Shehbaz Sharif, the prime minister, has said Pakistan should not be forced to go out with a “begging bowl” to rich polluting nations after the floods that have devastated the country and said he would be seeking “climate justice” from the international community.
Speaking from his home in Lahore, Sharif warned that Pakistan is facing an unprecedented crisis of health, food security and internal displacement after the “apocalyptic” monsoons which put a third of Pakistan’s regions under water. Some areas were hit by 1.7m of rainfall, the highest on record.
Scientists have determined that the floods were due to climate breakdown. But with Pakistan responsible for 0.8% of global carbon emissions, Sharif said it was the “responsibility of the developed countries, who caused these emissions, to stand by us”.
“I’ve never seen this kind of devastation, flooding and suffering of our people in my lifetime,” said Sharif. “Millions have been displaced, they have become climate refugees within their own country.”
While the international community has given billions in funds and donations and commitments for further support, Sharif was clear it was “not enough”. “The enormity of this climate-induced catastrophe is beyond our fiscal means,” he said. “The gap between our needs and what is available is too wide and it is widening by the day.”
The official death toll from the floods is 1,600, though many estimates on the ground have been higher. More than nine million people have been displaced and over 2m homes destroyed, and millions of families have been forced to live in makeshift tents or shelters on roadsides.
The extent of the damage has been put at between $30bn and $35bn but Sharif said it was “a rough estimate, it could be more”, with more than 30,000km of roads destroyed along with bridges, railways and power lines, as well as 4m hectares (10m acres) of crops washed away.
“Let me be clear, this is about climate justice,” said Sharif. “We are not blaming anybody, we’re not casting allegations, what we are saying is this is not of our doing but we have become a victim. Should I be asked to cast my appeal into a begging bowl? That is double jeopardy. That’s unjust, unfair.”
Even before the floods hit, Pakistan was facing economic catastrophe, with soaring inflation, mounting foreign debt repayments and fast-diminishing foreign currency reserves. Sharif’s government, who took over in April after the previous prime minister Imran Khan was toppled in a vote of no-confidence, had revived the program with the International Monetary Fund to provide some economic stability to the country, but the funds have come with painful and unpopular conditions.
Sharif was adamant that even with the billions in upcoming foreign debt repayments, and the billions more now in flood damages, the country had averted default though the IMF deal, and would still be able to service the rest of its foreign debt payments, which total around $22bn for the next year. “No way. We will not default,” he said.
Sharif confirmed they would be talking to “everybody” – including China and the Paris Club – about the possibility of foreign debt moratorium. “What we are asking for is fiscal space but not through the burden of more debt,” he said.
But Ishaq Dar, the newly appointed finance minister, said in a separate interview that he was reluctant to turn to the Paris Club, a collective of nations including the US, UK, Australia and France that help countries struggling with debt.
“If the global community cooperates, donates and helps with the reconstruction, then I think we can avoid it,” said Dar. “Going to the Paris Club is not a very comfortable feeling so I hope we will not have to resort to it.”
Though the rainfall has stopped, many areas in Pakistan – particularly in the region of Sindh – still remain flooded. The humanitarian crisis in Pakistan continues to worsen as the stagnant water is causing diseases such as malaria and dengue to run rife, with children falling sick in large numbers and hospitals overwhelmed.
Sharif’s government has faced criticism as aid and assistance has still not reached large swathes of the affected people who are living without access to clean water, food and shelter in the regions of Sindh and Balochistan. “I concede that, because of the vastness of the problem, we have not been able to do the job so far as it should have been done,” said Sharif. “But look at the distances alone. Some of these areas were cut off completely.”
With corruption rife at local level in Pakistan, many have also voiced concern that while billions are flowing into the country, it may end up in the pockets of a few local administrators and leaders. Sharif was insistent that the Benazir income support program (BISP) being used to disburse the flood relief funds is known for its transparency.
Pakistan’s plight has captured the attention of the international community, with the UN general secretary, António Guterres, calling the floods “climate carnage” on a scale he had never seen before. Last month, President Biden used his speech from him at the UN general assembly in New York to urge countries to help Pakistan, and the leaders of the UK, France, Saudi Arabia, China and many more have given millions in donations and pledged further support .
Sharif said while he was grateful for the “very touching words and statements”, it was “all very fine but more important is practical demonstration of these statements into action”.
He said: “While they are doing a very good job, and we appreciate it, this is not enough. They must come forward with a far better and a far bigger plan to rescue us and rehabilitate us and put us back on our footing.”
Sharif pointed to the unfulfilled promise made by rich nations over a decade ago to commit $100bn a year in a climate fund for less developed nations on the forefront of the climate emergency. “Where’s that money?” asked Sharif. “It’s high time that we question and remind these countries to fulfill their commitments and pledges they have made.”
However, while many Pakistani commentators, as well as Sharif’s own climate minister, have been calling not for aid but for climate reparations from the wealthy polluting nations, Sharif was quick to push back on this suggestion.
“We’re not asking about reparations,” he said. “No, we’re not. I don’t think talk of reparations is proper at this point in time. What I am saying is that they should take notice of the situation, take responsibility and act speedily before it’s too late, before the damage becomes irreparable – not just for Pakistan, but for the world.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism