A villager carrying a 'charpai', a traditional bed, wades through flood waters following monsoon rainfalls in Jaffarabad district in Balochistan province on August 24, 2022. Photo: FIDA HUSSAIN / AFP
A terrified child is stranded on top of a building amid surging floodwaters. A volunteer comes to his rescue, using a rickety bed frame strung up on ropes in a DIY glider system. He smiles and pats the child as the bed tilts dangerously over the relentless tide. But their solution works. They are pulled into safety by other volunteers. The volunteers are from Alkhidmat Foundation, the philanthropic wing of one of Pakistan’s leading Islamist political parties, Jamaat-e-Islami.
Thousands of volunteers have been on the frontlines of emergency relief and rescue operations in flash floods that have wreaked destruction across Pakistan. Volunteers from nonprofits and grassroots organisers have been stepping in to compensate for the government’s poor disaster management and relief systems. “What we have seen in Balochistan especially is that government officials are calling us and asking us for aid. It's ridiculous that the government is asking the nonprofit sector to come forward like this,” Alkhidmat Foundation’s media manager Ihtisham Khaliq Waseer told VICE World News. “Of course we are there to collaborate with them, but the government should be the first mover and shaker when it comes to disaster relief and support.” With its annual monsoon rainfall, Pakistan has been catapulted into a climate catastrophe unprecedented in its history. A third of the country of 220 million is underwater from floods brought on by record rainfall and melting glaciers in the country’s north. The floods have killed 1,162 people, including 300 children, and 33 million people are badly affected. Experts say the scale of the recent floodings has even surpassed the riverine superfloods of 2010 in which almost 2,000 people were killed.
Pakistan is only responsible for less than 1 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. The country’s climate minister Sherry Rehman has urged wealthy industrialised nations to scale up their climate efforts. “We hardly contribute any emissions to the broader emission blanket that makes for greenhouse gases to turn our climate into a living hell,” Rehman told Sky News.
Local critics however say that climate change is only one part of the problem. Although it is responsible for the intensity of the floods, critics say Pakistan's weak disaster management and relief agencies shoulder the blame for the scale of devastation. “There’s a big vacuum that the state institutions and disaster management have left behind where the volunteers have stepped in,” Sikander Bizenjo, flood relief volunteer and co-founder of Balochistan Youth Action Committee, told VICE World News. “One of [the reasons] is that the system that the government has in place is not as agile as it should be.” “Volunteers are able to start working in minutes. There isn’t red tape. But ultimately government institutions should focus on climate adaptation rather than just mitigation, because we have to live with climate change. There's no denying it.”
A major problem, experts say, is that the current disaster management strategy is reactive rather than preemptive. “Whenever the disaster is just knocking at our door and we are still sleeping in our beds, that is when we get up and face the disaster,” Dr. Zia Hashmi, head of water resources and glaciology at the Global Change Impact Studies Centre, told VICE World News. “Science is not taken very seriously in this country. We have been talking about [the need for climate adaptation] for ages. We have been publishing research and have been sharing reports and policy briefs to the government for years,” said Hashmi. “But we are not heard vigorously until something happens, and then we are cursed for ‘not providing information.’”
This is compounded by corruption, inadequate resources, lack of early warning systems, absence of research implementation and coordination between disaster prevention, land and irrigation agencies, experts say. And in the void left by civilian government authorities, disaster rescue and relief work is largely taken over by the country’s most powerful institution – the military. The army has set up around 117 relief camps across the country and deployed 7,522 troops to assist flood victims. “Whenever there is a disaster, the military steps in as it is more organised, more equipped and more trained. So we always need them for rescue, relief and rehabilitation activities,” said Hashmi. However, experts don’t encourage military-led disaster relief as a long-term solution. “If the army is preoccupied with threats within the country such as disasters, that may turn into a compromise of our external security. We should be able to do this without their help,” said Hashmi. Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.