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Could Pakistan's flooding be indicative of a permanent climate disaster?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The climate disaster in Pakistan raises two big questions - how do people endure the crisis, and how do they prepare for what happens next? Flooding in a normally dry country has put towns and farms under water. Tens of millions of people are displaced. In normal times, Pakistan depends on rivers which flow down out of the Himalayas and other mountain ranges. The only time it gets significant rain is monsoon season. Pakistan's federal minister for climate change says this monsoon season was beyond any she has experienced. Sherry Rehman does not even call it the monsoon. Even a so-called superflood in 2010 does not compare.

SHERRY REHMAN: My contention, from the field and everyday working at the disaster management, I see that it will be much more. So this is no monsoon; it's some monstrous new phenomenon. Pakistan is no stranger to either monsoons or even the normal riverine flooding in the River Indus, right? We've had the superfloods of 2010. This is epic. It was much bigger than that. It was biblical. And it's overtaken 2010 in spades and swaths.

INSKEEP: You said 30 districts are underwater. I just want to mention, for an American audience, I think a district is roughly the equivalent of a county. So Americans listening to this would need to think of a...

REHMAN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Thirty-county area, if they thought of the 30 counties around them, the whole area underwater. Is that what it's like?

REHMAN: So you know Colorado - you know, let me give you a measure. Colorado is a big state, right?

INSKEEP: Yeah.

REHMAN: Bigger area than Colorado's under water.

INSKEEP: Wow.

REHMAN: And 30 districts only from my province. There are 72. It's just like one big ocean. There is - you don't know where to pump out the water. Normally, we have water pumps - this, that for the monsoon. Nothing is working. I phoned from Islamabad. Hey, why aren't you - you're not using your pumps. What do you mean, using my pumps? There's nowhere to pump the water. It's everywhere. So we had to send in the navy. For crying out loud, how is this a monsoon? And normally, we have our helicopters, you know, in the river flood, evacuating people, you know, bringing them to high ground, to shelters. Our helis couldn't take off for the north at all or even for the south because it was raining too much. What were they supposed to do? So we're deploying every service right now. All three arms of the military are in there, and we are still overstretched.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned being overstretched. We spoke yesterday on the program with Imran Lodhi. He is one of many civilian volunteers who've gone in the area to try to help. And as we reached him, he was standing on a levee...

REHMAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...With thousands of refugees, water on both sides. And here is one of the things that he said. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

IMRAN LODHI: So far, we have been the earliest group to respond to people, to providing them food and ration - I mean, dry food - and then their tents. Government has also tried, but it's very limited. It seems like the crisis is beyond their capacity.

INSKEEP: Has the crisis grown beyond the government's capacity?

REHMAN: Steve, it's certainly overwhelmed all resources. We don't have those tents. We don't have the food package ready. We are cranking up for that. And it's all hands on deck. I mean, we've just repurposed all our loans, grants - certainly in my ministry - to just flood relief aid. It's just - the volume is too high to just do in one go.

INSKEEP: Do you assume that monsoons like this are now a permanent condition - they will happen from time to time?

REHMAN: So I'm not prepared to take anything off the table, given what I saw this year. We had no spring. We went straight from winter to summer because the heat waves came, you know, four, one after another - terrible scorching heat waves. And then obviously the forest fires were rampaging through the forested areas. Then we had this. And, of course, our glacial lake outburst flood events all tripled suddenly, so the boulders are coming down with this angry black water from the glaciers. It was terrible. I mean, whoever's government is here next, ours or anybody else's, I'm going to make a - fast-track an adaptation plan for which we have little technical capacity, but we're just going to do it. So it's all playing out in our region. And we feel like we're on our own, honestly, other than a few U.N. agencies.

INSKEEP: In the United States, sometimes after a flood people will raise or move buildings, maybe move a town higher, farther away from the river. Is that remotely practical where you are?

REHMAN: Well, that will have to be done, for instance, in the Swat area in the north. They were too close to the riverbanks here, and they shouldn't have been. And we should - I mean, the local government there should not have allowed it. Everybody knows that these rivers are a clear and present danger. The monsoon, you know, quadrupling may have been new, but the river floods are not new to Pakistan. So some of the stuff we need to do, we already knew. But the point is climate change is a global issue. There is no reason why a 1% or a less than 1% emitter like Pakistan should be asked to do this on their own. The 53 degrees is not caused by us. The glaciers melting...

INSKEEP: Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You said 53 degrees Celsius. Has there been that temperature...

REHMAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: ...Recorded recently in Pakistan?

REHMAN: Yeah, yeah. It was - in the summer.

INSKEEP: Bear with me a few seconds here. That is 127 degrees Fahrenheit, according to this calculation.

REHMAN: That's right.

INSKEEP: What do you want or need from the world when it comes to long-term adaptation?

REHMAN: We need technical capacity. We need - and that's very important because - not technical capacity that just comes and does pilot projects and ticks them off as part of their, you know - well, I call it greenwashing. But that's not enough. We need big, permanent fixes, and we need them with speed and skill. That's really important. People come and do a lot of good work - small pilots on agriculture, small pilots on adaptive green technology, adaptive agriculture, adaptive crop rotation. And then they do a little bit of, you know, measuring the pollution in the water, helping with a little bit of diversion of water and silting problems. We have a massive salinity problem. Most of our crop cover is gone because the river - the sea intrudes.

So instead of little, little fixes, we need it scaled up. We need adaptive solutions scaled up. There are many on the ground. We can pick and choose. But we need the climate scientists. We need the agriculture resilience programs. We need the climate infrastructure. We need both the technical capacity and the help for that.

INSKEEP: Senator Sherry Rehman, Pakistan's federal minister for climate change, always a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

REHMAN: Thank you so much, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.