Pakistan's year of devastation scares me, says senior UN official

Chris Kaye has never seen anything like the trauma suffered by the country's most vulnerable people — and says climate change is to blame

Chris Kaye, second left, at an aid distribution point after severe flooding swamped the Sindh Province of Pakistan. Photo: World Food Programme
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Developed countries need to show more solidarity with Pakistan, where floods linked to climate change have devastated the lives of tens of millions of people, a senior UN official has said.

Chris Kaye, World Food Programme country director for Pakistan, said he had witnessed some “pretty horrific” things in his three-decade career in the field but nothing compared to the trauma Pakistan has suffered. Floods have killed about 1,600 people, displaced 33 million and submerged vast regions of the country.

Mr Kaye said the UN was supporting Pakistan as much as it could but the sheer scale of the disaster should spur countries to act more decisively at the Cop27 climate conference in Egypt, which starts on November 6.

“If people are not waking up to the fact climate change is presenting an existential threat to people around the globe, get your head out of the sand,” Mr Kaye told The National.

It was a culmination of significant changes in the manner by which climate has changed in Pakistan which has put 33 million people in a real state of devastation
Chris Kaye, World Food Programme country director for Pakistan

“It is extraordinary to have so many climate change events that are extreme all happening in the same year. It is super scary.”

Pakistan is still struggling to cope with significant parts of the country still under water.

The UN has issued a fresh appeal for more than $800 million to help families cope in what is now increasingly a public health emergency because of the damage to healthcare facilities and the threat of water-borne disease.

But Mr Kaye said it was important to remember it was not the floods alone that caused the catastrophe but a series of severe events.

It started with drought. Then winter switched to summer in mere days that skipped spring and prevented the germination of crops. This was followed by a scorching summer with temperatures soaring above 50C.

“Parts of Pakistan were the hottest places on Earth,” said Mr Kaye, who is from the UK. “It was unlivable.”

Then came an unusually intense monsoon season — double the normal rains in some parts — that hit areas that didn’t normally experience them.

Because the ground was so dry, said Mr Kaye, the run-off was rapid. “It completely bulldozed through infrastructure and took huge amounts of livestock with it and that’s people's livelihoods."

At least one in seven Pakistanis has been affected.

“I was in denial regarding the build-up,” said Mr Kaye, “because you thought each one on its own was [manageable] but then came another. Come September it was very difficult to comprehend the magnitude and difficulty the country found itself in.”

Mr Kaye was in Myanmar when Cyclone Nargis barrelled into the country in 2008, causing the deaths of about 138,000 people and in the Philippines when Typhoon Haiyan hit in 2013, killing more than 6,000.

He said the current situation in Pakistan was worse in terms of scale, scope and duration.

“I’ve witnessed some pretty horrific things. But [Pakistan] wasn’t just one event. It was a culmination of significant changes in the manner by which climate has changed in Pakistan which has put 33 million people in a real state of devastation.”

Crucial support

Chris Kaye said more support for Pakistan was needed. Photo: World Food Programme

Mr Kaye was in the UAE to thank the country for its early and crucial support after the floods hit.

The UAE stepped in swiftly with a $10m donation to the WFP and has since continued to support the country directly and through the UN.

“There has been a huge outpouring of support coming from the UAE. It is only right given that generosity that I'm here to let the government know what it is we are doing with the funds they are providing us,” he said.

The UN has appealed for $816m in total to provide life-saving humanitarian support for the next nine months.

But only 33 per cent has been pledged globally and Mr Kaye said more support was needed from donors who are also being asked to help fund famine response in Somalia, South Sudan and parts of the Sahel before even talking about the crisis in Ukraine.

“We are not going to be able to provide for all the people in need. We said to the government we would do everything to support them. [But] the fiscal space the government has is pretty limited. A huge need is still there.”

Mr Kaye said this plays into a bigger question of climate justice, which he hopes will be important at Cop27.

The G20, the biggest economies in the world, represent 80 per cent of total emissions that contribute to climate change, but Pakistan less than 1 per cent. Despite this, it is Pakistan's most vulnerable people bearing the brunt of the current crisis.

"Shouldn’t it be more industrialised countries that acknowledge their responsibility to support a country such as Pakistan where unquestionably it is climate change that has really triggered the magnitude of the problem people now face? Maybe discussions at Cop27 will bring greater light on to that responsibility.

“As the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said: 'Today it is Pakistan, tomorrow it could be you.'”

Updated: October 27, 2022, 8:48 AM