National and International Issues

Pakistan 2022 Floods, Climate Justice and International Law

With CoP-27 being held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in November, the echoes of climate justice increase. Simultaneously, devastating floods in Pakistan was a high price to pay for the climate change caused by the developed nations.

Nature is a man’s best friend, but the worst foe. Human progress and development have been a fairy tale of human beings gradually gaining control over nature. Though, for most of the time, human beings are better able to keep their dominance, yet there are some instances when nature fights back and reacts. These reactions are at times fearsome and ruthless. The more human beings interfere in the natural processes, the more they become prone to nature’s retaliation. Massive industrialisation during the past two centuries is the main cause behind human ingress over nature, which is a result of exploitation of fossil fuels to provide cheap energy to the world’s gigantic industrial set-ups. A side effect of this development was the gradual and mass accumulation of Green House Gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. 
As a law of nature, every time an organic material is burnt, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is produced as waste. CO2 along with some other gases, e.g., water vapours (H2O), Carbon monoxide (CO), Methane (CH3), Ozone (O3), Nitrous oxide (N2O) and Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) have the natural tendency to trap sun’s radiations, absorb heat and thus produce a warming effect. The massive accumulation of GHGs in the atmosphere over the last two centuries has resulted in increasing the average temperature of the planet earth (Figure 1). According to a report published in 2021 by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)1, earth’s temperature has risen by 0.08° Celsius (C) per decade since 1880, but the rate of warming since 1981 is more than twice, i.e., 0.18°C per decade. 2021 was the sixth-warmest year on record based on NOAA’s temperature data. Averaged across land and ocean, the 2021 surface temperature was 0.84°C warmer than the twentieth-century average of 13.9°C, 1.04˚C warmer than the pre-industrial period (1880-1900). The nine years from 2013 through 2021 rank among the 10 warmest years on record. This warming of the planet is shaking the very basis of human civilisation due to the severe climatic anomalies. Due to this, extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity. It is also causing more frequent, intense, and prolonged episodes of natural disasters. Additionally, human beings have also interfered with the natural ecology in order to meet their evergrowing needs. As the only species with the proclivity to interfere with nature and encroach, human beings have adversely degraded the environment. Deforestation, selective production of species of flora and fauna, accumulation of solid and liquid waste, change of land use patterns, and overpopulation have added another dimension to human-nature competition. Whenever nature fights back, human beings suffer the consequences. 
Floods, droughts, forest fires, sea-level rise, heat and cold waves, glaciers retreat and shifting precipitation patterns are the result of global climate change induced by anthropogenic activity.  Ibn-e-Khaldun (1332-1406 AD), an Arab sociologist and historian, described the grave link between human civilisations and their environment.  With the changing climate, floods and droughts will be frequently occurring disasters that will take place in recurring cycles. It is worth noting that not all the nations and regions have equally participated in the destruction of the environment. States in the global north have a disproportionally higher share in historic carbon emissions. Ironically, the real victims of climate change are not the global north, but those in global south. These are the states with meagre contribution to GHGs emission, lacking industrial base, having weak economies and state institutions. It all makes these states the most exposed and vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. In successive reports, German Watch has shown this sorrow fact (Figure 2)
Pakistan has been amongst the least emitters of GHGs with its share less than 1% (Figure 3 & 4). However, the country is among the most vulnerable states of climate change. Due to its geographical location, diverse terrain, topography and multiple weather zones, the country faces a full-spectrum threat from climate change. In just the first six months of 2022, the country faced 6 unprecedented events of climate extremes. Starting with a snow blizzard in February, the country went through an intense heatwave in March and April. In May, this heatwave generated Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) in the northern mountains, and in parallel, intense drought in Thar desert. In June-July, an intense and oddly cold pre-monsoon was followed by an extraordinarily intense spell of monsoon-generated flooding. In such a short span of time, such varied and extreme anomalies have brought the scientists to the conclusion that Pakistan is the most vulnerable country to global climate change right now. Pakistani premier called Pakistan the ground zero of global climate change.

Pakistan has been amongst the least emitters of GHGs with its share less than 1%. However, the country is among the most vulnerable states of climate change. 

