Months of torrential downpours and flooding have hounded Pakistan, and much of the blame is falling on climate change. But Pakistan’s contribution to greenhouse gasses is less than 1 percent. So how is the world coming to Pakistan’s aid to make up for the damage done?
In this episode:
- Zein Basravi (@virtualzein), international correspondent, Al Jazeera English
- Afia Salam (@afiasalam), freelance journalist on environment, climate change, gender issues and media ethics
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Full episode transcript:
This transcript was created using AI. It has been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions; our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: We’ve been hearing about flooding in Pakistan for months now.
Newsreel: Pakistan has declared a state of emergency.
Newsreel: Five hundred people died in July alone in Pakistan because of flooding.
Newsreel: The results of these super flood torrents are shocking.
Halla Mohieddeen: So many months, in fact, that many have moved on. Pakistan hasn’t.
Zein Basravi: There is eight times more rains than the last monsoon season, double the amount of water and triple the amount of water. So much damage has already been done.
Halla Mohieddeen: Al Jazeera’s Zein Basravi has been walking, driving and floating through the country’s most affected areas.
Zein Basravi: The word unprecedented has been thrown around. But at the same time, these crises are not unprecedented. We’ve known things are going to get worse. There are fewer and fewer excuses for not taking preventative measures.
Halla Mohieddeen: So, what did we know about how hard these floods would hit Pakistan? And what’s being done now to help those affected and those to come?
I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: Zein, it’s good to talk to you again. The last time we saw each other in person, we were both in the newsroom back in Doha. But now, well, where are you now? Tell us.
Zein Basravi: I’m in interior Sindh, in Pakistan. I landed in Karachi to start reporting on the floods. By that time, the monsoon had already been going for about two months. I met up with the team in Karachi. We started reporting inside the city on the first day. The world had seen images of cars floating down main roads in Karachi and a lot of the water had receded, leaving behind massive debris fields and mosquitoes and bugs sort of everywhere. The city was in an absolute state, but as chaotic as Karachi was, we very quickly made our way into the interior of Sindh.
Halla Mohieddeen: For those of you who haven’t been to Sindh province, or Pakistan, it may be helpful to visualise where all of this is.
Halla Mohieddeen: If you’re looking at a map, Karachi’s in Sindh province in the southeast corner of Pakistan. Amongst other things, it’s a beach city on the Arabian Sea. And if you travel north – like Zein and the Al Jazeera team did – winding up along the Indus River further, north and west into Baluchistan are some of the areas hardest hit by the floods.
Zein Basravi: We came into Larkana and then further into Shikarpur. And we’ve based ourselves in Shikarpur and interior Sindh for the last couple of weeks. From here, we’ve gone all over the province, to the affected areas. And we made a trip into Baluchistan where things are very bad.
Halla Mohieddeen: So, tell us about these floods because they may well have drifted off of most people’s radars by now, but you’re on the ground. Those floods haven’t gone away, have they?
Zein Basravi: We’ve had stringers all over the country in every affected area trying to send us reports of what’s happening, sending us footage. So, we’ve had a real bird’s eye view of this thing. And there’s a couple of things that are really interesting. The floods in 2010 were a product of heavy rains and flood waters coming down from the north.
Halla Mohieddeen: More than 1500 people were killed in the 2010 floods and Pakistan was left asking the UN for $2bn to recover.
Newsreel: A stream of human misery, trying to escape the destruction left behind homes, washed away. Roads destroyed.
Halla Mohieddeen: The money was meant to help over 14 million people over the course of the year. It was the biggest UN appeal ever. The death toll from these floods could surpass that and scientists say the reach of these floodwaters is much worse.
Zein Basravi: What’s different this time is that the rain started in Sindh province first. The clouds just opened up and really overwhelmed the places where the water came down in Sindh. So by the time water from glacial melt and dams overflowing from the north, by the time that water started coming down into Sindh, Sindh had large parts completely submerged.
Halla Mohieddeen: To understand how these changing weather patterns mean more floodwater we got in contact with Afia Salam based in Karachi.
Afia Salam: I’m a journalist who’s been writing on different subjects, but for the past about a decade and a half, my focus has been climate change and environment.
Halla Mohieddeen: And some of her experience is firsthand.
Halla Mohieddeen: You’re in Karachi. How are you seeing the effects of these monsoons there?
Afia Salam: We had a very bad spell of monsoons here because Karachi is part of Sindh, Karachi is a capital of Sindh. The torrential rain resulted in urban flooding, preceded by a very, very severe heatwave.
