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Is the West responsible for floods in Pakistan?

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Islamabad, Sep 17: Since June, Pakistan has been hit by record floods that have affected 33 million people and killed about 1,500. From June to August, the country received nearly three times the 30-year-average rainfall. Spurred by record monsoons and melting glaciers after a heat wave in May, the inundation has been blamed on climate change.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres any many othershave blamed climate change for the devastating floods.

Is the West responsible for floods in Pakistan?

Alongside, Rehman held the West responsible for the catastrophe. However, claims accusing the Western nations do not exist in isolation. Therefore, DW fact-check looked at three subtopics to verify this claim.

Claim: Climate change is responsible for the floods

DW Fact check: True

The internet is replete with statements that Pakistan is experiencing climate catastrophe. How much of it is the fault of the West is therefore a claim linked to the role played by climate change in the first place. DW investigated whether Pakistan is indeed facing a climate crisis.

New study debunks theory that climate change is biggest reason for Pak floodsNew study debunks theory that climate change is biggest reason for Pak floods

While the answer is "true," it has limitations. A World Weather Attribution (WWA) study has determined that the flooding was a direct consequence of the monsoon rain, which has intensified over the years. Record-breaking rainfall and an extreme summer heat wave also melted glaciers that feed into the Indus, exacerbating the flooding. But the vast majority of the floodwater came from extreme monsoon rains over a five-day period that researchers say has increased in intensity by up to 50% in the past 100 years.

In such scenarios, they ask whether the event was intensified by climate change and by how much, instead of asking whether an event is an outcome of climate change. The climate crisis discussion does not exist in binaries. And, though climate change can be a major cause, there could be other reasons, as well.

The findings reveal that the short-term five-day period of rain intensified by 75% because of climate change, whereas the long-term 60-day average amplified by 50%. However, a caveat is that how often such rainfall is likely to occur is impossible to quantify because of the variability of the climate in the belt where Pakistan is located.

"This part of the world has very variable climate, which means some years are wetter and others are a lot drier, which means that we do not have much data to quantify the return time of such an event," Dr. Friederike Otto, one of the authors of the WWA report, said in a press briefing about the results of the study.

Though most of the climate models applied in the study pass scientific evaluations, Otto said, it is "impossible to quantify how much less likely this event would have been without climate change." However, researchers have found that the overall event would have been less likely to occur without climate change.

"Fingerprints of climate change in exacerbating the heat wave earlier this year, and now the flooding, provide conclusive evidence of Pakistan's vulnerability to such extremes," co-author Fahad Saeed, a researcher at the Center for Climate Change and Sustainable Development in Islamabad, Pakistan, said in the briefing.

Otto added: "It's also in line with historical records showing that heavy rainfall has dramatically increased in the region since humans started emitting enormous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere."

Claim: The West is responsible for climate change

DW Fact check: Misleading

Climate Minister Sherry Rehman sad the was responsible for the flooding.

"I would like not to be hectored by Western communities that have gotten rich on the back of burning fossil fuels," she told DW.

Similar claims by Twitter users from Pakistan sparked a debate on the reparations owed by the Global North to the Global South. Many statements have blamed the "first world" and "rich Western countries" for climate emergencies. The rhetoric is that Western or richer nations have a higher carbon footprint and that regions most affected by climate change produce lower carbon emissions.

Is the West responsible for floods in Pakistan?

Reports show that some of the greatest carbon polluters are the United States, China, Germany, Japan, Russia and even countries from the Global South such as India, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, non-Western and developing countries also play a role.

Anja Katzenberger, researching climate physics at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in Germany, told DW that countries that emit higher greenhouse gases are more responsible for the overall crisis as they contribute more to the heating of the planet. Increased warming means that the atmosphere has higher vapor — and thereby more rainfall.

Pakistan, which is among the countries most ravaged by climate hazards, has a carbon footprint as low as 0.9%, according to a 2021 UN report.

"The global climate system is all connected," Katzenberger said. "It means that the emissions that happen in Pakistan and the emissions that happen all around the world are getting into the atmosphere where they mix and distribute around the globe. So even emissions that happen somewhere else will affect regions that [are] across from where they originally happened."

Katzenberger said the erratic patterns of the monsoon could also be caused by the presence of the La Niña phenomenon, which involves the large-scale cooling of the surface of the Pacific Ocean. It drives changes in winds and rainfall across the globe, and consequently harsher monsoons.

When asked if emissions are alone fueling the rise in temperatures, Katzenberger said: "Aerosols also play a very important role in Asia, but they generally have a decreasing effect on the monsoon. This phenomenon was observed largely in the 1780s." She reiterated that increased greenhouse gas emissions are therefore the dominating force in South Asia.

Claim: Pakistan's poor management exacerbated the crisis

DW Fact check: True

While claims blaming the West made waves, some Twitter users also flagged Pakistan's poor disaster management. Experts like Saeed believe that the initial signs appeared earlier this year. According to him, the heat wave in May and April was the first warning sign of an extreme weather event.

The 2021 International Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report corresponds to Saeed's observation, saying there is high confidence that Pakistan is one of the regions experiencing hotter temperatures and heavy precipitation.

Despite warning signs, the government still seems remains largely unequipped to deal with climate disasters. This is not the first time the country had to deal with a major flood. In 2010, flooding had wreaked havoc on Pakistan, affecting one-fifth of the country and 20 million people. And, even then, the usually intense rainfall was blamed for the crisis. At the time, experts, like Rina Saeed Khan, a Pakistani journalist specializing on environmental issues, agreed that disaster preparedness needed to be improved. Better warning systems would be needed to inform people further downstream in time about approaching floodwaters. Afforestation and more careful land use along the Indus were changes that environmentalists mentioned then that would need to be implemented. Khan added that some people might also need to be resettled. "Places that were very close to the river maybe should not be rebuilt."

DW reached out to the Climate Change Ministry for a statement on how the country implemented its "build back better " campaign but did not get a response.

Is the West responsible for floods in Pakistan?

Saeed also added that Pakistan faltered on several infrastructure related considerations including building illegal constructions. According to Saeed, cracks in the political system also translate into misgovernance. The latest calamity raises responsibility on the country's disaster management system. "The authorities are either nonexistent or not very viable," Saeed told DW, adding that there is an urgent need to address these issues at a local level.

He also pointed out the dire need for proper drainage systems countrywide.

Climate change seems to have remained a low priority in Pakistan as it is usually absent from the agenda of political parties and their manifestos, and the Climate Change Ministry is usually handed to newcomers. "We cannot just leave this portfolio for newcomers, parliamentarians and legislators to gain experience," the climate analyst said.

No clear evidence for West's responsibility

So far, no single institution or country can be solely held accountable for Pakistan's wide-ranging disaster. Crises caused by human-induced climate change are a mixed bag, and, therefore, a collective responsibility.

Pakistan remains more vulnerable to climate change than many other countries with a greater carbon footprint. However, some of the highest polluters are from the Global South, as studies have shown. The WWA study and comments by experts confirm that Pakistan's lackluster performance spilled the crisis onto human settlements.

Claims such as Rehman's have garnered attention to calls for climate reparations. However, determining whether Pakistan is entitled is another discussion as claims against the West proved misleading.

Source: DW

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