Exploring Pakistan’s Climate Crisis

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Daniella Ciniglio

This essay is part of the MEPC’s Emerging Voices series, highlighting scholarship from rising academics focused on Middle Eastern studies. Author Daniella Ciniglio is a graduate student at the Elliott School of International Affairs at The George Washington University pursuing her M.A. in International Affairs with a concentration in Conflict Resolution.

As identified in the 2021 Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan currently stands as the 8th most vulnerable country to climate change. This ranking is substantiated by its current state, with about one third of the country submerged underwater due to unprecedented monsoons and consequential widespread flooding. These past few years have not been easy on Pakistan, with plagues of droughts and extreme heat posing a threat to agricultural production, health, and overall quality of life. Severe heat waves and flooding are irreversibly damaging Pakistan’s environment and population; this crisis requires significant and continual policy dedication from Pakistani government and the global community. 

In exploring what makes Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate change so severe, it is important to understand the role its diverse ecosystems play in influencing weather patterns. Pakistan experiences four seasons: a hot dry spring, southwest monsoon summer rainy season, retreating monsoon fall period, and cool dry winter. However, the atypical weather has exacerbated and caused their effects to bleed over into subsequent seasons. Monsoons, seasonal shifts in wind directions, are vital to the survival of Pakistanis as they provide 65-75% of the annual water supply and encourage sustainable crop production, yet in their irregular current state are instituting a destructive path.

As global temperatures rise, melting glaciers pose an overwhelming threat to the wellbeing of inhabited environments, Pakistan being an ideal example. Pakistan has upwards of 7,000 glaciers; their melting has a direct correlation with flash floods, thus amplifying damage from pre-existing monsoonal flooding. It is projected that as these glaciers recede from higher atmospheric temperatures, their accelerated melting will cause sporadic river flows and significantly fuller waterways. This irregularity, combined with the fact that warm air holds more moisture and the Indian Ocean is experiencing abnormally high sea surface temperature, indicates the severity of rainfall and flooding in Pakistan will persist without intervention.

Amid this monsoon season and corresponding flooding, 33 million people have been displaced, some two million homes experienced destruction, more than $30 billion dollars in damage has been accrued, and over 1,700 Pakistanis lost their lives. This has been the worst flooding in over a decade. In July 2022 alone, the total normal monsoon rainfall was exceeded by 26%, with mountainous areas such as the Balochistan province that usually remains unaffected by the season accumulating five times their average rainfall

Spanning from March to May, Pakistan endured record heat waves constituting 6-7 degrees hotter than normal for that time of year, some of the highest maximum temperatures in the world; this invoked severe concerns among Pakistan’s largest economic sector: agriculture. Crops such as cotton, maize, rice, sugarcane, and wheat are the lifeline of Pakistan, as they serve a dual functionality of domestic food sources and international exports. While these crops are acclimated to high temperatures, unprecedented heat waves and saline contaminated water impede on their ability to properly grow and yield. Following this poor growing season, crops are being swept away by floods and fertile lands are becoming obsolete. In the 2021 to 2022 marketing year, Pakistan turned from a net wheat exporter to a partial importer, signifying a transformation of their economy. 

Health concerns are a top priority, as Pakistanis face not only waterborne illnesses but an inability to get treatment if falling ill, resulting in unnecessary deaths. Specifically, the elderly have been confronted by a tremendous burden; those who live with chronic health conditions face restricted access to their medication and the possibility of it being swept away by the floods, left struggling to survive. As is the case across the globe, the poor and minority groups are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change and are left subjected to being deprived of basic life necessities of food, water, and shelter. 

With the trajectory of climate change enduring, it is inevitable that Pakistan will be subject to extreme climate events of higher intensity and frequency. This includes irregular monsoon rains which would induce recurrent droughts and floods. To address the rapid results of climate change, the government of Pakistan established the Ministry of Climate Change and put forth its Second National Communication on Climate Change in 2019. Although widespread acknowledgement that creating a viable and efficient energy sector does exist, there is an urgency to institute disaster risk measures and adapt to climate change concerns to save the lives of people impacted now. The Pakistani government has committed itself to mobilizing domestic resources to those most in need and stabilizing the economy to the best of its ability. However, underlying institutional and systemic challenges compounded by devastation from the Covid-19 pandemic constrain adequate disaster risk reduction capacities.

The disparity between developed and developing countries is ever so clear when observing that, despite contributing less than 1% of global greenhouse emissions, Pakistan remains one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. While Pakistan is doing their part to address climate disasters, there is a global responsibility to lower greenhouse gasses and, at minimum, provide aid to those countries that are invariably suffering the consequences. Relief efforts by humanitarian organizations and international institutions are undoubtedly essential to recovery; nevertheless, sustainable efforts towards combating climate change and rectifying systemic inequality is the key to building a resilient Pakistani nation. 

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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