Pakistan's deadly flood season worsened by climate change and bad infrastructure

Every year, Pakistan struggles to cope with the monsoon season, which batters the country from June through August. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

KARACHI (NYTIMES) - Year after year in Kausar Niazi Colony, a slum in the port city of Karachi, Pakistan, Murtaza Hussain and his neighbours watched as monsoon rains flooded into their homes, damaging furniture, televisions and other precious valuables.

So when particularly heavy monsoon rains began drenching Karachi earlier this month, Hussain braced for more of the same: Water poured into his house. Floods deluged his neighbourhood. At least one of his neighbours drowned.

"It took us nearly two days to clean the water and get the house back to normal. There was no help from the government," said Hussain, 45, who works in a textile factory. "Every year, the government says there will be no flooding, but the problem is getting worse."

Every year, Pakistan struggles to cope with the monsoon season, which batters the country from June through August and which sets off widespread criticism over poor government planning.

But the season this year has been particularly brutal, offering an urgent reminder that in an era of global warming, extreme weather events are increasingly the norm, not the exception, across the region - and that Pakistan's major cities remain woefully ill equipped to handle them.

Monsoon rains have killed at least 282 people over the past five weeks, many of them women and children, the National Disaster Management Authority announced last Thursday (July 21). The deluge has also damaged critical infrastructure, like highways and bridges, and around 5,600 homes, the authority said.

Pakistan has long ranked among the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world, according to the Global Climate Risk Index, which tracks the devastating human and economic toll of extreme weather events. The country is estimated to have lost nearly 10,000 lives to climate-related disasters and suffered about US$4 billion (S$5.6 billion) in losses between 1998 and 2018.

Already, there are signs that the climate-related devastation will worsen in the coming years, experts say. The rains this year have been 87 per cent heavier than the average downpour, according to Sherry Rehman, the country's minister for climate change, who linked the new weather pattern to climate change.

She warned that the country should prepare for more flooding and damage to infrastructure as its glaciers continue to melt at an accelerated pace, causing flash floods.

"This is a national disaster," Rehman said at a news conference earlier this month.

Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, experienced a record rainfall just two years ago. This month's monsoon rains broke records yet again, according to Syed Murad Ali Shah, Sindh province's chief minister - raising alarmed questions about how the country's economic hub might survive if the trend continues.

The floods have turned main roads into rivers. Houses have been filled with sewage that spewed out of maintenance holes. Electricity has been suspended for hours or days to prevent exposed wires from coming into contact with water in the streets and electrocuting people. The devastation has brought the port city to a standstill for days on end and killed at least 31 people, many of whom were electrocuted or drowned after roofs and walls collapsed on top of them, according to the provincial disaster agency.

The devastation has also set off an outcry from residents over the lack of government preparedness to deal with urban flooding.

Even before the rains flooded Karachi, the city was already in shambles, with roads crumbling and slums expanding, and was deprived of basic government services although it provides Pakistan with about 40 per cent of its revenue. But even in the city's more affluent areas, with a relative advantage in services, the rains have wreaked havoc.

Murtaza Wahab, the Karachi administrator, said that the city has an old drainage and sewage infrastructure that could not cope with the torrential rains and acknowledged that updates were critical. But he said the city fared better this year than in 2020 because the government began clearing clogged drains ahead of time and built some new ones.

After the flooding began in Karachi this month, Wasim Akhtar, a former Karachi mayor, blamed the provincial authorities that control the city's local government.

"The people of Karachi pay billions in taxes to the government, but after every spell of rain, Karachi turns into a mess," Akhtar said at a news conference. "Where is all the money that the provincial government gets from the federal government?" But Syed Murad Ali Shah blamed the severity of the rain.

"The provincial government managed the situation in the best way it could," Shah said at a news conference on July 12.

Most analysts blame Pakistan's increasing monsoon devastation on a combination of factors. Climate change is causing heavier rains, government officials have shown incompetence and inability to coordinate, and sporadic urban planning has left major cities particularly vulnerable to damage.

Coordination among Pakistani city, provincial and national governments - which are often run by different political parties with little incentive to cooperate - is practically non-existent. In Karachi's case, rural voters tend to dominate polls in the province, meaning the city's urban woes have little political consequences for its provincial leaders.

And Karachi itself is a puzzle of overlapping administrative fiefs, where civilian and military administrations often intersect in confusing ways.

"All of these problems stem from the city being poorly governed and exploited by multiple political parties vying for control of the city's economic resources but all failing to deliver basic services to its residents," said Jumaina Siddiqui, senior programme officer for South Asia at the US Institute of Peace.

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