Newsreel: Everyone in Karachi has been advised to avoid venturing outdoors and stay hydrated. Doctors have urged the people to brace themselves as the temperatures might touch 50 degrees Celsius.
Afia Salam: And because of the heatwave, there was more capacity for the water vapours to be absorbed by the monsoon clouds.
Halla Mohieddeen: But it’s not just the heatwave Afia says.
Afia Salam: Other than that, Pakistan has already experienced 1C warming. Now it may seem minuscule to a layperson, but 1C has meant these heatwaves, droughts, as well as a melting of our glaciers in the extreme north of our country straddling Nepal, India, China, Pakistan, Afghanistan. The largest number of glaciers outside the two poles, it’s called the “Third Pole” by the scientific community, those have started melting.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that creates a phenomenon called Global Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), where water from melting glaciers will suddenly rage down rivers taking buildings, bridges and infrastructure with it. And there’s more.
Afia Salam: The climate scientists have been warning us that the monsoon shifting is happening. We have a history of the monsoons coming from the Bay of Bengal. The monsoon has shifted.
Halla Mohieddeen: The Bay of Bengal is east of India. The opposite side of Pakistan. So, in the past – the monsoon clouds are pretty well drained by the time they make it to Pakistan. This monsoon season, Afia says, was different.
Afia Salam: This came from another direction to the west.
Halla Mohieddeen: The rains this summer started out closer to Pakistan and were more intense.
Afia Salam: This is a shift that has been perceived over the years. Our 2010 floods, they also started towards the west. It wasn’t as west as this, and it wasn’t as intense as this, but it was also very devastating so since 2010, the shift is perceived.
Halla Mohieddeen: Why would you say climate change is directly responsible for the level of flooding that we are seeing in Pakistan?
Afia Salam: Climate change is responsible for the extraordinary volume of rainfall, as well as the different locations from where earlier monsoon rain used to fall. So, that is where the climate change umbrella is. This is a new area where the water was coming down and then it just simply spread into the plains of Pakistan. Those plains just had no capacity to absorb that water. And there are no drainage parts, you know, for the water coming from the west, so that water is standing there and that is what is inundating. And, we also have one of the biggest river systems which receives monsoon rainfall and at several places, there were breaches because the pressure of the water was too much. And that river water actually mixed with the water that had come from the west and that exacerbated flooding.
Afia Salam: So, climate change was the responsible trigger. That region wasn’t really a monsoon region earlier and now, of course, this year it’s moved a little bit down south. People didn’t really expect the water to come rushing down with the kind of force that it did.
Zein Basravi: So, it was compounding the impact, compounding the suffering of the people.
Halla Mohieddeen: That area Sindh province and Baluchistan province, that’s where Zein is reporting from.
Zein Basravi: They’re having to release more water from swelling lakes, that is sending more water downstream. And there is likely to be danger for people for the next month, but the thinking is the worst of the rains, the worst of the monsoon season, that part is over. But it’s hard to put a silver lining on this because the suffering is enormous. What we’re seeing now is that some of the water has begun to recede in certain areas.
Zein Basravi: You can definitely see the difference driving down the same streets, where we were two weeks ago, but there are all kinds of new humanitarian challenges. It has gotten hotter. With the water receding, they’re gonna find more dead bodies. They’re gonna find carcasses of animals, that’s gonna lead to disease. The death toll is likely to go up. There’s waterborne illnesses, insect-borne illnesses. There is more rain predicted later this month around September 25. The hope is it won’t be as heavy as it was before.
Halla Mohieddeen: The scale of this just seems incomprehensible: a land mass, as big as the UK was flooded at one point. A third of Pakistan has been covered in water. Thirty-three million people have been affected, well over a thousand people dead. I mean, how do you get your head around the scale?
Zein Basravi: You really don’t, to be honest. The more we do, the more it feels like it’s not enough. More than a thousand dead, I think the last time we got an official count. It was around 1300 and the death toll is likely to go up. These weather patterns have taken over the entire region. So it goes beyond Pakistan’s borders. It’s huge. We have to say response locally, response at the national level, response at the international level has been very slow in comparison to other crises in Pakistan in the past. And we spoke to one of the first international NGOs we’ve seen here. And one of their spokespeople said to us, one of the reasons that a lot of people haven’t stepped foot on Pakistani ground yet, is because it seems so big.
Newsreel: I think people are slow to react because the problem is so big that it seems unapproachable. And the first thing is to just take a first step and get your team here. Get your boots on the ground.
