Pakistan’s Unseen Climate-Change Survivors | The New Yorker


The teen-age girl warned the men, but they ignored her. “When it started raining, I told the men in our village this isn’t normal,” Maria said to me, as we stood on a muddy embankment—her makeshift home—in the district of Sohbatpur, in eastern Balochistan. “But the men said, ‘It’s nothing.’ The next night, when they woke up and saw we were surrounded by water on all sides, my male relatives said, ‘You were right.’ But who listens to women? All we could do then was pick up the children. There was no time to pick up our belongings. We grabbed the kids.”

Throughout the past few months, climate-driven super floods have submerged much of southern Pakistan, killing seventeen hundred people and more than a million heads of livestock, crippling agriculture, and affecting thirty-three million people, according to government figures. When the U.S.A.I.D. administrator Samantha Power visited Pakistan in September, she said she had “never seen so much water on land.” Shortly before visiting inundated areas, the U.N. Secretary-General, António Guterres, called the floods a “monsoon on steroids.” But Sohbatpur, in the neglected province of Balochistan—whose people have long suffered human-rights abuses in response to their calls for autonomy—has received relatively little coverage, even in Pakistan.

In mid-September, I set out to volunteer with Quratulain Bakhteari, an indomitable social worker and one of a thousand women jointly nominated for the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize; her lifework has been helping the underserved in Balochistan. Bakhteari runs the Institute for Development Studies and Practice, a Quetta-based N.G.O. that trains local development professionals and teaches them community-based organizing. At seventy-two, Bakhteari has the pluck and stamina of a twenty-five-year-old, and, following the historic destruction from the floods of this year, her organization, like dozens of N.G.O.s in Pakistan, turned to relief work. Bakhteari’s main request to our local partner in Sohbatpur was to take her where no aid organization had ventured.

After a twelve-hour drive from Quetta, twice the normal time owing to the destruction of bridges during two months of record rainfall, we arrived in Sohbatpur at midnight with two relief trucks. Immediately, our car slowed and the driver’s voice filled with anguish. The internally displaced people were camped all along the roads, he said, inches from the festering water, next to their restless, starving livestock. “If I veer slightly to the left or right,” he told us, “I’ll kill someone. Allah, help me.”

“Go slow,” Bakhteari said. “Go very slow.” She turned to me. “We travelled for hundreds of kilometres to bring forty tents. Just imagine. It’s nothing. It’s nothing.”

We had brought tents as well as clothes, menstrual kits, and bags of rations that included flour, sugar, rice, daal, cooking oil, tea, salt, red chili, soap, candles, and matchboxes. As Bakhteari spoke to us, one of our relief trucks veered into the water and tipped over. (A day before, the same truck had been stolen at gunpoint in Quetta, and recovered, several hours later, by police officials. Three men working with Bakhteari colleagues had been in the truck; they managed to escape barefoot into a forest, and sustained injuries to their feet). As water engulfed the half-submerged truck, mayhem ensued. The men in our small convoy rushed to rescue the driver, who had fallen into the water along with the truck and the tents. He emerged unscathed. “We have to move,” Bakhteari, who has been working in Balochistan for more than thirty years, said. “We will recover the tents shortly.”

And so we drove on and arrived at the village Sim Shakh around 1 A.M. Along the left and right and front and back of a long mud embankment was water—everywhere. Four small lakes had emerged where, just a month before, the residents of Sim Shakh had soaked and planted rice.

Maria (in the orange dupatta) heading to her side of the embankment.Photograph courtesy the author

As we unloaded the ration bags, I noticed that the village women had taken over the right embankment; the men, the left. This is where I met Maria, the teen-age girl. She looked worryingly thin. I asked her why families had chosen to separate in this fashion. “Do you see a toilet anywhere?” she said. “It’s very easy for the men to defecate in the open air. Much more difficult for us because of our purdah. So we kicked the men to the other side of the embankment so at least we could do our business in peace.” Maria extended her hand. “You can come with me if you want.” The ground was slippery. We walked along the embankment’s loamy middle. “Right now, you can’t properly see the water because it’s dark,” she explained. “In the morning, you’ll see it. When the floods came, we were drinking from this water, bathing in it, washing our clothes in it. Then our children began to fall sick.”

The World Health Organization has sounded the alarm about a “second disaster,” the outbreak of waterborne diseases and the lack of access to health care. With winter looming, it will take several months for the floodwaters to recede. Malaria, dengue fever, diarrhea, and skin problems are rampant wherever there is stagnant floodwater—a third of Pakistan, according to the climate minister. In Sohbatpur, I saw children with facial sores the size of Ping-Pong balls.

As Mohammed Hanif recently wrote in this magazine, Pakistan contributes less than one per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. Despite that, it is among the most vulnerable countries to climate-related disasters. According to the economist Jeffrey Sachs, in nearly two hundred years, Pakistan has emitted roughly the same amount of carbon dioxide that the U.S. emits each year. “If there was a global climate court,” Sachs writes, “Pakistan’s government would have a strong case against the US and other high-income countries for failing to limit climate-changing greenhouse-gas emissions (GHGs). But since there is no global climate court (yet), governments should act like one and allocate the attributable climate losses and damages to those countries that are historically responsible for them.”

It’s true that the floods are a result of a climate crisis primarily fuelled by emissions from the United States, China, and Europe, but they also reveal abysmally inadequate disaster planning by local governments. What did Pakistan learn from the floods that devastated the country in 2010? Shocks can create room for policy changes, but have any resulted? Did Pakistan’s vaunted, military-led National Disaster Management Authority insure timely flood warnings? Did they liaise effectively with the Pakistan Meteorological Department? Did they learn from Bangladesh’s climate-proofing measures? Given the military’s dominant footprint in virtually all aspects of Pakistani society, did it encourage weak civilian-led governments to plan for these now regular climate disasters? There are not nearly enough social-welfare contracts that reach the people who need them, no economic safety nets for those who live in the flood plains.

Against the backdrop of a partially submerged country, the discourse on Pakistani television screens can be surreal: instead of robust debate around the floods or communication around climate-change mitigation, pundits fixated, for an inordinately long time, on the appointment of a new Army chief. Would the current chief of Army staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, get an extension, or would there be a new chief? (This week, Bajwa said he planned to step down.) The military’s latest so-called hybrid regime—in which the Army, to all appearances, supported the former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s ascent to power in 2018—has come undone. Khan is now a political genie: escaped from the military’s bottle, he is holding large rallies across Pakistan, to pressure his former military patrons to facilitate his return to power. If proof were needed that the military establishment runs the country, it is here, in the obsessions of the power élite.

Saeen Dad (left) and Quratulain Bakhteari (right) sorting supplies.Photograph courtesy the author

Far from the machinations of the ruling class, far from the television screens and studios, and, indeed, any public utilities, are the residents of Sim Shakh, at the mercy of the elements. “Nobody had given us a drop of water,” Maria, the teen-ager, told me. “These days, in the mornings, we battle flies; at night, it’s the mosquitoes. When the wind blows, like right now, it keeps the mosquitoes away. When the wind stops, we panic. By the way, do you need to use the toilet?”


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