MIRPURKHAS, Pakistan — Ghansham Das is surrounded by 170,000 acres of farms that are dying. Giant mosquitoes swarm over swamps that used to be fields. A third of the families in his district are homeless next to their submerged homes. The luckiest are in tents. The most desperate are under makeshift shelters made of branches and cloth.
“People have lost so much. My uncle’s family is living with us, they lost their home,” Das told VICE World News. “Between inflation, COVID setting back the economy, and now these floods, survival has become hard.”
Das is one of the 33 million Pakistanis affected by catastrophic floods that have ravaged Pakistan, submerging one-third of the country. The climate-induced super floods have killed more than 1480 people, a third of whom are children.
Holding his three-year-old daughter in his arms, Das points to the 4-feet-high flood water stains on the walls of his basic two-room cement home. The 29-year-old father is a well-known TikToker with 90,000 followers in this ancient farming district in southern Pakistan known for its export-quality cotton, world-famous Sindhri mangoes, and sweet bananas.
A farm owner ran a motorised-pump for 13 days to pull water out of his land, and in the process, water slowly evaporated from Das’ home too. But it now has cracks in it, and is unsafe to live in. He’s moved his pregnant wife and two children back into the mud house he grew up in. He’s fortunate he has that option. All around him, homes, roads, bridges, hospitals and schools are destroyed.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, on his visit to Pakistan this week, said he had “never seen climate carnage” on such a scale. Blaming wealthy industrialised nations for contributing to the devastation, he said their lack of attention to climate change was “insanity” and “collective suicide” for the world. “Wealthier countries are morally responsible for helping developing countries like Pakistan,” he said. The country’s climate change minister Sherry Rehman agrees. “We all know that the pledges made in multilateral forums have not been fulfilled,” she told the Guardian. “Obviously the bargain made between the global north and global south is not working.” An IMF report in 2020 found that globally fossil fuel subsidies were $5.9 trillion and are rising every year.
“We will clearly be amplifying our position at COP front and centre for ‘loss and damages’,” Rehman told VICE World News. The United Nations Climate Change conference, commonly referred to as COP, will take place for the 27th time this year in Egypt in November. Rich polluting countries have been stalling conversations on “loss and damages” at the conference for years.
Pakistan, a country of 220 million, contributes less than 1 percent to global carbon emissions but has found itself at the front line of climate change this summer with heatwaves, wildfires, and now devastating super floods in the Indus River, unleashed by melting glaciers in its North and unprecedented monsoon rains in the South.
The impact of the devastation is magnified because the Pakistani economy is largely dependent on its farms. Millions of vulnerable farm workers and their families live close to the overwhelmed Indus River and its irrigation tributaries. Pakistan has one of the largest irrigation systems in the world and it is fed by the greatest concentration of glaciers outside the arctic. The country has more than 7,200 glaciers and they are melting and flooding the country as global temperatures continue to rise.
Like Das, many of this climate-induced disaster’s victims along the Indus have a tiny carbon footprint. They lead simple lives, probably not very different from their ancestors who lived here more than a thousand years ago. Around the 6th century ruins of a terracotta Buddhist stupa in Mirpurkhas, the homes are basic, often powered by a single solar panel. Das comes from a family of farmers but he got an education and is a government-employed vaccinator. He tells us it’ll take him a few years before he can afford to fix his home - he earns $240 a month - twice the minimum wage here, but he barely makes ends meet.
Gutterres is trying to raise support for $30 billion to help Pakistan recover and rebuild. But climate experts say wealthy polluting countries should be paying climate reparations.
“The unfolding tragedy in Pakistan is the latest in a long line of forceful reminders that the effects of ecological breakdown are felt first and most violently by those who have contributed the least to it,” Kai Heron, a lecturer at Birkbeck College in London, told VICE World News. “Countries in the imperial core, including Pakistan’s former colonizer, the UK, owe climate reparations to Pakistan to ease its recovery from the disaster and to assist its transition to a post-carbon economy.”
Everywhere in Mirpurkhas, cotton fields are drowning. If the top half of the plant is visible, cotton pickers wade through the water, swatting away mosquitos, trying to salvage any precious cotton balls that haven't rotted.