Floods are the most frequent and devastating consequence of global climate change. According to the United Nations (UN) University, by the year 2050, nearly 2 billion people will be vulnerable to floods and this number is expected to double or further increase in the lifetime of the next two generations. According to the experts, the major contributors to this vulnerability are climate change, deforestation, rising sea levels, and population growth.3 Pakistan is home to 220 million people, most of them residing at the shores of the Indus River Basin. The country has the world’s largest reserve of glaciers outside the polar regions and has 186 mountain peaks higher than 7,000 metres in its north. Moving southwards, the country has plateaus (Potohar and Balochistan), flatlands of Punjab and Sindh, four deserts (Thal, Thar, Cholistan and Kharan) and a coastline (Sindh and Balochistan) in the extreme south. Air currents traveling from the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea towards the foothills of Himalaya recharge the water reservoirs in the north due to monsoon. During the summer season, snowmelt and monsoon fill the Indus River and its tributaries. Often, due to intense rainfall, rivers expand outside their natural courses, resulting in flooding. The region is prone to floods since the very beginning. Since 1947, Pakistan has faced 28 episodes of super flooding. However, in 2010, an unprecedented flooding occurred displacing nearly 20% of the country’s population and submerging 15% of the land (Figure 5). These floods caused losses worth USD 10.7 billion to the economy of the country that was already suffering from the war against terrorism. Since then, the country has suffered from superfloods. In 2022, the country again became a victim of a massive flood (Figure 6). In early September 2022, floods in Pakistan were the worst in a decade. Monsoon rains had pummelled the region for several weeks and floodwaters inundated 75,000 square kilometres of the country. The floods affected nearly 33 million population and caused damages of up to USD 40 billion. More than 2 million houses have been affected, with over 767,000 houses destroyed and nearly 1.3 million houses damaged. More than 1.1 million livestock have reportedly been killed. Some 13,115 km of roads were damaged, and 436 bridges were partially damaged or completely destroyed. In total, around 1,700 people have died and 12,867 have suffered injuries. The heart-wrenching images of people desperately fleeing their homes, leaving behind their valuables, crops and livestock and destroyed infrastructure flooded the international news and social media. Scientists, environmentalists, politicians as well as social workers from around the world were quick in joining the chorus that this devastation is not a natural calamity, rather a man-made disaster. Due to centuries of industrial development in the global north, the countries in the South, such as Pakistan, are facing this disaster. The country is already facing an economic crisis and owes a staggering USD 22 billion debt payable within a year, which has generated a sense of historic injustice. Ironically, the debt Pakistan owes is payable to some of the largest emitters of CO2 i.e., the U.S., China, the UK and the EU. A 100 kilometres-long artificial lake was formed in the breadbasket of the country, destroying standing crops. As the water retreat was slow from Sindh, it left the land uncultivable for the next crop, thus doubling the threat for the country’s food security. 
As the calamity is receding, the voices for climate justice and reparation are becoming louder than ever before throughout Pakistan and across the world. Pakistan’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister called for climate justice while interacting with the international leaders and media during the annual session of UN General Assembly in New York in September. Before the session, the UN General-Secretary, António Guterres arrived in Pakistan and visited the flood affected regions. He accepted that Pakistan is paying the price of human-induced climate change. He called the Pakistani people a victim of climate injustice, and that no country deserves this fate, particularly countries like Pakistan that have done almost nothing to contribute to global warming. In this situation, the relevance of international agreements and international law has grown stronger. As the world is going into COP-27 at Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt in November 2022, it is high time an international treaty be agreed to decrease global emissions of GHGs in order to help the victims of climate change. Having already seen an average temperature increase of 1 degree Celsius over the last century and witnessing highly erratic and extreme weather events over the last decade, Pakistan's vulnerability to the climate challenge is expected to become more severe in the future. Mr. Guterres warned that loss and damage from the climate crisis is not a future event, but is happening now, all around us. He also urged governments around the world to address this issue at COP-27 with the seriousness it deserves.

COP-27 is the 27th annual conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992).  In the last 30 years, the world has had several opportunities and countless warnings by the nature that the time to act for climate change is now. 

