Pakistan's Climate Discourse Shift: Manmade Disasters and Reparations

Discourses and narratives on climate within the context of Pakistan are undergoing two significant shifts. Firstly, and unsurprisingly, extreme weather events are being described as “manmade” disasters as opposed to “natural” disasters. Secondly, Pakistanis are not requesting aid from the Global North but “reparations”, as are others from the Global South. These interrelated shifts look back to history to determine where responsibility lies for climate change and, thus, who ought to be held accountable for funding its prevention and ameliorating its effects. Per history, the focal point in this context is contributions to global emissions and British colonialism.

Before these developments are explored, it is important to consider the facts. Throughout this year’s monsoon season, rainfall has greatly exceeded the average. It was reported on 25th July that 60% of Pakistan’s total average monsoon rainfall fell in just three weeks, causing floods, landslides and glacial lake outburst floods. Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has stated that as of 8th September, nearly 1,400 people have been killed by the floods in Pakistan, with over 660,000 people in relief camps. As of 12th September, 569,000 houses have been destroyed; there are 800,000 refugees living in districts designated as “calamity-notified”, and 3.5 million children across the nation have had their schooling interrupted. The destructive realities of climate change have thus been laid bare across Pakistan.

Remember also that monsoon rainfall is not the only extreme weather event experienced by Pakistan this year. Research co-led by Dr Mariam Zachariah found that there was a rain shortfall in March of 62% below the long-term average for the month, which, combined with an early heatwave, has “led to wheat crop failures, as well as power outages due to unprecedented energy demand for cooling, and forest fires.” Flooding coupled with hot and dry weather has exacerbated Pakistan’s existing food insecurity challenge felt most acutely by the poor and vulnerable groups within the country.

Discourse Shift: “Natural'” to “Manmade” Disasters

The great injustice is that Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of global carbon emissions, yet it bears the brunt of climate change. This brings us to the first shift, from describing such events as natural to manmade disasters. After the 2010 floods in Pakistan, then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said they represented the “worst natural disaster the United Nations has responded to in its 65-year history.” The government of Pakistan’s Flood Impact Assessment also referred to them as a “natural disaster.”

These interrelated shifts look back to history to determine where responsibility lies for climate change and, thus, who ought to be held accountable for funding its prevention and ameliorating its effects.

Climate change, which is causing the extreme weather events in Pakistan, is not naturally occurring but a consequence of unchecked human activity in the consumption and production of food and goods, deforestation, the generation and the use of power. In the case of increased rainfall, warming of the oceans causes more water to evaporate into the air, which can lead to more precipitation when that air moves over land.

The change in the description from natural to manmade within the government of Pakistan was concisely put by Senator Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Climate Change, who referred to Pakistan as “ground zero” for global warming, stating: “I wince when I hear people say these are natural disasters. This is very much the age of the anthropocene: these are manmade disasters.” Similarly, the UN news story detailing Secretary-General António Guterres’ visit to Pakistan said it was designed to raise awareness of the “climate-driven disaster” and that “climate change caused by human activity is supercharging storms and catastrophes in Pakistan…”.

Discourse Shift: Not Humanitarian Aid, But Reparations

This shift means that humans are to blame for climate change and the extreme weather events that it causes. The question is, thus, who specifically is to blame and to hold accountable for the effects of climate change in Pakistan? This brings us to the second discourse shift, that what many other countries describe as “humanitarian assistance” or “aid” in the wake of the floods is now being described as “reparations”, which history suggests are owed to Pakistan. There are two main arguments here. Firstly, those countries that are most responsible for global emissions owe reparations to countries like Pakistan, which are not big contributors but suffer the consequences of climate change more acutely. Secondly, colonialism, both the past and present, has exacerbated the effects of climate change on the Pakistani people, and so colonial reparations are owed.

A compelling example of the first argument was given by Maira Hayat to the BBC. The Assistant Professor of Environment and Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame was asked by the presenter who in Pakistan would best handle the money generated by the UN appeal: the government, NGOs or other organisations? She replied that the people of Pakistan are best placed to ask this question and that there is a “very robust discourse” on accountability within Pakistan.

Hayat suggests instead that there are “certain other questions that citizens of the Global North need to be asking of their states. So, for example, what is the responsibility of the Global North in the kind of devastation that we are seeing in, for example, Pakistan today?” Discussions around “loss and damage” are often omitted from climate negotiations between countries, that there is “resistance of the most wealthy and amongst the most culpable nations, so we are talking about the US, we are talking about the European Union.” Hayat also referred to the “corrupt dysfunctional” Global South states discourse embodied in the presenter’s question as “racist, old and colonial.”

The second argument is that it is not only the colonial mindset that remains but that the consequences of colonialism exacerbate the effects of flooding. Shozab Raza, the editor at Jamhoor, wrote in The Guardian how the “reverberations of imperialism” have left “peripheral regions such as south Punjab, Balochistan and rural Sindh… resource-starved, exploited and poverty-stricken – factors that have grossly exacerbated the flood’s disastrous effects.” A pertinent example Raza provides is how the British Raj gave local elites land and power in exchange for loyalty, who together syphoned “off rents, land revenues, and export cash cops (sic) like indigo, opium and cotton, all at the expense of previously pastoral tribesmen now forced to settle and toil as local farmers.” He thus concludes that beyond “climate reparations, what Pakistan really needs are colonial reparations.”

Global North Perspective

The three culprits identified as partially responsible for climate change in Pakistan, whether through global emissions or colonialism, are thus the UK, the US and the EU. Each of these has pledged what they term “humanitarian aid” or “humanitarian assistance” to Pakistan. The UK announced £1.5Mof relief support for the immediate aftermath of the flooding, followed by further support of £15M to provide shelter and essential supplies. This is in addition to the pledge of over £55M after COP26 in 2021 to help Pakistan tackle climate change. The US, as the “single largest humanitarian donor to Pakistan,” has announced a total of $50M in humanitarian assistance. By comparison, the EU has offered  €1.8M to Pakistan.

Indeed, it is rather twisted to class these pledges as “aid” or “humanitarian” when those countries have historically played a direct role in causing climate change. Moreover, these pledges collectively may seem like a significant amount, but they barely scratch the surface of what is needed. Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s Planning Minister, has told Reuters that the cost of the damage by the flooding is going to be “higher than $10 billion.” Even more worryingly, the UN Secretary-General said that some estimates suggest that recovery will require around $30B. Iqbal said that the unfolding tragedy in Pakistan was not of their making and that “those countries that contributed to global warming have a responsibility to help us now and be partners in rehabilitation and rebuilding.”

Both of these shifts in discourse are not only logical, but they are also just. Climate change is not something that Pakistan can ignore; unlike many nations of the Global North, it is a lived reality affecting millions of people. Pakistanis can rightfully hold their government to account over how they are spending the money designated for climate resilience or whether they are prioritising disaster preparedness and mitigation. However, the rainfall causing the flooding is not Pakistan’s doing. That blame lies at the doors of the top carbon emitters. The question is thus not if countries like the UK, the US or those of the EU owe climate and colonial reparations; the question is what will these look like, and when will that responsibility be accepted?

Mary Hunter

Mary Hunter is a Postgraduate Research Fellow at The Centre for Army Leadership and also at the London Institute of South Asia. She regularly writes articles on Pakistan and its diaspora in the UK and is currently undertaking a PhD on Islam in Pakistan.

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