“Our house drowned. All our cotton drowned,” Raati, a cotton picker and mother, told VICE World News as she waited outside a government relief camp with donated Chinese tents and solar panels. She only has one name on her ID card, like many in her community. It was one of the nicer camps in the area and Raati was one of dozens queuing for accommodation. A group of Hindu mothers with her, also waiting, held up their Pakistani ID cards. The inhabitants of this camp were mostly Muslim families. Pakistan’s cotton pickers are mostly underpaid women, often from marginalised ethnicities and religious groups.
Cotton is the backbone of Pakistan’s economy. It put the country on the global map as the second-cheapest supplier of premium denim, towels, bedsheets and T-shirts, making it a favourite with brands such as H&M, Levi’s and Target. Last year, cotton exports brought in a whopping $3.4 billion. Pakistan’s indigenous organic cotton was a big player in the growth of the global market last year. But the floods have swept away half the country’s cotton farms. Analysts warn that Pakistan’s exports are going to take a hit, trickling down to the very farm workers who’ve lost everything.
“After one rescue, we’re in the middle of another rescue, before rehabilitation,” Major Agha Shayan told VICE World News. He is leading the Pakistan military’s relief efforts in three districts in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, including Mirpurkhas. The area his small team is trying to cover is vast. Mirpurkhas alone is twice the size of Houston and has a population of 1.5 million people.
The major said most displaced families in his region were Hindu, and he was prioritising giving them tents and nets because as a marginalised group they were falling through the cracks of other relief organisations. He showed pictures of camps he had set up that were accommodating 100 Hindu families. “We have lifted the dead bodies of 4-year-old children. My daughter is 4 years old. Whether a kid is Hindu, Christian, or Muslim - I see my daughter in them,” he said.
Mirpurkhas is 50 miles from the Indus River, but the canals British colonialists built here more than a century ago are flooding towns and villages. Families have moved out of their drowned homes onto the closest dry patch. Often they are surrounded by stagnant water, which brings the looming threat of dengue and malaria, both are rising across Pakistan.
“There have been seven deaths of kids in my districts because of malaria,” the major said. “I’m hoping that in my districts there are no kids who sleep without a mosquito net.”
But the scale of need is huge and children sleep without mosquito nets. In Mirpurkhas alone, more than 500,000 people are displaced. In Ramnagar, a village of 80 families in the district, everyone has moved out of their inundated homes onto the closest main road.
Cars speed by on their dry patch and slow down ahead as even the road is inundated.
“The drivers pass by quickly, not even thinking that our children and animals are afraid, we are sitting on the road because we have no choice,” Kaishu Bai, a mother and farm worker, told VICE World News. She’s trying to keep her children safe and occupied in their self-made tents of cotton scarves and traditional quilts called ralli. Her emaciated cow is tied close to the very filthy water her home is submerged in. More than 750,000 livestock have been killed in the floods so far.
A few tents down from hers, a woman has turned her tent into a shop. She’s selling the packaged chips, cookies, and candy she managed to salvage from her store before it drowned. There are few buyers – many here haven’t earned anything for weeks.
But the people of this village are taking care of each other. Nagji, a 40-year-old farm worker, is making a mass meal of vegetable biryani for everyone. He is stirring a massive metal pot over a fire made from branches. It’s filled with water, potatoes, tomatoes, fried onions and masala. Rice soaks in clean water that a villager retrieved from a submerged water pump after wading through filthy flood water.
“We salute the citizens from neighbouring cities who dropped off some rice, especially since the government hasn’t given us anything,” he said. He pauses from stirring and says it would’ve been nice if someone dropped meat off and then shows his ID card with only his first name and picture. “I used to be 20 kilograms heavier, but everything has gotten so expensive, look at me now.”
Across the street Lata and her mother are wading through water after retrieving a bowl of homemade ghee from their home. “It’s for the biryani,” the 17-year-old, who only goes by her first name, said. Lata’s high school is submerged too and closed. She hopes it reopens soon because she is serious about her studies and wants to be a gynaecologist.
