Politics in times of calamity

NOTHING could be more surreal than watching political leaders engaged in a sordid game of thrones while a large part of the country is devastated by torrential rains. Villages have been wiped out by flash floods. Hundreds of people including young children have been swept away by the raging waters. There are horrific scenes; the destruction across the country has left thousands of people homeless and without sustenance.

The heart-wrenching image of folk singer Wahab Bugti holding his young child and standing over the wreckage of his mudhouse in the midst of a submerged field gives a glimpse of the miseries that the people of Balochistan — the province worst-hit by the calamity — must endure. The numbers of children lost in the torrential waters and the homes destroyed have been reduced to statistics. The larger devastation — in terms of both human lives and property — is incalculable.

This catastrophe is not limited to the country’s most impoverished region. There are similar stories of destruction across Sindh, southern Punjab and the northern areas. Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest city and the financial heartland, has not been spared either and presents a picture of ruin with sinkholes, and streets submerged in water. Broken infrastructure has worsened the plight of the people.

Unfortunately, it is not over yet, with forecasts of a fresh spell of rain about to wreak havoc in the coming days. Pakistan is facing extraordinary amounts of rain this year — almost three times the average. While according to official figures, almost 800 people have died across the country and hundreds of thousands have been displaced since the start of the early monsoon in July, the real cost of the damage is estimated to be much higher. People have lost their livelihoods with thousands of acres of crops destroyed.

The tragedy is that a human catastrophe is being disregarded as politicians bicker amongst themselves.

But most of the affected people have yet to receive help from the state. While the political parties are engaged in a bitter power struggle in Islamabad, Wahab Bugti and hundreds of thousands of other victims like him are left to the mercy of the harsh weather. The callousness of our ruling elite towards the suffering of ordinary mortals is criminal.

Indeed, it is not for the first time that the country is facing a natural calamity but the enormity of the current crisis is far more serious. It needs a coherent and coordinated national response to cope with the challenge. Regrettably, that effort is missing with no coordination between the federal and provincial governments. Their focus is largely on settling political scores. The prevailing political uncertainty and instability have aggravated the situation.

While we have been forewarned of unusually heavy rains, the administration has been sorely lacking in preparedness. It is apparent that the authorities have never considered the effects of climate change on Pakistan seriously. The country is near the top of the list of countries most prone to the effects of extreme weather conditions caused by a changing climate.

Over the past few years, we have witnessed extreme weather patterns — from increasingly high temperatures in summer to heavy rains in some parts of the country, and drought in others. The projected temperature increase in Pakistan is higher than the global average. An increase in extreme temperatures has significantly altered climate patterns affecting the timing and strength of the monsoon rainfall as witnessed this year.

More concerning is the projected temperature increase in the northern areas than other parts of the country. That has caused the faster melting of glaciers impacting the natural environment. It also causes the flooding of rivers with devastating consequences.

While Pakistan’s contribution to air pollution and greenhouse emissions may be lower than most countries, we lag far behind when it comes to taking measures to reduce air pollution that still affects us. Almost complete reliance on fossil fuel for energy has made it extremely difficult to bring down the level of pollution. More worrisome is that not only are we still using coal-fired power stations but that we are constructing new ones too.

While Pakistan has committed to cutting its projected emissions by half by 2030, the country has yet to declare a net-zero goal. There is an urgent need for stricter measures to reduce air pollution, which includes accelerating the process of shifting to renewable energy sources. We lag far behind many countries in using solar and other sources of energy.

The economic cost of climate change for Pakistan is higher than in many other countries. Being an agriculture-dependent country significantly increases Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate change. Predictably, this heavy rainfall has caused agriculture to suffer most.

It is very early at the moment to assess the cumulative economic losses in the ongoing calamity but with thousands of acres of crop destroyed, agricultural production is bound to fall and thus negatively impact an economy already on the brink. According to official estimates, some 700,000 acres of crops have already been lost in Balochistan alone. The losses may be higher in the agricultural heartland of Sindh and parts of Punjab.

The destruction of infrastructure will make economic recovery much harder. Heavy rains and flooding have damaged highways and dams. It would require billions of rupees to restore damaged road networks and other facilities. All this will be a huge burden on the economy. But more important is the rehabilitation of hundreds of thousands of people who have been uprooted by the floods. It requires a focused effort from all the stakeholders.

Unfortunately, this human catastrophe is lost in the ongoing political hullabaloo. Such an attitude manifests the hollowness of our power politics. Some critical matters of existential importance, such as climate change and population explosion, two interlinked issues, have, unfortunately, never been part of our political discourse.

In the past, we have seen the nation standing united in the time of a natural calamity as happened during the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir and the 2010 countrywide floods. But unfortunately, today’s power politics has completely divided the country. While people are suffering, the leaders continue with their senseless wrangling.

The writer is an author and journalist.

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