Zein Basravi: That was the word she used unapproachable. And that’s exactly true. You really don’t know where to start, because it’s not just that the largest freshwater lake in the country and one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world had to be cut, and then overflowed into an enormous land mass and, almost exponentially, added more water to already submerged districts. It’s compounding existing acute problems, like poverty in the country, food insecurity and child safety issues.
Halla Mohieddeen: Well, let’s narrow our sense of scale then. I know that you’ve been talking with families in Karachi and Sindh. Has anyone’s story stood out to you in particular?
Zein Basravi: One of the stories that none of us have been able to shake myself, the producer, the cameraman, it really hit us all. There was a woman, her husband is a labourer, a bricklayer, she begs on the street. They lived in a small, mud and brick house and it had been submerged by the water. So they were living out on the street, with a tent. And she’d been asleep at night with her kids and she woke up and her three-year-old just, just wasn’t there.
Najma: If the floods had spared my home. If we weren’t living on the side of the road. If I hadn’t been sleeping so soundly, then maybe Numa would be safe.
Zein Basravi: She’d fallen asleep with her in her arms and she woke up and she wasn’t there anymore. She was either kidnapped or she thinks that maybe her daughter got up and maybe fell into standing flood water and drowned. Children were deeply insecure already in Pakistan. So that’s exactly what this flood has taken away. She was just beside herself. She just kept crying and crying and we just reached into our pockets and handed her whatever cash we had and she wouldn’t take it. She just kept refusing the money.
Najma: I don’t want money! I don’t want anything! My only appeal to the government is to reunite me with my little girl.
Zein Basravi: Somebody please help me find my little girl. That’s all she wanted.
Najma: Whether she’s dead or alive I just want to see her one last time. I don’t want anything else. In the name of God what condition is she in? She was so small!
Zein Basravi: At the end of the day, for us, this whole trip, all of the reporting, it comes down to one little girl taken away from one mother on the side of one road, somewhere in Baluchistan.
Halla Mohieddeen: Zein that just sounds awful.
Zein Basravi: All of that big talk is irrelevant. People on the ground don’t care about the politics. They don’t care about policy. They just want someone to help them now. It’s all triage. I think the time for big ideas will come much later if ever. Right now it’s just triage and the triage will only help in lessening how much worse it’s going to get.
Halla Mohieddeen: Pakistan’s military has been deployed to try and keep things civil to distribute aid. Has that been helping at all? I mean, what’s the aid situation look like from where you are and for where this woman is?
Zein Basravi: So, the Pakistani military has been ordered to begin delivering aid all across the country. And they have been doing so, but this is an organisation, while it is easily the best resourced and the strongest institution in the country. It isn’t necessarily always the best in terms of dealing with civilian humanitarian relief operations. But they are the only institution that can really begin to do it in earnest. In the past, they’ve always done it in conjunction with other international NGOs and that’s helped to soften the approach of what is essentially a fighting force. We over and over again see videos of helicopter drops going badly and food being wasted. That’s gone viral a few times.
And even though it may be a fraction of how much aid they’re delivering, it just creates a sense of anxiety and anger among the population that needs the help. They’ve tried to take a light touch and a soft approach. And we’ve been with them during aid delivery. But very quickly, they fall back to crowd control and riot policing. And in fairness the conditions are difficult, it’s hot. So as soon as a truck arrives somewhere, they’re just overrun. We’ve also heard reports of trucks being hijacked and looted, just as they leave Karachi, heading into interior Sindh.
Now, when the army tries to control that, it always makes for unfortunate and dramatic images of them having to push and beat and hold people back. And, people say that they feel like they’re being treated worse than animals. One of the people we spoke to in Baluchistan province said when he went up to a local police official and asked for any rations and he said that right now, your life is worth less than the lives of our animals, of our livestock. Everything is happening simultaneously. This is a three-dimensional crisis that is affecting people, livestock, businesses, healthcare, children, hospitals, everything, all at once.
Halla Mohieddeen: And in terms of foreign aid, are you seeing any of that? Is that going any better?
Zein Basravi: So foreign aid, we’ve seen echoes of past crises, like old tents with UN markings and, and others on them that people have sort of dusted off and started using again. We’ve seen some aid arrive from China. We’ve seen MSF and ICRC, and we’ve seen people around, but it’s not the footprint that you need this far into a crisis. This is the third month of the monsoon season, it is piecemeal, small. What we’re hearing now is that the government is not allowing aid to come in quickly. Partner countries like UAE and Turkey and others that have sent aid, but that is not trickling down quickly enough or at all in some cases.
