As It Happens·Q&A

Pakistan's 'biblical' floods should be a wakeup call for the world, says climate lawyer

Pakistan’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is “negligible,” but it’s facing some deadliest consequences of climate change, says climate lawyer Sara Hayat.

Sara Hayat says ‘Pakistan is angry’ about facing disproportionate effects of greenhouse gas emissions

A woman in a long dress walks through flooded streets in the pouring rain toward the camera with a young boy sitting on her hip. Her yellow veil is pulled over the boy's head.
A woman carrying a child walks along a street during heavy rainfall in flood-hit Dera Allah Yar in Pakistan's Balochistan province on Tuesday. (Fida Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

Pakistan's contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions is "negligible," but it's facing some of the deadliest consequences of climate change in the world, says climate lawyer Sara Hayat.

Massive flooding from the rains since mid-June has killed at least 1,162 people in the country, a phenomenon experts blame on climate change. 

More than one million homes have been damaged or destroyed in the past two and a half months. Half a million of those displaced are living in organized camps, while others have had to find their own shelter.

Some doctors said Wednesday that initially they were seeing mostly patients traumatized by the flooding. But now they're treating people suffering from diarrhea, skin infections and other waterborne ailments in the country's flood-hit areas.

Hayat is a climate change lawyer and policy specialist in Lahore. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Katie Simpson. 

What words would you use to describe the extent of this flooding?

Catastrophic. This is biblical in nature. Really, the kind of flooding that we're experiencing this time around — and Pakistan has been exposed to floods in the past — but what we're seeing this time, the scale of it, the devastation that's being caused, I don't think we could have prepared for it. I don't think we could have fathomed it. And it's as heartbreaking as it gets.

Three young boys look over their shoulders at the camera while holding onto a rope attached to a makeshift gondola carrying three men across a rocky river.
Residents of Bahrain in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province use a temporary cradle service to cross the Swat River after heavy rains. (Abdul Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)

The scale and the scope, when you describe it like that, is absolutely overwhelming. I'm wondering if you can describe some of the scenes that are unfolding on the ground there?

Right now, evacuation teams and relief and rescue teams, they're on the ground and they're trying to help. It's been very difficult because we've lost thousands of kilometres of road. A lot of bridges have been destroyed. So a lot of areas in the country, a lot of districts, have been severed entirely, and accessing them has been difficult.

I think [Pakistan Climate Minister Sherry Rehman is] right when she turned around and she said it's just one entire ocean. The provinces of Sindh and Balochistan, which are our coastal provinces, are pretty much submerged under water.

Those people who have been evacuated are currently in makeshift camps, and those are not conducive to any form of comfort. I mean, they are as makeshift as it gets. There's a dearth of food. There's a dearth of drinking water. We're hearing reports of waterborne diseases [and] diarrhoeal infections. 

Schools are gone. Children are affected. Some reports are saying out of the 1,100 people we've lost, a very substantial number are actually children.

A man hands a small yellow bag to the man at the front of a long line of people stretching down a highway surrounded by water on both sides. There are a couple of cars parked on the side of the road, and some children milling about.
Internally displaced Pakistanis stand in a queue to receive relief food packets in the flood-hit area of Sukkur in Sindh province on Wednesday. (Asif Hussan/AFP/Getty Images)

The way you describe the challenges to getting help to the people that have survived this catastrophe, you know, is it the lack of infrastructure now? Is that the biggest challenge in trying to physically get aid to people?

The lack of infrastructure is definitely one of the bigger challenges. Also, it keeps raining, and it's torrential … so it's just one second, it's not raining, and then the next second, there's a torrential downpour. That's been very challenging.

The areas that are submerged, even if there were roads, transportation couldn't access them. So we're using helicopters to drop food rations and food packets to people who are still stranded, but surrounded by water.

We've heard from UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, and he says: "Let's stop sleepwalking toward the destruction of our planet by climate change." And he went on to say: "Today, it's Pakistan. Tomorrow, it could be your country." Do you think that message is going to start really resonating with people when they see the devastating images coming out of that country?

I hope so, Katie. The truth is that Pakistan has been raising its voice ... on multiple international forums because climate change has been a glaring reality for us for a couple of years now. We are literally living with it. The kind of heatwaves we are getting, they're more prolonged now. Every year they get more severe, more prolonged. We are experiencing agricultural shortages because of temperature variations.

Pakistan is not alien to monsoon rains. Every year we get monsoon rains and we dread them because our cities are really not designed for very heavy rainfall. But generally we get about three to four cycles of monsoon rains. This time round we've already gotten eight cycles, and we're expecting more. And there are some predictions or forecasts that suggest the monsoon rains will carry well into the middle of October.

Pakistan is angry because we barely contribute to global greenhouse gas emissions. Our contribution's at about 0.8 per cent. That's negligible. And yet we're on the receiving end of it. We are facing the brunt of climate change.

An aerial shot of a city flooded with brown, muddy water.
This aerial photograph taken on Wednesday shows flooded residential areas after heavy monsoon rains in the Jaffarabad district of Balochistan province. (Fida Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)

You talk about anger, that people are blaming the developed world for this climate catastrophe that is unfolding right now in Pakistan. Can you speak to that — about where that anger is coming from and where it's targeted?

This anger has been a part of the discourse around climate change for a while now. And there are really two ways to look at it. One is that, yes, the developed world is behind this global phenomenon, and the developing world and low-lying island nation states, and especially the subcontinent, which is India, Pakistan [and] Bangladesh, we're the global South, we're facing the brunt of it.

And so we want the developed world to do whatever they can in the form of sending funds to this part of the world, to the global South, so that we can start combating climate change, we can start adapting to it [and] mitigating it.

There is a very strong need, and the anger really should be understood as "Send help." And the best way to do that for the developed world is to invest in technological advances and then transfer that technology to the global South, because we need to start adapting and living with climate change as best as we can. And for that, we need technology transfer.

You sort of speak to it there but … what do you want to see other countries do in terms of providing help?

What should happen is that the developed world starts controlling their greenhouse gas emissions. Then they start sending aid and funds towards the developed world, and to low-lying island nation states which are experiencing climbing climate impacts on a daily basis.

Right now, for the floods, I think what we want, what we need, is aid. We need support. We need expert advice. Pakistan will have to rehabilitate entirely. The entire nation will have to rehabilitate. And we need assistance on that.

And we don't want political disparities to come in the way. We don't want this to become a political thing. This is a humanitarian crisis for my country, and this is a climate crisis for the world.

This is an eye opener for everybody. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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