Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has warned of a ‘tremendous challenge’ ahead following catastrophic floods in the country which have coincided with an acute financial crisis and an escalating political dispute between the government and former leader Imran Khan.
The disaster during a monsoon season that followed a spring of scorching temperatures has made Pakistan a case study among countries vulnerable to climate change that are also battling interrelated humanitarian, economic and political crises.
After floodwaters washed away settlements, pooled in low-lying areas and caused the nation’s largest lake to overflow on Wednesday, officials said around 1,400 people were killed and 40 minutes, or about a fifth of the population, had been displaced. A third of the country is under water and more than half of its 160 districts have been declared “disasters”.
Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s climate change minister, described the disaster as “the climate disaster of the decade” and “a super-flood to beat”.
The government estimates at least $10 billion in destruction was caused, with analysts saying the damage appeared to be worse than in 2010, when floods in almost a fifth of Pakistan killed nearly 2,000 people.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres is due to visit some of the worst-hit areas on Friday, in a visit Pakistani leaders hope to use to persuade foreign donors to provide emergency funds.
“This natural disaster, this calamity, should elicit an international response – which it has not so far elicited,” said Shahnaz Wazir Ali, former MP and Minister of Social Welfare. “If there is no reasonably substantial rescue program then it will be a complete disaster,” she added. “There could be food riots, instability.”
Prices are already skyrocketing for food and other necessities. “Onions and tomatoes are two or four times more expensive than a month ago, and we haven’t had fruit for months,” said Dilawar Khan, a father of seven who lives with his wife. and her parents in a poor area of Islamabad. “We even have to keep the tea now.”
The disaster comes a year when supply chain disruptions and inflation caused by Covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had already plunged Islamabad into a liquidity crunch that raised the specter of a a payment default. This was averted last month when Pakistan secured $1.1 billion in IMF financing, as well as loan and investment pledges from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and others.
Analysts have warned that unless Pakistan’s ruling elite and international donors respond urgently, the crisis could fuel political unrest and militancy in a country that has long struggled to contain both.
“As the calamity hits parts of the countryside, you will see greater rural-urban migration,” said Sakib Sherani of Macro Economic Insights, a research firm in Islamabad. “Increased food insecurity will contribute to increasing desperation.”
Pakistani officials have described their country as a victim of climate change fueled mainly by carbon emissions from the rich world, but others say the country’s leaders have also done too little to bolster defenses.
Islamabad-based political analyst and consultant Shehryar Fazli said Pakistan had “not spent the time to learn from the experience” of the 2010 floods, nor done enough to improve infrastructure and institutional preparedness, or to mitigate environmental risks such as soil resilience that now disproportionately hit Pakistan’s poor.
“While these horrors are upon us, politicians still seem to be outbidding themselves over who is more loyal to the military,” he said. “Imran Khan is organizing rallies that have nothing to do with the humanitarian crisis that threatens the population, and everything to do with the struggle for power.”
Khan, who was ousted from power in April, pushed for a snap election after his party won a series of local polls on a wave of populist anger.
As part of the IMF deal, Pakistan reluctantly agreed to unpopular measures such as increasing electricity and gas tariffs and nearly doubling the price of gasoline. The deal helped the country avoid default, but officials and analysts say the targets it has set are at risk of being missed and they are revising their forecasts.
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“Taking 2010-2011 as a model, growth over the next few years could be a few percentage points lower, given the damage to infrastructure, agricultural production and public services,” said Krisjanis Krustins, director of the Fitch Ratings sovereign rating team. “The fiscal deficit is expected to be a few percentage points wider given the impact on government revenue and increased spending needs.”
The Pakistani government has cut its projected annual growth rate for 2023 to 2.3%, less than half of the previous target.
“Either Pakistan will have to renegotiate the targets or the IMF will have to grant waivers on certain performance criteria,” said Muhammad Suhail, director of Topline Securities, a Karachi-based investment group. “In their current form, the IMF’s objectives will be difficult to achieve.”