The unfair floods of Pakistan: ‘Climate carnage’ or botched engineering?
“I have been a disobedient son. Please forgive me. I will not survive. I am struggling for life and death. Pray for me.”
Those were 23-year-old Hazarat Bilal's last words in a phone call to his father from the rock he stood on before the floods swept away him and his three friends – all taxi drivers – on August 25.
Ubaidullah Khan, 24, a fellow taxi driver, the fifth friend, and the sole survivor in the group, remembers the fateful morning. They were trying to drive their taxis to the higher ground next to the river in the face of a massive rain storm that hit the Kohistan region in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
“We saw the torrent crushing towards us, with rocks and boulders getting stuck under our vehicles. We left our taxis and climbed a big rock to seek refuge as raging waters surrounded us.” Khan told Interesting Engineering (IE) in a phone interview.
The group remained stuck on the rock for half a day while their calls for support went unanswered. Helpless onlookers, meanwhile, recorded a video that went viral across the country.
“It was around noon that people started shouting. We turned our backs and saw a huge wave approaching us. My friends tied me with a rope, hooked on to a high-tension electric wire that went across the river,” he said.
“I could hold on longer to be pulled by bystanders, but my friends lost their grip...”
Floods not only washed away his friends but his home and everything around it. “Nothing is left as if it never existed.”
Experts say this year's monsoon rains in Pakistan were the worst ever, flooding one-third of the South Asian country, ruining crops on millions of acres, and uprooting at least 33 million people from a population of 220 million.
“I am 50, and in my life, I haven’t seen this level of non-stop rain. Especially when we were witnessing drought just a few months ago.” Dr. Gohram Malghani, who teaches environmental science at the Balochistan University of Information Technology Engineering, and Management Sciences, told IE.
“Rainy seasons usually last seven to 15 days in Pakistan. But this time, I saw only three days of heavy rain destroying everything,” he said.
In his speech to the UN General Assembly, U.S. President Joe Biden made an emotional appeal to the world to help Pakistan deal with the devastation of the floods.
“Much of Pakistan is still underwater and needs help,” Biden said. “We don’t have much time left. We all know we are already living in a climate crisis.”
Earlier, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres blamed the climate crisis for the devastating flooding in Pakistan, which killed over 1500 people and damaged over two million homes.
“I have seen many humanitarian disasters in the world, but I have never seen climate carnage on this scale,” he said during his recent visit to Pakistan.
However, a debate within Pakistan has started over the preparedness for such disasters. Some analysts blame successive governments’ inadequate policies and botched infrastructure, which was ill-prepared for the climate crisis-driven devastation in the country.
Climate change and flawed infrastructure
Pakistan is responsible for less than one percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Still, it is the eighth most vulnerable country to the climate crisis, according to European Union data.
"Many ancient civilizations have been wiped out in the past due to climate change, droughts, and floods. Except for the excessive carbon emissions, it is not a new phenomenon,” Ghulam Nabi Raikoti, member of the Public Private Partnership Policy Board in Gilgit Baltistan and an environmental expert explained to IE.
“Pakistan's emissions are very low compared to the developed world, yet we pay the price."
These are some undeniable facts, said Raikoti, adding poor planning, infrastructural design, and engineering flaws are major contributing factors to the devastation.
"Our roads, bridges, and other necessary infrastructures are constructed without following building codes and mostly placed around river beds. Additionally, unnatural diversions for agriculture stop the water's natural flow and cause more issues,” said Raikoti.
“Our engineering and quality of work are compromised because of the lack of finances and multiple other factors including corruption and inadequate knowledge,” he added.
The meticulously planned railroads, waterways, and roadways constructed by the British 150 years ago are what people used in Pakistan during the 2010 floods, said Raikoti.
“During the 2010 floods, Pakistan relied on bridges built by Britishers. The ones built by the then-government were mostly washed away,” he claimed.
“The flaws were poor site selection, location of the infrastructure, and the quality of workmanship including engineering and the use of material, etc.,” he added.
Geographer Dr. Ayesha Siddiqi of Cambridge University, who specializes in climate change in South Asia, says Pakistan's urban planning is "chaotic."
"The country is facing strong demographic pressure. The inhabitants find themselves settling wherever they can, including on river banks and in flood-prone areas," she told France 24.
She said some impoverished and outlying regions, like southern Balochistan province, still lacked the required infrastructure.
Referring to the "poor management" of the nation's water resources, she said infrastructure projects have long been subject to political rather than scientific whims, and often go against all “logic.”
But Dr. Malghani doesn’t want to blame poor infrastructure alone.
“If we believe it’s because of the infrastructure and the design, what about the people that are living in the mountain areas, living in higher lands that have equally faced the brunt of the floods?” he asked.
“The debate on design failure is futile. There is limitation and capacity for all designs. We need a better plan,” he stressed.
In response to "epochal" rains and flooding, the UN has appealed for $160 million to assist Pakistan. Multiple countries have flown aid and relief convoys to Pakistan.
But the cost of economic damage and rehabilitation is estimated by government officials to be at least $30 billion, or 10 percent of the country's GDP. Officials also anticipate that this number will increase further. It has already tripled from a preliminary estimate last month.
Pakistan and the UN are expected to revise flood appeals next month due to insufficient funds to deal with the magnitude of the calamity, which has quickly moved from floods to include the spread of water-borne diseases, malnutrition, crop failures, and the risk of famines, etc.
Some, however, believe that the aid may not reach the needy on a micro level.
“Locals have supported emergency relief, but the state hasn’t responded adequately so far,” said Tanzeel Alvi, a sociologist in Pakistan.
"If the international community is assisting the state, we have not noticed it reaching the micro level, on the ground," he added.
Instead, Alvi and his friends have taken it to themselves to make a small difference.
"I started with food relief on August 22. Within three weeks, many donors joined, and as we continued to serve, we reached more than 50,000 displaced persons."
Meanwhile, Khan is looking for new accommodation in a different district of Kohistan. For a while, he assisted with relief efforts to divert his attention from the memories of death and destruction.
“I haven’t been able to sleep since the incident. I keep remembering how floods took my friends. I eat sleeping pills that don't help either,” he said.
“I used to help with the relief work, but now I can’t. I am exhausted, I have depression, and I need a new home. I haven’t received any help from the state or the international community to make it easy for me.”