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Pakistan's deadly monsoons: Why did the government fail?

S Khan Islamabad
August 29, 2022

Widespread flooding driven by devastating monsoons has affected 33 million people in Pakistan — some 15% of the population. Anger is growing at the government's failure to provide timely assistance.

Residents gather beside a road damaged by flood waters following heavy monsoon rains in Charsadda district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
Pakistan's government has declared an emergency and appealed for international helpImage: Abdul Majeed/AFP

For months, tens of millions of people across Pakistan have been battling the worst monsoon floods in over a decade. Pakistan's Climate Minister Sherry Rehman said on Monday that the "crisis of unimaginable proportions" had put a third of Pakistan "under water."

Unprecedented monsoon rains and catastrophic flooding have wreaked havoc on the lives of over 33 million people across Pakistan. 

Officials say that 1,061 people have died since the start of the seasonal rains. The floodwaters have also destroyed crops, affecting over 2 million acres of land in the southern province of Sindh alone — which also reportedly incurred losses of over 400 billion rupees (€1.8 billion, $1.8 billion) due to the floods.

Widespread grief and devastation

Thirty-year-old coal miner Hussain Buksh Marri, from Pakistan's western province of Balochistan, lost three members of his family in July to the catastrophe. His father, brother and cousin were among those who died.

Marri told DW that he and his other cousin were injured during the floods. He complained that no assistance had been provided, despite widespread destruction that overwhelmed his town's markets, houses, buildings and crops.

"We were making preparations for my brother's upcoming wedding when the devastating floods rendered my family homeless and snatched away the meager resources we had left," he said, adding that his mother has been in shock since the death of her husband and son.

The response by authorities has been slow, he told DW. It took them six days to recover the body of one of his family members. So far he has only received promises of help, but no actual assistance, he said.

An infographic showing heavy flooding in Pakistan

Failed rescue efforts

Sixty-year-old Razzak Shahid was forced to flee Punjab's town of Fazilpur on August 18 after around 65% of the urban area became submerged in water.

"More than 20 surrounding villages had also been overwhelmed by the floodwaters for days and we were told that authorities didn't have enough boats to rescue people," Shahid told DW.

When locals pointed out bodies floating in the water to emergency workers, they were told that the rescue service did not have the capacity to save people who had survived, let alone recover those who had died. 

This contradicted government claims that they are helping people, Shahid said. 

Locals furious at government inaction

Sources told DW that people are so furious about what they described as their government's inaction, that they surrounded a visiting provincial minister in south Punjab, forcing him to flee after residents protested against the indifference of the ruling elite over the plight of those hit by floods.

Similar scenes were witnessed in Sindh, where people also vented their anger. 

"My own town has been without power for five days. People need camps, medicine, food, mosquito nets, de-watering machines and other items — none of which were adequately available," Shahid said.  

Diseases have started breaking out, yet no preventative action has been taken, Shahid added. The government's apathy towards the victims of the monsoon has fueled a simmering anger, he added.

Heart-wrenching scenes of five men in a northwestern province town making desperate attempts to save themselves further enraged locals.

Images depicting children who had been washed away in Balochistan prompted many to heavily criticize the ruling elite, who they claimed are busy with political wrangling and making trips abroad.

Why the inadequate response?

Pakistani social media has been abuzz with complaints against the government's slow response in extending support to those affected by the floods.

Some politicians believe that apathy and sheer incompetence by the government are leading to more deaths and destruction.

Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan — a parliamentarian from the religious political organization Jamaat-e-Islami — said that several towns across the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had made desperate appeals for help.

But authorities failed to rescue the people there, he told DW, adding that the government did not make plans to prevent the destruction despite knowing for months in advance that the monsoon rains would be unusual this year.

Kishwar Zehra, another parliamentarian, bemoaned the attitude of politicians in charge of flood-affected regions.

It is highly unfortunate that helicopters are available for politicians and rulers — but not to rescue people, she told DW. "It can be called nothing but indifference by the ruling elite towards the grief-stricken people," she added.

Political tensions take priority

Some activists believe the current political tensions are hampering relief efforts.

Imran Khan, the country's former prime minister, is locked in conflict with new Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif's government — which has been registering cases against Khan and his supporters while Khan holds massive rallies to drum up support for ousting the federal government.

Quetta-based activist Yasmin Lehri believes that flood relief is low on the list of leaders' priorities. Khan's party rules four of the six regions affected by floods, she told DW.

"Khan has been spending billions of rupees on political activities while the ministers in these four regions prepare for taking these actions instead of helping flood victims," she said.

The federal government is equally responsible, she added, claiming it was also busy settling political scores with Khan instead of devising a comprehensive flood relief package.

Infographic showing the impact of devastation from flooding

Red tape discourages NGOs

Some experts believe that the government's disaster management bodies do not have the capacity to deal with flood destruction on an epic scale.

Islamabad-based development expert Amir Hussain told DW that these bodies — which are in short supply of helicopters, boats, resources, funds and workers — have been staffed with non-professional people.

"International NGOs could have helped, but the government has a complicated and lengthy scrutiny process for aid organizations who wish to work in flood-affected areas, resulting in a reluctance to work in Pakistan." 

Government rejects criticism

The government dismisses the notion that it hasn't done enough to help people. Iqbal Zafar Jhagra, a former Khyber Pakhtunkhwa governor and a central leader of the ruling party, said that the government has already announced monetary compensation for the those affected.

"We have released 38 billion rupees, aside from calling in the army, which is rescuing people and extending aid," he told DW, adding the prime minister is also visiting flood-affected areas to help people. Jhagra emphasized that these are unusual rains and floods, breaking the 30-year record.

"But even so, we are doing our best to help people," he added.

'The images are heartbreaking'

Edited by: Keith Walker