Pakistan Drowned. Does Anyone Care?

The world is burning. Climate change continues unabated,  and although there have been encouraging signs of international cooperation, much of it seems too little, too late. Over the summer, heat waves shattered records across the globe, leading to excess deaths, catastrophic crop failures, and tremendous infrastructural damage. Combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, and corresponding logistical and supply chain difficulties, one can consider the last few years and so-called “abnormal”  events to be part of a cascade toward a new normal. If this was a test as to how we could handle this new normal, governments everywhere failed, and failed miserably. 

In assessing these failures, socialists must also confront the stark reality of the limitations that different states have for tackling this new coterie of climate-related challenges. This is not just a question of climate culpability––though we must be frank about which countries and corporations have produced the overwhelming majority of emissions—but of practicing solidarity and mutual aid in the face of ever-growing disasters. Climate change affects us all, but it will affect different societies and populations in myriad ways, some of which will be so catastrophic as to be almost unimaginable. 

Let’s look at an event that only briefly captured headlines in Western countries, despite its global importance: the floods that shook Pakistan from June to August 2022. Beginning with an unprecedented torrent of rainfall only months after most of the subcontinent had suffered through a historic drought, rivers and dams throughout the country swelled far past their maximum capacities. Consequently, a deluge overran entire towns and villages, submerging an estimated 30% of the country under a morass of floodwaters, dirt, and debris. Because of poor governmental records, we will never know how many people perished. Official figures say almost 2,000. A further 2.1 million people were left homeless, and some estimates suggest that more than 30 million were affected. 

Pakistan’s woes did not end there. The flooding caused untold infrastructural damage in a country whose state’s fiscal capacities were already overstretched by decades of underdevelopment, underinvestment, and mismanagement. Indeed, as Shozab Raza,an  expert in agrarian capitalism, has written, the failure of large swathes of Pakistan’s hydrological infrastructure points to governmental malfeasance; these key infrastructural projects were not maintained well, having largely enriched corrupt political elites, and only heightened the scale of subsequent flooding. Even though mega-projects in the 1990s and early 2000s such as the Taunsa Barrage and Kachhi Canal presented clear environmental risks that were well known at the time, the Pakistani state continued to pursue them. Such projects only exacerbated the risk of flooding. 

In the wake of the deluge over the summer, faced with high energy prices and diminishing foreign currency reserves, the Pakistani state was forced to seek aid from the International Monetary Fund and to restrict its foreign debt. This crisis only exacerbated the country’s political turmoil. In April,  Prime Minister Imran Khan faced a vote of no-confidence, which he and his party maintain was the result of U.S. intervention, a claim for which the evidence is scant. The subsequent – and  unpopular –  caretaker government of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has faced public anger over its incompetent response to the floods as well as acquiescence to the IMF’s demands to restructure the economy and roll back subsidies and meager public welfare programs. In turn, this has only helped Khan in his attempt to return to power amid fears of political violence, and his antics have likewise distracted from the sheer scale of the problems and suffering that Pakistanis have been contending with since the floods. 

It would be easy to cast the blame for the floods, the loss of life, and the subsequent political-fiscal crisis on the Pakistani government. As Daanish Mustafa of King’s College London, an expert on climate change in Pakistan, told me, Pakistani elites’ fascination with big but fragile infrastructural projects and developmental schemes have led to “structural problems with the Pakistani water system.” The country has suffered floods since its founding, but the “Pakistani political class and media” have largely offered little more than “pious pronouncements” instead of policy changes. 

Still, while pessimistic that the international community would rise to the occasion, Mustafa noted that this is also an issue inherently linked to the global climate crisis and, more specifically, the importance of “climate justice” for “[helping] the Global South negotiate climate challenges.” Pakistan is home to more glaciers than anywhere else on earth outside of the polar regions. This gives the country an ample water supply for its population of nearly 250 million, but also makes it especially vulnerable to flooding and weather events. Such events will only become more common as these glaciers recede, climate patterns shift, and sea levels rise. 

In a country where most live in deep poverty, with nearly 80% of its populace subsisting on less than $5.50 a day, catastrophic events such as these will have a considerably negative impact on people’s quality of life and livelihoods. Ibrahim Buriro, an activist, student, and native of a village in Sindh–one of the most heavily affected regions–assessed the damage for me in stark terms: “Water borne diseases such malaria, dengue, gastro, etc., are endemic. Around 1.5 million livestock animals died….Poor people who made houses after years of labor and savings are destroyed.” Even accepting that the Pakistani state’s response has been tepid at best, it is hard to see how a country with a GDP of only US$350 billion–less than Wisconsin’s– can develop the capacity to deal with such outsized events by itself. As Buriro said,, faced with “economic and political crises, state authorities were poorly equipped to deal with disasters of such magnitude.” There is also the question of (in)justice. Pakistan “contributes less than 1 percent of global carbon emissions”; despite that, it will bear a disproportionate burden in terms of climate disasters. 

The Pakistani people are not helpless, nor should we think of them as such. Even now, political movements in the country aim to extract key concessions from the state, to institute crucial reforms, and to hold the government accountable for its considerable mistakes. Likewise, even as Imran Khan maintains that the United States and the IMF have conspired to shackle Pakistan’s development–not an unfair allegation–he and his party remain as indebted to the same alliance of foreign capital and domestic military stakeholders as any other mainstream political force. The Pakistani people are growingly cognizant of that, and their fearless struggle must be commended by all.

However, they should not have to fight this battle for justice alone. Buriro and Mustafa both decry the lackluster international response as little more than symbolic thus far. Climate crisis affects us all; what has happened in Pakistan is a portent of things to come elsewhere. Even in the United States, despite the state having considerably more resources, climate events have caused severe damage in places as environmentally different as California, Texas, Florida, and Mississippi. Such trends will only accelerate as emissions grow and warming continues. A socialist perspective on tackling such difficulties must thus necessarily be an internationalist one: if disasters cross national boundaries, our solutions and responses should, too.

To that end, rather than saddling Pakistan with more debt and loans that will only compound its current crises, the United States and other rich countries have a responsibility to help it mitigate future disasters. There is some precedence for this. Wealthy nations have recently offered subsidies and aid to Indonesia to fuel the country’s switch from cheap coal to clean energy. Likewise, in the past, Norway and Germany financed the protection of the Amazon rainforest, only to be undone by Jair Bolsanaro’s short-sighted policies. For the most part, though, rich countries have benefited from developmental model that irrevocably transformed global climate and environments, often while also inflicting tremendous misery and poverty upon the territories they colonized. There is thus a responsibility to use those same resources to work together in tackling those aftereffects. As Buriro ended our conversation:

“As I reply to these questions, my country’s 35 million are homeless and made refugees. I don’t know how many months it will take water to recede, as entire districts are turned into lakes, such is the magnitude of this disaster.  We [in Pakistan] want you to organize and support us in reining in capitalism, which is proving to be an existential threat to us. If the system goes unchecked and unchanged, it’s a matter of when, not if, the whole world will face such catastrophic climate crises.