COP-27 is the 27th annual conference of parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), 1992.  In the last 30 years, the world has had several opportunities and countless warnings by the nature that the time to act on climate change is now. Kyoto Protocol to the UNFCC introduced cap-and-trade mechanism for emission reductions, but it proved counter-productive as the rich industrialised states purchased carbon quotas of developing and underdeveloped states, resulting in more emissions. Another opportunity for addressing the issue came in 2015 in the shape of Paris Climate Agreement. Here, the world’s largest emitters agreed to the need for reducing emissions. Thirteen years ago, at a United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen, rich nations made a significant pledge. They promised to channel USD 100 billion a year to the less wealthy nations by 2020, to help them adapt to climate change and mitigate further temperature rises. Unfortunately, that promise was not fulfilled. Rich countries not only failed to provide money, but also started counting previous contributions into this amount. Compared with the investment required to avoid dangerous levels of climate change, the USD 100 billion pledge is itself minuscule. Trillions of dollars are needed each year to meet the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of restricting global warming to well below 2 °C, if not 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures. Developing nations will need hundreds of billions of dollars annually to adapt to the warming that is already inevitable. The pledged targets were missed significantly and the maximum funding that could be provided to the developing countries in a year was USD 80 billion. In addition, a good part of this money was provided in the form of loans instead of grants. Furthermore, the complex process of financing left many countries behind in the race to obtain funds while many middle-income states got most of the share. Many developed states used this money as a tool of political leverage as well. In this context, voices for climate reparation also surfaced. The call for USD 160 million aid for Pakistan was considered ridiculous by many as it is just a fraction of the total losses that Pakistan has suffered.
We now see a greater consensus that the high carbon emitters of the West are predominantly to blame for the “dystopian” climate breakdown. Pakistan’s Minister for Cimate Change is also of the view that “the historic injustices have to be heard and there must be some level of climate equation so that the brunt of the irresponsible carbon consumption is not being laid on nations near the equator which are obviously unable to create resilient infrastructure on their own.” This probably is the time for a Green New Deal to help the developing nations in building resilience to climate change through improving their adaptative capacity and adopting sustainable models of development. 
As Pakistan will go to COP-27, it will be presiding over the G-77 group as well. Pakistan, along with likeminded states, is expected to raise voice for climate justice. There can be many scenarios under which climate justice can be achieved. One method is direct relief in the form of grants to help the state in building adaptive measures. However, greater help is needed in rebuilding the economy. IMF announced a USD 1.17 billion bailout package for Pakistan in August, but ignored the calls to unlock $650 billion in special drawing rights –international reserve assets –or agree to wider debt freeze. Similarly, the World Bank leaders also recently refused to acknowledge that GHGs emission through burning of fossil fuel by the rich countries is the major driver behind warming of the plant. This all shows that there is a need to reach an international agreement on climate justice.
A survey of existing international treaties addressing the issue of transboundary management of rivers and floods reveals the possibility of interstate cooperation. Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses 1997; 1995 Protocol on Shared Watercourse Systems in Southern Africa; the 1995 Mekong Agreement; the 2002 Sava River Basin Agreement; the 2005 Zambezi Watercourse Commission Agreement; the Helsinki Convention and Indus Water Treaty-1960 are a few examples of existing treaties about transboundary river management. These treaties are also a framework for cooperation in flood management. However, these treaties do not address the climate change related aspects of rivers and floods. Thus, the existing frameworks fail to cater for the needs and requirements of the post-climate change world. Therefore, the need for an agreement to look after the needs of developing countries is further reinforced.
The problem with climate change is that this is no more a future problem. It is also not a single nation’s worry. Today, Pakistan is facing the brunt, but the time is not far when every country will start feeling the brunt of the issue. If floods continue to wreak havoc in developing states, soon the developed world will also start facing the impact. The developing world is still the largest provider of raw materials to support the consumptive lifestyles in Europe and North America. Similarly, poverty and economic disruption in the developing countries may initiate a new wave of migration towards more secure parts of the world. This will not only result in more ethno-nationalist tensions, but will also intensify competition on resources and employment opportunities. Hence, it can be concluded that climate change is a result of wrongdoings of some states while its victims are others. The demand for climate justice is perfectly rational and logical. The existing international legal structure lacks sensitivity towards climate change. Thus, there is a need to reach to a new international agreement to define a clear pathway through which developing states could be saved from the catastrophic impacts of climate change.

The writer is working as a lecturer in International Relations Department at National Defence University, Pakistan. 
Email: [email protected] 

1.   NOAA, Assessing the Global Climate in 2021, January 13, 2022,
2.   Explainer, ‘Why Pakistan is at 'ground zero' of the climate crisis after suffering deadly flooding,’ Sky News, Augut 29, 2022,,Why%20Pakistan%20is%20at%20'ground%20zero'%20of%20the%20climate%20crisis,River%20and%20its%207%2C000%20glaciers.&text=This%20year's%20flooding%20in%20Pakistan,people%20and%20displaced%2033%20million.
3.   Environment and Human Security News Release, UN University.


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