A challenging year lies ahead for Pakistan as it negotiates the aftermath of the unprecedented floods, economic turmoil, the desire among the youth to leave and the ongoing struggle against terrorism. The reader should not conclude that because this article only tackles challenges, the author has not noted recent positives and opportunities for Pakistan. To the contrary, 2022 saw Pakistan lead the international community in matters of climate justice, helping to secure the historic “loss and damage” deal. Depending on how much progress is made by COP28 this year, this could mark a fundamental shift in climate negotiations that works to support further countries vulnerable to climate change, like Pakistan itself.
Pakistan is also stepping out of a “global year” for popular culture and the arts, which will motivate the creation of further artistic outlets and help to bridge Pakistan’s film and music industries with others around the world. Academic events like ThinkFest held in Lahore and the Pakistan Conference hosted by Harvard University last year, marking 75 years of independence, testified to a burgeoning intellectual culture, an interest among the youth in tackling contemporary challenges and a strong international interest in Pakistan Studies. Pakistan will have to balance these positives and opportunities with very challenging circumstances, not all of the origins of which were avoidable.
Pakistan will have to balance these positives and opportunities with very challenging circumstances, not all of the origins of which were avoidable.
The Aftermath of the Floods
It has been well-documented that the floods in Pakistan last year, caused by increased monsoon rainfall, have affected over 33 million people. The ongoing consequences of much of Pakistan going underwater have made dire conditions a daily reality for many, especially children. UNICEF, whose health interventions have reached nearly 1.5 million people to date, has warned that up to 4 million children are still living near contaminated and stagnant flood waters: “Frail and hungry children are fighting a losing battle against severe acute malnutrition, diarrhoea, malaria, dengue fever, typhoid, acute respiratory infections, and painful skin conditions. (sic)”
Besides health concerns, UNICEF has found that “2 million additional children have been locked out of learning,” on top of the estimated 22.8 million children aged 5-16 not in school after the destruction of nearly 27,000 schools. Thus, the floods have exacerbated poor health and educational outcomes for the next generation of Pakistanis, who will also have to contend with more serious and frequent extreme weather events unless the world gets serious about reducing global temperatures. Given Pakistan’s acute vulnerability to climate change, it will have to increasingly treat the phenomenon as a non-traditional threat and prepare accordingly in its national security estimations.
While the human impact of floods must be the most central concern for Pakistan and the international community, the economic impact is unprecedented. The World Bank has estimated that total damages exceed 14.9 billion USD and total economic losses amount to around 15.2 billion USD, while rehabilitation and reconstruction will cost close to 16.3 billion USD. The organisation also projected that Pakistan lost around 2.2 per cent of Fiscal Year 2022 GDP as a direct result of the floods.
To make matters worse, there are concerns that Pakistan may default on its loans to the IMF. Miftah Ismail, the former finance minister, has warned that Pakistan’s expenses are much higher than its income and that the country could default if it fails to approach the IMF. The IMF defines defaulting in simple terms as a “broken promise, or a breach of contract,” such as through missed payments or data misreporting. The consequences of Pakistan defaulting on its loans include an inability to import fuels to generate electricity, resulting in blackouts, as well as increased unemployment. Pakistanis already have to cope with inflated food prices and competition for subsidised products.
The Desire Among the Youth to Leave
Pakistanis rightly emphasise how the country’s youthful population is a great source of potential, but the young are among the most likely to express a desire to leave Pakistan. This desire, as reflected in a survey published in November 2022 by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, has translated into reality for a considerable number. Official documens allegedly show that 765,000 people left Pakistan in 2022, nearly triple the number in 2021. Given that 92,000 of these people were classed as highly educated, this flurry of departures has been presented as a continuation of the country’s “brain drain”. The government of Pakistan thus faces the challenge of incentivising its talented youth to remain in Pakistan and encourage those who have left to return. Based on anecdotal evidence, some Pakistanis who have left the country for higher education feel that there are not the same opportunities at home, leaving their only options to be jobs for which they are overqualified.
Ongoing Struggle Against Terrorism
Three police officers sadly lost their lives in the first terror attack in Pakistan of 2023, when heavily armed terrorists attacked a police station in Peshawar on the 14 January. This comes after the conclusion of an indefinite ceasefire between the government of Pakistan and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on the 23rd of November, that was agreed upon in June. Following an absence of attacks in the capital of Islamabad for eight years, the first suicide bombing occurred at the end of December inside a taxi, leaving the driver, bomber and a police officer dead.
Outside of the capital, the inhabitants of Swat demonstrated in October against increased killings in one of the largest protests the valley has seen to voice not only the rejection of political violence but also to demand protection as a constitutional right. While the progress and sacrifices made by the Pakistani military and police forces in addressing terrorism should be noted, attacks will continue until more successful peace talks are held with the TTP. This is by no means a simple task, given the mutually opposing demands of the TTP and the government of Pakistan, especially in terms of the TTP’s rejection of the constitution of Pakistan as un-Islamic.
Dealing with any of these challenges in isolation would be difficult, but their simultaneous existence will require the government of Pakistan to rehabilitate and reconstruct those communities devastated by the floods while also seeking long-term security, economic, and educational solutions that also give hope and opportunities to the youth of Pakistan. The more the youth become central to policy-making, both as stakeholders and as visionaries, the more sustainable and forward-looking Pakistan will become.