The rain started the same day I arrived in Pakistan this summer. My relatives, happy to see me and my family, exclaimed that we had brought “showers of blessings” with us. It did almost seem that way — the rain traveled with us as we visited relatives in different cities.
Everyone noted that the summer heat had become slightly more bearable with the rains. My cousin expressed relief that her medical school entrance exams had been delayed due to the weather conditions, and my uncle joked that his car had finally gotten a good wash.
However, when days of rain turned into weeks, the reality of things became clear. We found ourselves driving through streets that had turned into rivers, blindly attempting to avoid potholes. Another time, we were having dinner at my great uncle’s home when a sudden downpour of rain caused water to come rushing into his house through the courtyard.
We used pots and floor wipers to try to push the water out for as long as we could and then focused on elevating his furniture using bricks. My family and I returned to the United States after just three weeks, but the situation in Pakistan only worsened, resulting in devastation that will remain for generations.
How did it start?
The short answer is climate change. Pakistan experienced prolonged heat waves this past spring, with records set for the highest temperatures recorded worldwide in March. The extreme temperatures led to excess glacial melts in the northern mountainous regions of Pakistan, resulting in increased amounts of water flowing into other water bodies like the Indus River that runs through the entire country from north to south. The heat also melted dams of ice holding back glacial lakes, causing sudden rushes of water that destroyed riverbank settlements.
Along with the heat waves, a large-scale depression system in the Arabian Sea caused heavy rains to reach the coastal regions of Pakistan in June. Its monsoon season also began earlier than usual, mainly affecting its central and southern areas.
The overflow of water in rivers from the melting of glacial lakes had a very sudden impact with tremendous amounts of destruction. Buildings along riverbanks collapsed immediately from the force of rushing water, and crops were washed away. With no time to prepare, many people lost their lives during the floods.
The impact of the heavier and prolonged rain of this monsoon season was different. Unlike what occurred with the sudden flooding, the effects of the monsoon rains were slow, but long-lasting. As water began to accumulate in areas, it flooded crops, destroyed homes, and disconnected people from surrounding areas. Basic necessities and utilities — sewerage, electricity, transportation — were cut off for people living in these areas. Whereas water levels around flooded riverbanks generally receded after several days, making it possible for help to arrive from neighboring areas, those affected by the excessive rains found themselves completely isolated and unable to move forward.
Water accumulates in areas where normal drainage is not possible. As a result, water from floods and rains can remain in these areas for long periods of time — even months on end, depending on the amount of water. Those living in these regions had to evacuate their homes with very limited supplies to move to the few areas of higher ground.
Individuals in such situations have found themselves without access to the most basic resources for months on end. There is no access to electricity, phones, or any method of communication. With no wood or coal to turn on a stove, they have no way to cook the small amount of food they were able to bring with them during the displacement.
They also have no way to obtain clean water and are forced to drink the contaminated, stagnant water surrounding them. This, in turn, has resulted in the spread of many water-borne illnesses, worsened by the fact that these individuals have no way to receive medical treatment.
Many people affected by the floods and rains in Pakistan are farmers, living from crop to crop. Their livelihood and only source of income has now been submerged in water, and whatever could have been harvested has been washed away. Those in this situation normally plant, harvest, and sell their crops, using the profits to buy for the next season of crops. Now, their current crop — which had been almost ready for harvest — is destroyed, and all of their savings have been lost. Even after the heaviest rains have stopped, lands remain underwater, and the next season of crops will not be planted in time.
This has a tremendous impact on the people whose crops were destroyed, but also on Pakistan — a country that relies on agriculture economically — as a whole.
There are many ongoing relief efforts in Pakistan. Medical supplies, food items, and other necessities are being distributed. However, the small organizations running these operations can only reach people with ground transportation. Transportation like helicopters and boats is needed to reach those who are stranded and is only available through military or government organizations.
It is important to note that there are cities in Pakistan that have not been as severely impacted by the flooding and heavy rains, and the country does not currently face an urgent shortage of food or clothing items. For this reason, it is important for those looking to help to focus on supporting organizations on the ground with the delivery of supplies to those affected.
With at least a third of the country underwater, Pakistan’s government estimates that losses following this disaster are estimated to amount to $30 billion dollars. At the time of this publication, over 33 million people have been displaced and 1,700 have been killed according to The New York Times. The waters washed away entire villages; hundreds of thousands of schools, water systems, and medical centers also sustained damage. 1.2 million homes, thousands of kilometers of roads, and hundreds of bridges have been destroyed. A portion of the province of Sindh has become a lake tens of kilometers wide and growing.
My grandfather tells me that his farm in southern Punjab — a province located in the cotton belt of Pakistan — once flooded in 1973. He and my grandmother were forced to evacuate to the desert hills nearby. They lived there for over a year before the waters receded, finally allowing them to return and begin the years-long process of rebuilding and replanting.
The current situation in Pakistan is not one that will resolve suddenly once the waters have receded. What will happen with the next climate disaster? According to data from the European Union, Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of global emissions, but is one of the top ten nations most vulnerable to climate change and is now quite literally drowning. The destruction caused by this catastrophe will end eventually, but the price that the people of Pakistan will pay will impact generations to come.
Visit the following links to learn more about flood emergency appeals and support humanitarian teams on the Pakistan grounds: