In Focus

Washed Away: Pakistan Floods and UN’s Response

Despite warning from the climate experts, the continued global carbon emissions on an unprecedented scale resulted in one of the worst climate-induced catastrophes for Pakistan. The country is now a poster child of the impending climate disaster.



Pakistan has again been besieged by massive floods washing away years of development and with it, the hopes of millions of people. As monsoon rains of unprecedented levels poured down swamping entire communities in much of Balochistan and Sindh since June, the looming humanitarian disaster was obvious. Floods then struck the north of the country in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with unforgettable video footage flashing around the world of the raging river tearing through Swat Valley taking out all before it, and waters rising around Charsadda, Dera Ismail Khan, Tank, and other areas. Although differing in sequence, the 2022 floods remind us of the catastrophe of 2010 but on an even larger scale. Images of swathes of the country submerged and communities struggling to reach safety are now seared into our consciousness. The misery, devastation and loss is widespread, and it will take years to restore any sense of normalcy, if at all, for the affected communities. 
The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, described best the still-unfolding scenarios he had witnessed during his visit to Pakistan in September, when he said at his press conference in New York before the commencement of the United Nations General Assembly, “I have just returned from Pakistan, where I looked through a window into the future. A future of permanent and ubiquitous climate chaos on an unimaginable scale:  Devastating loss of life, enormous human suffering, and massive damage to infrastructure and livelihoods. It is simply heartbreaking. No picture can convey the scope of this catastrophe. The flooded area is three times the size of my entire country, Portugal." 
The Secretary-General went on to ascribe the prime cause of the catastrophe to climate change, saying, “What is happening in Pakistan demonstrates the sheer inadequacy of the global response to the climate crisis, and the betrayal and injustice at the heart of it.  Whether it is Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, small islands or Least Developed Countries, the world’s most vulnerable – who did nothing to cause this crisis – are paying a horrific price for decades of intransigence by big emitters.”
There is no doubt that the climate change has been disastrous for Pakistan and will continue to be so unless the world takes it seriously. The impacts of climate change were already apparent in 2010 when we saw shifting monsoon patterns affecting areas that had previously been untouched by floods. But in the intervening years, the impact has been escalating and now in 2022, the catastrophic impacts of climate change can no longer be ignored. However, other human-induced actions also contributed to the destruction due to the failure to prevent illegal construction along riverbanks, poor environmental practices, unfettered logging of forests, and low levels of funding for flood management infrastructure. Many lessons were learned from the 2010 floods about the value of disaster risk management and reduction, and the need for integrating these practices into planning and development at all levels. Yet, despite numerous conferences, reports, and other discussions, there are a few examples of real change and the impacts of not doing so are clearly seen in these floods.



No picture can convey the scope of this catastrophe. The flooded area is three times the size of my entire country, Portugal.

– Antonio Guterres


Rescue and relief has been a huge task as many communities were initially unreachable. As the flood emergency unfolded, first responders including the Pakistan Army, Navy, and Air Force, district government authorities and community groups were working day and night to provide rescue and life-saving relief. National Non-governmental Organisations (NGOs) and the generous people of Pakistan were also among the first to respond, gathering goods and funds to deploy teams of helpers – many of whom were volunteers – to provide immediate help to the affected communities.  This has always been a hallmark of all emergencies in Pakistan. 
The true realization of the scale of the catastrophe didn’t fully strike the public imagination until August by which huge areas were inundated, and the rain had continued relentlessly.  The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) reported that 33 million people were affected, many of whom were displaced, and that the scale was enormous and growing. The economic impact is likely to exceed $30 billion but until the final and extensive full Damage and Need Assessment is conducted, the final outcome remains unknown. Focus remains on ensuring that the affected communities have relief assistance, while preparation for transition to early recovery is already under way in some areas where the floods have subsided.
Pakistan was already under economic pressure when the floods struck. A disaster of this massive scale presents an economic challenge for most countries, not just Pakistan. When the scale of a disaster reaches a stage where it can overwhelm national capacity and resources, it is the prerogative of a government to request foreign assistance based on specific needs. Most countries initially resist doing so as there are additional challenges in coordination, logistics, and ensuring the creation and understanding of a common operating picture of situational awareness, rules, guidelines, processes, and principles. Although foreign assistance is of enormous value and immensely appreciated, it must be consistent with the needs and requests of the host country, and manageable. Similarly, the responsibility of the host country is to ensure that the aid is distributed equitably, in accordance with the donor’s wishes, with complete transparency, and in line with globally accepted humanitarian principles and practices. 
On August 25, a national emergency was declared by the Government of Pakistan. Full-scale response efforts were expanded to manage what has become the biggest flood catastrophe the country has faced. The Government also reached out at this point for specific forms of international assistance. This opened the way to accept assistance from other countries, bilateral and multilateral donors, the United Nations, the Red Cross/Red Crescent, and others. Foreign assistance comes in many forms through funding (either directly but mostly channelled through UN or other organisations), airlift of relief goods, and provision of additional sector experts.  


There is no doubt the climate change has been disastrous for Pakistan and will continue to be so unless the world takes it seriously. The impacts of climate change were already apparent in 2010 when we saw shifting monsoon patterns affecting areas that had previously been untouched by floods.


