Will Pakistan floods spur better climate disaster planning?

A family sit on a motorbike driving through floods next to a donkey pulling a cart with a family in

Commuters travel through rain waters, following rains and floods during the monsoon season in Jacobabad, Pakistan August 30, 2022. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

What’s the context?

As losses from climate-fuelled disasters rise, investment in cutting risks makes financial sense - and can solve multiple problems at once.

  • Disasters globally worsened by lack of planning
  • Cash shortages, lack of political will contribute to risks
  • Disasters often share causes, pointing to ideas for action

LONDON - A third of Pakistan is underwater, with at least 1,100 people dead - including 380 children - but monsoon rains "on steroids", likely fuelled by climate change, are not the only cause of the nation's misery.

As with many of the increasingly common disasters around the world, problems from a lack of investment in warning systems to the building of homes in danger zones and a failure of political will to cut fossil fuel use are key drivers, analysts said.

"Disasters are not natural. We are contributing to them with our actions and our inactions," said Zita Sebesvari, who leads work on environmental vulnerability at the United Nations University (UNU) in Germany.

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The good news - as rising fossil fuel use drives stronger floods, heatwaves, droughts and wildfires in almost every part of the world - is that "there is a lot that can be done to reduce the impacts of a disaster happening," she said.

The UNU on Wednesday released a study suggesting that measures from better protecting nature to reducing inequality, boosting early warning systems, cutting overconsumption and improving planning for surging risks could have huge payoffs.

A wide range of scientific and economic studies now argue that rising losses caused by climate change will soon far outstrip the costs of boosting resilience and cutting emissions to curb disasters, Zita said.

In Pakistan alone, losses from the current flooding have been estimated at $10 billion, a figure the government expects will rise with more rain in the forecast.

"The financial arguments are on the table. The scientific arguments are on the table too" for moving now to cut risks, Zita told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Johan Rockström, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, warned that "pretending business as usual is possible (will) eventually end business as usual".

Pakistan's risks

Besides endless monsoon rains this summer, dramatic heatwaves in April and May contributed heavily to Pakistan's drowning, scientists believe.

The heatwaves - which were 30 times more likely to occur as a result of climate change, scientists from the World Weather Attribution group found - accelerated melting of the country's vast mountain glaciers, leaving waterways fuller than normal.

When months of heavy monsoon rains then poured into streams and rivers already swollen with large volumes of water, floods were the inevitable result, they said.

A lack of consistent government efforts to boost preparedness and cut risks were also a contributor to the losses, according to analysts.

After heavy floods between 2010 and 2012 drowned significant parts of the country, Pakistan's government promised new monitoring systems for glacier melt and flood early warning systems, to help avoid such disasters in the future.

But while some early warning systems saved lives this month, Pakistan has seen five changes of government since 2010 and not all the plans have been implemented, with the debt-ridden nation's limited cash not consistently prioritised for such efforts.

Globally, spending to cut climate risks is only rarely a top priority for countries, analysts say.

"We have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic that we can unlock quite remarkable amounts of money if (an issue) is prioritized," Zita said, stressing that this has not happened with climate change for the most part.

"I wonder if the losses we are experiencing and seeing now will push us to do that," she added.

Finance fears

International finance to help at-risk countries such as Pakistan boost their resilience to climate threats and adopt clean energy has also largely failed to emerge.

The United States has said it will supply $30 million in emergency support for Pakistan, and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres this week launched an appeal for $160 million in aid.

"The Pakistani people are facing a monsoon on steroids - the relentless impact of epochal levels of rain and flooding," he said in a video address.

But as disasters - many at least partially driven by climate change - surge globally, humanitarian aid groups are increasingly failing to raise the resources needed, with gaping shortfalls growing.

Furthermore, the $100 billion a year by 2020 promised by rich countries responsible for most of the emissions driving climate shifts to help poorer nations deal with climate change remains undelivered, despite promises that it will happen soon.

Efforts to create a global fund to help poorer nations cope with the growing "loss and damage" from climate disasters have also floundered - although Pakistan is likely to help bring this to the forefront at the U.N. climate talks in Egypt in November.

"The cost of the long-term recovery for a cash-strapped country like Pakistan will be enormous," said Teresa Anderson, climate justice lead at charity ActionAid International.

"The flooding in Pakistan clearly demonstrates why the U.N. climate talks need to urgently agree a new funding facility," she said in a statement, noting that "it's past time for wealthy, industrialised countries who have done the most to heat the planet to step up".

Rockström, of the Potsdam Institute, agreed that it is likely "there will be drama" at the upcoming U.N. summit in Sharm el-Sheikh after such dramatic losses and damage in Pakistan.

Diversifying solutions

One way of making money to cut risks stretch further is ensuring cash spent looks at more than one threat at once, the UNU report noted.

The university examined 10 disasters in 2021-2022, from floods in Lagos to an unexpected heatwave in British Columbia and food shortages in Madagascar, and found that common problems such as destruction of nature, economic inequality and poor planning contributed to many of them.

In Madagascar, for instance, deforestation has contributed to erosion, sandstorms and worsening drought, suggesting that efforts to protect forests could cut food security risks and inequality as well, said Zita, a lead author of the report.

Worsening global inequality, biodiversity loss and climate change all need attention, but "if we try to address them individually we will fail," she predicted.

Similarly, countries that save cash by limiting their options - from European nations too heavily reliant on Russian gas to Tonga, which lost its sole undersea communications cable to an undersea volcanic eruption in January - may need to invest in more diversity to build genuine resilience, Zita noted.

"If you're putting your money in one solution - like Germany on Russian gas - it's quite cheap as long as it's actually available," she said. "Diversifying your basket... is sometimes more expensive at the beginning but it can pay off."

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