Opinion | Pakistan drowns while world offers little more than condolences


AP Photo/K.M. Chaudary

Laborers carry produce as they wade through a flooded road after heavy rainfall in Lahore, Pakistan, in July.

By Grant Van Robays, For The Pitt News

Since June, torrential monsoons 10 times heavier than usual have submerged one-third of Pakistan underwater, leaving the country with the fifth-largest population in the world struggling to stay afloat. The international community’s rather tepid response to this crisis is disheartening, though unsurprising. In response, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres pronounced that the world is “sleepwalking” through the planet’s climate crisis, and Pakistan is only one victim of our irresponsibility. 

It’s time for the U.S. and the international community to wake up. The U.S. government must consider opening its pocketbooks more to mitigate climate-induced damage and take seriously the long term threats these disasters pose to nations near and far. 

In Pakistan, the displaced, injured and those with destroyed homes and businesses number at least 33 million, including nearly 1,500 deaths. These figures will assuredly increase given the severe devastation of infrastructure, houses, hospitals, livestock and millions of acres of farmlands. Despite being responsible for under 1% of global emissions, Pakistan finds itself on the receiving end of a massive climate change-induced gut punch that it will struggle to come back from without significant help from the international community, especially the U.S.

The U.S. government hasn’t been entirely frugal with humanitarian aid in Pakistan. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided $50.1 million to Pakistan to cover emergency relief supplies, sanitation, hygiene and shelter assistance. This support supplements aid already flowing to Pakistan from countries like Uzbekistan, UAE and Qatar

These humanitarian actions by the U.S. and others are — while immensely needed — simply not enough to meet the needs of Pakistan. For starters, the estimated flood damage totals an estimated $10 billion — which merely accounts for the short-term costs of recovery. In the long term, Pakistan and many other vulnerable, less wealthy countries will face continued climate change-related threats such as extreme weather, droughts and floods. 

This bleak outlook begs the question — where do we go from here? 

First, the U.S. must up its humanitarian presence in Pakistan, engage with local and international recovery efforts and help provide the necessary stopgap in the ongoing trauma. Beyond this short-term aid, the U.S. must continue to engage with international climate change bodies and forge climate-friendly policies and programs to curb the impact of future climate disasters, as well as explore climate change adaptation measures for domestic and international use. 

The U.S. is not the global aid distributor for any and all problems, though it has worked to paint itself as the “shining city on a hill” that can do no wrong. The U.S. should, however, recognize that it bears a degree of responsibility for climate change-induced ills globally, as it is responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

The $50 million already sent to Pakistan is a good start, though the U.S. could marginally increase that dollar figure given that it has doled out over $13 billion to Ukraine for its war efforts against Russia. Aid is not an either-or proposition. The U.S. can help Pakistan and Ukraine at the same time. Granted, the U.S. is often more inclined to assist countries with lighter complexions or perhaps more political advantage, such as the case in Ukraine. 

In providing massive amounts of military and humanitarian support to Ukraine, the U.S. solidifies its stance against Russian aggression and signals its willingness to defend the Western, liberal international order. Sending aid to Pakistan lacks this political signaling value, as it suffers not from an illiberal shock to the global order, but from the politically divisive issue of climate change. Nevertheless, the moral imperative for helping Pakistan remains.

To those amongst us of the fiscally conservative nature, fear not. American aid to Pakistan can come in more affordable ways. The U.S. can use its soft power and global importance on high-level bodies, such as the UN, to stir up more assistance to Pakistan. The aid does not have to come entirely from U.S. coffers. The U.S. does not have to send purely monetary aid, either. 

What is needed is an immediate and consistent engagement with Pakistan about how to help. The U.S. must tread carefully, as humanitarian aid, well-intentioned or otherwise, is a slippery slope. A heavy U.S. presence in Pakistan and other former colonized countries can bring back memories of imperialism that muddle the aid process — which is why the U.S. must engage in a partnership with Pakistani locals, leaders and international programs to understand what Pakistan needs after the massive floods. 

Perhaps most importantly, let’s consider the costs of inaction or inadequate action in Pakistan. The U.S. is Pakistan’s largest exporting partner, meaning the costs of Pakistan not getting back on its feet will certainly disrupt American markets. If the U.S. is as much an economic and political partner as it claims, it better act like it. 

If the U.S. pays too little attention to the needs of Pakistan, the U.S.’ reputation on the global stage will take a severe blow. 

To the point of the long-term climate change action and adaptation measures, the costs of inaction outweigh the monetary and political costs of legitimate action. The flood in Pakistan may cost as much as $10 billion, but what about future ones? What about the droughts, floods or hurricanes that will impact the next country, the next U.S. ally or the next U.S. state? What about the costs of inaction when it is American citizens that suffer the consequences of the unchecked degradation of the climate? 

The U.S. has laid the infrastructure for significant, much-needed climate change mitigation policy in the Inflation Reduction Act, but more consistent emission-reducing action is needed by the U.S. and other industrialized countries. Climate action cannot hinge on the whims of Congress or whichever party holds the Oval Office. The international community needs to take persistent and preventive action focused on resilience to the climate disasters that have shifted from unprecedented to expected. 

The flood in Pakistan is, like the many previous climate change-induced disasters, the canary in the coal mine. Extreme climate events are now the norm, not the exception. The U.S. must commit to help Pakistan to rebuild and recover, just as it should commit to meaningful, sustained climate change dialogue on the world stage. Today it is Pakistan, tomorrow it may be somewhere closer to home. What we commit to in the present changes that, but only if we act quickly and compassionately. 

Grant Van Robays writes primarily about international affairs, social issues and basic human rights. Write to him at [email protected]