But will there be enough funding from both Government and foreign donors to address the massive needs? It seems unlikely given the global economic situation. Many countries have already sent air shipments of relief goods. Donor countries have already responded with pledges of funds and are exploring further options to contribute as the situation continues to unfold. The dire humanitarian funding situation is not restricted to Pakistan.  Martin Griffiths, the United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, said in a recent interview that, of the United Nations 2022 global requirements for humanitarian funding of USD50 billion, only USD17 billion has been received as of September. This is alarming.
The COVID pandemic and massive crises arising from conflict, drought, and starvation across many countries such as the Ukraine, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Somalia and elsewhere have already absorbed so much funding in recent times that the global coffers are not overflowing for new emergencies. This does not bode well for funding Pakistan’s needs arising out of the floods. However, the Government, donors, United Nations, and all humanitarian organisations, along with others working on philanthropic initiatives, are doing all that is possible to attract funds and keep awareness of the emergency at the forefront. 
By no means the only one amongst the many who assist Pakistan, but a high profile key partner in humanitarian emergencies and development in Pakistan is almost always the United Nations with various UN organisations having been present in the country for many years.  One of the global responsibilities of the United Nations, as stated in its Charter, is "to achieve international co-operation in solving international problems of an economic, social, cultural, or humanitarian character." Over the years it has been relied upon by the international community to coordinate and distribute humanitarian relief of emergencies due to natural and man-made disasters in areas beyond the relief capacity of national authorities alone. In the 2022 Pakistan floods, United Nations organisations are responding to the call to assist.
The United Nations system is not one huge organisation or a pool of money. In its entirety, it comprises numerous bodies, funds, programmes, and specialized agencies, each of which have their own mandates, leadership, and budget. The programmes and funds which include, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), UN-Habitat, World Food Programme (WFP), United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), are financed through voluntary rather than assessed contributions. 
The Specialized Agencies, which include (among others) Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), World Health Organisation (WHO), World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), International Labour Organisation (ILO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), are independent international organisations funded by both voluntary and assessed contributions. In addition to all these, there are other UN entities and offices including UNWomen, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  It is these UN organisations which are most familiar and active in Pakistan.
In Pakistan for example, apart from the Office of the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator (RCO), twenty United Nations organisations mentioned above operate autonomously of each other, each with a different mandate and funding streams to address specific sectors of humanitarian and development assistance and work towards the Sustainable Development Goals. While the RCO has a central role and is the official representative/diplomatic level of the United Nations in Pakistan, he or she does not lead the other agencies but, as the name implies, aims to coordinate the United Nations approach with all stakeholders working in partnership with governments (national and provincial), donors, and other organisations. However, this does not preclude any or all these UN agencies also working directly with all these stakeholders as part of their normal activities.


Seven of the twenty UN agencies operating in Pakistan were included for funding in the appeal – UNICEF, WFP, FAO, WHO, UNHCR, UNFPA, and IOM – to work on the immediate needs along with their implementing partners.


On August 30, the United Nations in Pakistan, responding to the request for assistance from the international community, launched its first flood appeal in support of Government efforts.  However, the target amount was small by any international standards at just $160 million, for most-immediate life-saving and other assistance for 5.2 million people. There was some confusion about the meagre level of funding requested in comparison with the enormous need, but it was also made clear that the amount would be increased through a revised appeal to encompass subsequent stages as the overall longer term needs became clearer. Seven of the twenty UN agencies operating in Pakistan were included for funding in the appeal – UNICEF, WFP, FAO, WHO, UNHCR, UNFPA, and IOM – to work on the immediate needs along with their implementing partners. When a UN agency receives funds from a donor, it is often earmarked for a specific need and designated area.  The implementation is then undertaken directly by UN staff or by an implementing partner which is usually an international or national NGO.
In addition to the appeal, UN agencies were also appealing separately for funding through their own donors’ networks to extend their assistance. For example, the World Food Programme (WFP) appealed USD 152 million to provide for food and or/cash and other assistance for 1.9 million people.   Regardless of which organisations are reaching out to donors within the UN system, addressing the needs of the affected communities is always the goal and to do so in an equitable and timely way, with full transparency and accountability.
The Government of Pakistan is leading national humanitarian response to ensure the provision of aid, and will continue to do so through all the subsequent phases. It is a massive task given the current complexities. While the NDMA, and the Provincial Development Authorities have to date played a key role, the Government has formed the National Flood Response Coordination Committee (NFRCC) to coordinate the overall response in its various stages. It follows an effective concept developed during the COVID pandemic – the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC). This will ensure a fully coordinated approach and make a huge contribution towards ensuring timely, equitable and transparent assistance to all affected communities across the entire country from relief through early recovery, rehabilitation, and reconstruction. Although there are many complexities in bringing together all the stakeholders from government ministries, military, NDMA, United Nations, I/NGOs, and others together to ensure a common operational picture, with constant coordination and outreach between all parties, it will work very effectively and avoid parallel activities to bring the best outcomes for the people.
There are tough decisions to be made to fully recover from this disaster. Big questions will still need to be addressed. Was the country prepared? And what was learned from the last huge floods in 2010 that improved or could have improved the response and reduced the impact this time? There is a certain predictability and inevitability about the frequency and scale of floods and other climate-induced disasters like droughts, so now is the time to be addressing these questions and introducing the changes needed to ensure future resilience against climate change and disasters. No country can afford recurring disasters of this scale and help will be even less forthcoming next time if the country hasn’t made genuine efforts to address the risks.


The writer is an Australian Disaster Management and Post-Conflict Reconstruction and Rehabilitation Advisor who lives in Islamabad. She consults for Government and UN agencies and has previously worked at both ERRA and NDMA.
E-mail: [email protected]
 

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