The facts are stark and startling. Until very recently, one third of Pakistan was inundated with water. The country’s navy undertook rescue missions in areas that had never previously seen a boat. In the province of Sindh, Pakistan’s breadbasket, 90 per cent of the crops have been ruined. Up to 33 million people have been affected, with 200 bridges damaged or washed away, and large areas of the country still under more than a metre of water. Up to 700 per cent more rain fell than usual in August. The consequent catastrophic floods have caused $30 billion of damage, according to the country’s government.
“The whole area looks like an ocean with no horizon – nothing like this has been seen before,” said Pakistan’s minister for climate change, Sherry Rehman, in an interview with The Guardian last week. “I wince when I hear people say these are natural disasters. This is very much the age of the anthropocene: these are man-made disasters.”
Indeed. This is a dire warning of what climate change may bring in the not-so-distant future. Within decades, rising sea levels may see much of the Thai capital, Bangkok, and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam under water. One report predicts that most of the Mekong Delta – hugely important for agriculture and fishing in Vietnam – will be reclaimed by the sea by 2050. At the same time, the glaciers of Central Asia, 7,200 of which are in Pakistan, and which are the source of the region’s mighty rivers such as the Mekong, are melting so fast that one third of them may have disappeared by the end of the century.
There can be little doubt that destructive climate change is the result of 150 years of rapid industrialisation, most of which was driven by the rich countries of the West. Pakistan, by contrast, has contributed less than 1 per cent to global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, as Ms Rehman put it: “Global warming is the existential crisis facing the world and Pakistan is ground zero.” Calls for climate reparations, from Ms Rehman and others, deserve to be addressed. Commitments to help frontline countries mitigate the risks of extreme weather events is one thing. But states suffering now from the adverse effects of the development of advanced nations can rightly ask why the aforementioned wealthy should not pay for the damage their growth has caused.
Who could disagree with Ms Rehman when she said: “There is so much loss and damage with so little reparations to countries that contributed so little to the world’s carbon footprint that obviously the bargain made between the Global North and Global South is not working.” The UN Climate Change Conference, Cop27, is due to be held in Egypt in November, and as current chair of the Group of 77 developing countries, Pakistan will be in a position to push hard for the rich polluters to pay up.
Meanwhile, some countries have been doing their best to address the humanitarian disaster in Pakistan. The Associated Press news agency reported that “authorities say the UAE has been one of the most generous contributors and sent so far 26 flights carrying aid for flood victims". Readers of this newspaper will have seen extensive coverage of the crisis, which has left the country facing acute shortages of food and nearly 700,000 people forced to move to relief camps and temporary accommodation.
But in many developed countries, this cataclysmic event has hardly seemed to be much of a priority, or even a concern. Fatima Bhutto, the activist-writer niece of the assassinated Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto, wrote bitterly that: “While it has been touching to see how ordinary people from far-away countries have shown solidarity with Pakistan, donating what they can to flood relief efforts, the silence from major international figures and western media at large has been dispiriting, if not unsurprising. The week the flood hit, there were more newspaper column inches devoted to a Finnish prime minister who likes to party than to the fact that a third of Pakistan was submerged.”
Since then, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has visited the country and called for “massive support from the international community”, but Ms Bhutto’s point still stands. Imagine the shock if one third of France was under water, for instance. Pakistan may be further away from London or New York than Paris, but with British Pakistanis numbering about 1.2 million and about half a million Pakistani Americans, the flooding could not be more concerning for significant communities in the US and UK. Yet, the attention paid to the situation in Pakistan has been meagre.
No wonder Ms Bhutto continued: “We are simmering with rage now. What else can you feel when €880 million [$894m] was raised in a day and a half after the cathedral of Notre Dame suffered a fire but an entire country of drowning poor must beg for climate aid and assistance?”
An unpalatable reality appears to emerge. When western countries welcomed Ukrainians with open arms, while trying to keep desperate refugees from the Middle East out, the scales fell from the eyes of many of my friends in Malaysia – perhaps especially those who had spent a lot of time in Europe and America. “Is this how they really see us?” was the collective question. Given the reaction to what is happening in Pakistan now, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the answer was and is yes.
But Mr Guterres had words that should set them right, for the wealthy world cannot escape the time bomb its own development set off. “We are heading into a disaster,” he said. “We have waged war on nature and nature is striking back in a devastating way. Today in Pakistan. Tomorrow in any of your countries.”