Asia’s — vulnerability to climate change, but also the woeful lack of preparation by successive governments. The increasingly regular flooding of the country’s major rivers each monsoon also highlights the need for not only a more robust framework for engagement with India on water-related issues, bilateral or multilateral, but also perhaps the pre-eminence of this issue as a confidence-building measure, rather than the current single-minded focus on more open bilateral trade.
The sooner the simmering water issues between the two riparian states — India and Pakistan — are tackled head-on and resolved, the better for peace and stability in the region. According to all major assessments on the global as well as regional impact of climate change, South Asia is expected to fare the worst. With a large part of the population living in rural areas and dependent on agriculture, the potential impact of climate change and extreme weather events is accentuated.
Warmer temperatures and more variable rainfall patterns will mean ensuring food security for larger populations will stretch even the most well-prepared and well-resourced nations. According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, overall crop yields are expected to decrease by up to 30pc by 2050 due to the effects of the projected global warming. At the same time, irrigation demand for agriculture “is likely to increase by 10pc for [each] temperature increase of 1pc”.
A disaster of epic proportions is unfolding for the 325 million people that will inhabit Pakistan by 2050.
Into this doomsday scenario, enter Pakistan. Last major dam built: 1976 (38 years ago). Tax collection as per cent GDP: 9pc. Annual federal spending on disaster risk management: approximately Rs180m (or Rs1 per person). Climate change on the agenda? Not really. ‘Threats to parliament’ and Senator Rehman Malik’s offloading from an Islamabad-bound flight are agitating our leaders more and giving them sleepless nights.
Meanwhile, a disaster of epic proportions is slowly unfolding for the 325m people that will inhabit Pakistan by 2050.
Turning to the flooding this year, mercifully, it appears to have caused lesser damage than what was feared earlier. Certainly, in comparison to the super-flood of 2010, which had been rightfully dubbed as a flood of “biblical proportions”, this year’s version looks like a relatively tame affair. At their peak, the floods of 2010 had affected over 20m people spread over one-fifth of the landmass of the country. The loss of crops and livestock, and the widespread disruption to production, transportation and other economic activity, was estimated to have reduced GDP growth by two percentage points. In all, the cumulative loss from the floods in 2010, including damage to physical infrastructure such as roads, irrigation works, housing, schools, health infrastructure, electricity transmission, loss of income and assets etc. was estimated at $9.7 billion.
This time around, the main flooding has occurred in the River Chenab and its tributaries, and not rivers Indus and Kabul as in 2010. As such, most of the damage has been sustained in north, central and southern Punjab, with 36 districts affected, according to the National Disaster Management Authority. As per the agency’s situation report of Sept 17, total affected population amounted to 1.8m people, with the cropped area affected totalling approximately 2.3m acres (versus nearly 6m acres in 2010).
Standing crops that are likely to have sustained damage include cotton, rice and vegetables, with some damage to sugarcane possibly. The size and quality of the cotton and rice crop both have a direct bearing on the country’s net export earnings, while damage to minor crops feeds into inflationary pressure. Unlike in 2010, livestock has suffered relatively minor loss in this year’s flooding. However, these are very preliminary assessments that will be firmed up in the next few weeks as the water recedes and the government is fully able to mobilise its disaster estimation response.
Whatever the final damage assessment, it is important to step back and look at the bigger picture that is emerging into sharp relief. By the time the floodwaters recede this year, the cumulative damage caused by flooding since 2010 would be to the tune of around $16bn, by conservative estimates.
A more important fact that the floodwaters will leave behind, more important than cold statistics of the number of bridges washed away, or ‘x’ kilometres of roads damaged, or ‘y’ acres of cropped area flooded, is the disruption to the lives of those affected. As in 2010, many of those in the cross hairs of the raging torrents were poor and vulnerable folk—– who have now lost standing crops, livestock, income, livelihoods, houses, farm implements, seeds and food stocks, and perhaps their precious little savings. Many are now on the brink of chronic poverty.
It is a shocking indictment of the callousness of official statistics that following the massive flooding in 2010, the poverty headcount ratio calculated by the Planning Commission depicted a steep decline to a historic low of 13pc. This is contrary to the findings of a number of studies which have shown that once a family is tipped into poverty because of any exogenous ‘shock’ — such as health-related or one brought on by a natural calamity — it is likely to stay there for years, unless it is extremely lucky.
How many of those affected by this year’s floods, and the one in 2010, have slipped into poverty needs to be assessed by the government using a credible and transparent survey methodology. Once identified, the government should expend efforts, perhaps through the Benazir Income Support Programme, to ensure that these families receive the help they need, via a combination of cash transfers, seeds, subsidised loans and farm implements, for example, to break the ensuing poverty cycle.
The writer is a former economic adviser to government, and currently heads a macroeconomic consultancy based in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, September 19th, 2014