A couple of miles away from Ramnagar, hundreds of students are studying at a submerged school. “The soil in our ground doesn’t absorb water, so all the flood water is stuck here surrounding our school buildings,” Sabeen Kashif, principal of the non-profit The Citizen Foundation (TCF) school in Mirpurkhas, told VICE World News. There are more than 600 students in her school and with two buildings inaccessible for two weeks, they finally reopened and moved all the children to the primary school and are managing classes in shifts.
“We are trying to adjust here. It’s hard studying on the floor,” Malaika, a 7th grade student who only wanted to share her first name, told VICE World News. “The government should drain the water in our school and make sure something like this never happens again so our education isn’t impacted.” Her home is partially submerged in flood water too.
There are more than 1,600 TCF schools educating over 275,000 students in low-income communities in Pakistan, and close to 70 percent of them are in areas impacted by the floods. One of the reasons they restarted classes was to bring normalcy back to their students’ lives and help them recover. The school is raising emergency funds to provide 5 million meals and rebuild 9,000 homes of their families impacted by the floods.
But it’s hard making meals in Mirpurkhas. The UN says 80 percent of the crop in this province is destroyed. The once vibrant and cheap produce markets in Mirpurkhas offer a glimpse into the looming food crisis that will hit Pakistan. Stall after stall, people desperately picked through rotting tomatoes, onions, and bananas trying to find a vegetable or fruit worth buying and eating.
After returning from Pakistan, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that Pakistan’s crisis “demonstrates the sheer inadequacy of the global response to the climate crisis.”
“Climate impact is heading into uncharted territories of destruction,” he said. “Yet, each year we double-down on our fossil fuel addiction. I urge leaders to turn pledges into climate action.”
The first UN Climate Change Conference was held in 1995 in Berlin. Back then, Todd Stern, a lead U.S. negotiator to the climate talks said, “We absolutely recognize our historic role in putting emissions in the atmosphere, up there, but the sense of guilt or culpability or reparations, I just categorically reject that.”
A lot has changed since that meeting. Global temperatures have risen six-tenths of a degree. Sea levels have risen 3 inches. Greenland and Antarctica have lost 4.9 trillion tons of ice and – extreme weather in the U.S. has increased by 30 percent. And now 33 million people in Pakistan are impacted by devastating floods.
Twelve years ago, at a UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, rich nations promised to channel $100 billion a year to less wealthy nations by 2020, to help them “adapt to climate change and mitigate further rises” in temperature. That promise was never fulfilled. Meanwhile, climate negotiations on “loss and damages” suffered by climate vulnerable countries have never reached any conclusive agreement.
Pakistan’s researchers and experts hope people from rich carbon-emitting countries will recognize their role in creating a warming planet with Pakistanis at its frontline. “The global north doesn’t even fulfil its promised annual $100 billion adaptation finance goal. And much of the adaptation finance comes as loans not even grants. So it’s important to have a sense of all this resistance to understand why ‘loss and damage’ demands are not moving ahead faster,” Maira Hayat, an anthropology professor at University of Notre Dame whose research focuses on global climate change politics, told VICE World News. “Pakistan must use the upcoming COP conference in Egypt to join forces with countries that have been calling for climate reparation for years. This is not only for Pakistan’s sake but can help the cause of the many other countries that are suffering the worst impacts of climate change.”
Ammar Ali Jan, academic and founder of the progessive Haqooq-e-Khalq Party, believes the time has come for the global north to pay reparations to the global South. “We demand that countries in the global north take ownership of the ecological crisis they have caused,” he wrote in a statement. “Consequently, they must unconditionally end all of Pakistan’s debt obligations, invest in climate-resilient infrastructure in Pakistan and hold their own fossil fuel companies, global agribusinesses and all their industries exacerbating climate change accountable for their crimes against humanity.”
Back in Mirpurkhas, Das, the TikToker, said he and his colleagues had been wading through chest-deep water to vaccinate children. Asked why he hadn’t been posting much about the floods on his account, he said his “heart is broken.”
“I loved showing the beauty of Mirpurkhas and its people,” he said. “Everywhere I go to vaccinate kids, things are really bad. I want to raise awareness about the floods, but my heart hurts so much.”
Guddu Emmanuel contributed reporting in Mirpurkhas.