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Pakistan warns "monster monsoon" season worsened by "climate catastrophe" could leave a third of the country underwater

Pakistan flooding death toll rises
Pakistan flooding death toll rises 00:24

Islamabad — Authorities in Pakistan issued an emergency appeal for international humanitarian aid as the death toll from 2022's "monster monsoon" season soared over 1,000. Flooding from weeks of torrential rain has left hundreds of thousands of people homeless across the south Asian nation, which was already reeling from a deep economic crisis.

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari warned Sunday night that the flooding brought by this year's extreme monsoon rains, in addition to meltwater running down from Pakistan's glaciers, would exacerbate the country's economic woes and that financial aid would be needed.

"I haven't seen destruction of this scale. I find it very difficult to put into words," he said. "It is overwhelming."

A man pushes his child through a flooded area after heavy monsoon rains in Charsadda district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Pakistan, August 29, 2022. ABDUL MAJEED/AFP/Getty

According to Bhutto-Zardari, at least 30 million people out of Pakistan's total population of 220 million have been affected in some way by the flooding.

Lives and homes lost to the floods

At least 1,061 people have been killed amid the deluges that began with the seasonal monsoon rains in mid-June, and that toll is set to rise further as many communities in the mountainous northern regions remain cut off by flood-swollen rivers that washed away roads and bridges.

Army helicopters were struggling to pluck people cut off by raging torrents up to safety in the north, where steep hills and valleys make for treacherous flying conditions.

Many rivers in the region — which is a picturesque tourist destination when there aren't monsoon rains — have burst their banks, sweeping away scores of buildings including a 150-room hotel that crumbled into a raging torrent.

The swollen Swat River forced tens of thousands of people in the northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to flee their homes and seek shelter in relief camps set up in government buildings. But with so many displaced, provincial government spokesperson Kamran Bangash said many people were just camped out on roadsides, desperate to avoid the flooding wherever they could find higher ground.

Bangash said some 330,000 people had been evacuated from villages in the districts of Charsadda and Nowshehra alone. The devastation has also been intense in the southern provinces of Balochistan and Sindh. 

Pakistan floods death toll passes 1000
Pakistani flood victims wade through flood water after monsoon rains in Matiari, Sindh province, Pakistan, August 29, 2022. Shakeel Ahmad/Anadolu Agency/Getty

Bhutto-Zardari said at least 1 million tents were among the aid items needed most urgently, to temporarily house those left homeless by the inundations.

"Climate catastrophe" leaving Pakistan underwater

Pakistan's climate minister has warned that a third of the country could be underwater by the time this year's "monster monsoon" flooding recedes. Pakistan is hit, on average, with three or four spells of monsoon rains per season, but this year has been wicked. The country is currently in the grips of its eighth spell of relentless rainfall of the summer.

"We could well have one fourth or one-third of Pakistan underwater," Sherry Rehman, a Pakistani senator and the Federal Minister for Climate Change, said on Sunday.

Residents gather beside a road damaged by flood waters following heavy monsoon rains in Charsadda district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, August 29, 2022. ABDUL MAJEED/AFP/Getty

She said Pakistan was experiencing a "serious climate catastrophe."

"We are at the moment at the ground zero of the front line of extreme weather events, in an unrelenting cascade of heat waves, forest fires, flash floods, multiple glacial lake outbursts, flood events and now the monster monsoon of the decade is wreaking non-stop havoc throughout the country," said Rehman.

She warned that the warming climate was speeding up the rate at which glaciers in Pakistan's mountainous north are melting, exacerbating the impact of the heavy rain. Pakistan has 7,532 glaciers, more than anywhere else outside of the polar regions.

A photograph taken on May 7, 2022, shows a bridge partially collapsing due to flash floods sparked by a glacial lake outburst, in Hassanabad village, in Pakistan's northern Hunza district. AFP via Getty

Officials say Pakistan is unfairly bearing the consequences of irresponsible environmental practices elsewhere in the world. The country ranks eighth on the Germanwatch organization's global climate risk index, which lists countries deemed to be the most vulnerable to extreme weather caused by climate change.

"Pakistan has been facing increasingly devastating climate-induced drought and flooding. Despite producing less than 1% of the world's carbon footprint, the country is suffering the consequences of the world's inaction," the IRC's Country Director in Pakistan, Shabnam Baloch, said in a statement on Monday. 

But domestic problems aren't helping matters. Corruption, poor planning and the flouting of local regulations mean thousands of buildings have been erected in areas prone to seasonal flooding.

A call for help

Bhutto-Zardari said Sunday that the floods would take an even greater economic toll on Pakistan than the coronavirus pandemic, and he made it clear that help was needed as soon as possible.

Much of this year's crops have been wiped out, he noted, and in a nation where so many people rely on agriculture as a means of providing for themselves and their families, "obviously, this will have an effect on the overall economic situation."  

Announcing an urgent appeal for funding, the International Rescue Committee non-profit group said Monday that more than 30 million people were "in urgent need" due to the flooding. 

"Since mid-June, the monsoons have destroyed 3,000 kilometers of road, 130 bridges and 495,000 homes. Sindh and Balochistan provinces have seen 784% and 500% more rains than average with even more monsoon rains anticipated in the coming weeks. With more than 4 million acres of crops damaged and almost 800,000 livestock killed, the IRC is anticipating a sharp increase in food insecurity and a severe impact on the economy," the aid organization said.

Pakistani officials echoed that concern, and made it clear they would need help from anywhere they could get it.

"I would expect not only the International Monetary Fund, but the international community and international agencies to truly grasp the level of devastation," said the foreign minister, Bhutto-Zardari.

Humanitarian aid from the United Arab Emirates is offloaded at the Nur Khan Airbase, in Pakistan's Punjab province, August 29, 2022, to help victims of the flooding caused by a "monster monsoon" season. Handout/Pakistan Ministry of Information and Broadcasting

The U.S. and U.K. governments have pledged around $1 million each in emergency relief, and the first foreign aid was starting to trickle into Pakistan on Monday on flights from Turkey and the UAE.

Pakistan was already facing high inflation, a depreciating currency and a cash deficit, and Bhutto-Zardari said he hoped the flooding emergency would persuade the IMF's board this week to release $1.2 billion as part of the next installments in an already-running national bailout program from the global rescue fund.

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