Halla Mohieddeen: It sounds like it’s one crisis after another, in Pakistan, for those of us following the country. The economy was already wobbly. The country’s nearing a debt crisis. There’s rampant inflation. It’s unclear if the country will get the international lending it’s depending on and the price tag of the flood is already over $10bn at this point. What does this mean for Pakistan and the economy?
Zein Basravi: I mean, there are no positive indicators. Every indicator right now is going the wrong way. Crops that have been decimated. There’s infrastructure that’s been washed away. None of the trains in the country are running right now. Tracks that have been damaged and there’s fear of derailment. Will it get the money or not? Those are big questions that are really hard to answer at this point in time. One of the people we met said, any aid that comes in any money that comes, don’t give it to local officials. Don’t give it to the government. Give it to the army. They’ll give us the food we need. But then there’s people who say the army is the biggest black hole for any aid that comes into the country. I mean, there’s a lot of distrust of almost every institution in this country right now. And it’s just gonna slow down any relief that you get to people and that may be counted in billions of dollars in Islamabad, but in small villages and Sindh, that’s counted in lives. We heard one report in the village we’re in, of a child that died in a makeshift tent simply from not having food, water and medicine. And those are probably stories repeated all over the country right now, wherever the flood affectees are.
Halla Mohieddeen: Well, we hear this being raised all the time, glaciers melting with monsoon rains, and yet Pakistan’s not a big contributor to greenhouse gases. There’s aid coming in, but is that enough to make up for the damage that’s clearly being done?
Zein Basravi: Well, I’ll start by paraphrasing what Antonio Guterres said. He arrived here. He met with Pakistani leaders about $160m that’s been earmarked at the moment for emergency response by the UN, he said it was a drop in the bucket.
Newsreel: What is your message to the people who are anchored firmly in the worst part of this crisis? My message is that the world has a responsibility to support them, that the world must help Pakistan at the present moment for Pakistan to be able to rescue all the people in those dramatic circumstances.
Halla Mohieddeen: Afia – the climate change journalist we heard from earlier – says climate change reparations is a real conversation now.
Afia Salam: That’s a conversation that is coming up repeatedly because people do feel that without contributing to a problem, they have to bear the brunt of it. And they are bearing the brunt of it without much help, to be able to cope with it.
This kind of disaster pushes so many people below the poverty line. It increases food insecurity, water insecurity. I don’t think the world can afford any more instability than it already is facing. The world has to look at all these things seriously. If the word reparation makes people uncomfortable, maybe they can put another tag to it. You need technology, you need resources, you need money, and infrastructure which is climate-proof. Our bridges were swept away. Our roads were swept away. We need those think tanks. We need the academicians and universities. We need centre of excellence who can do disaster management modelling, who can do climate modelling forecasting. So, I mean, there’s a whole range of things that countries like ours need, but we do not have the resources for that.
Halla Mohieddeen: This is something that Zein too has been hearing a lot about on the ground.
Zein Basravi: We spoke to a woman who measures these flood disasters in children being born and she said, my daughter’s pregnant again, and it was only five years ago that we had a flood like this. It used to be more spread out. And we talk about telling the same story, again, as older men in 10 years, in probably much worse situations. People in government buildings in Islamabad, yes, they’re talking about it. Young people are talking about it. Young volunteers from urban areas have been collecting materials and donations and money and just driving themselves out and just doing runs into places where it’s needed and dropping it off themselves. They don’t trust the system. I think you’re gonna see a lot more solutions like that, localised solutions. Broader conversations about climate change; people don’t feel like they’re in control of it here. They don’t feel like anything they can do here will make a difference or make a change. What I will say is echo Antonio Guterres, in very simple terms. It’s Pakistan today. It could be your country tomorrow. Global ecosystems, floods, monsoons; they don’t care about political boundaries or people’s religious or political affiliations. It’s very democratising. It’s going to affect everyone. Even if the weather doesn’t get bad where you are, the displacement of human beings will have knock-on effects everywhere. They’re moving into Pakistani cities now, but when those Pakistani cities get overwhelmed by rising seawater or the next big climate event, people are gonna start moving to other places. So, you can either resolve it now or deal with it when it comes knocking at your door.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Amy Walters with Chloe K. Li, Ruby Zaman, Alexandra Locke, Ashish Malhotra, Negin Owliaei and me, Halla Moheiddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is our head of audio. We’ll be back on Friday.
This episode was produced by Amy Walters with Chloe K. Li, Ruby Zaman, Alexandra Locke, Negin Owliaei, Ashish Malhotra and Halla Mohieddeen. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Our engagement producers are Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio.