Paying the Price: Climate Disasters in South Asia and the Duty of the Global North

Paying the Price: Climate Disasters in South Asia and the Duty of the Global North

. 6 min read

Rain, usually a source of life and livelihood in Pakistan, has in recent years grown increasingly destructive. Monsoon season in South Asia is welcomed by farmers who depend on the rains to cultivate their crops through the months of June to September. Their land is often their sole source of income, however meager that income may be. Harvested crops also provide an annual supply of food for farming families.

Impact of the 2022 Pakistan Floods

Pakistan is one of the top exporters of rice and cotton, and around 40 percent of Pakistani people work in the agricultural sector. Farmers do not own their own land, but work on the fields of landlords who offer loans to help with the purchase of fertilizer and seeds. Farmers gain a percentage of their harvest, and some of it goes towards paying back the loan to the landlords. Most farmers’ livelihoods were destroyed by the floods this past summer, which damaged crops, livestock, and stores of wheat and fertilizer, and put farmers into significant debt with their landlords.

In Pakistan, fatal diseases are spreading due to the stagnant flood waters, and most displaced people have been living outside as winter approaches. In areas where water has receded the slightest bit, farmers have waded into their flooded fields, desperate to rescue any remaining cotton and rice harvests in hopes of paying back their debts. An estimated 33 million were affected by the flood, which has killed around 1,700 people and left around 21 million in need of assistance. Pakistani farmers have long been stuck in a cycle of debt, and it has only worsened under current conditions. Pakistan's economy and people were unprepared for the devastation of the floods and have turned to foreign aid as a result. The wealthy countries responsible for climate change disregarded calls for help, showing the tendency of the Global North to shirk its moral duty in the face of climate change and demanding a better system of accountability for international aid to the Global South.

There is never an ideal setting for a climate disaster, but because Pakistan was in an already disordered situation, the floods were all the more devastating. Political instability has plagued the nation for many years, which is evident from the fact that no prime minister has completed a full term of five years in office. Imran Khan, former Prime Minister, was ousted last spring, and Shehbaz Sharif had been in office for a mere two months before the floods occurred. Additionally, inflation has been a large issue in Pakistan, going up to 42.3 percent in August. The floods have led to an increase in the prices of food and medicine, and the destruction will cost upwards of US$30 billion to fix.

The Rise of Global Warming in South Asia

Extreme weather conditions in South Asia are progressively becoming common and, due to global warming, more extreme than ever before. The extreme floods in Pakistan correlate with rising global warming levels, which make water evaporate quicker at sea, leading to more moisture in the atmosphere. Increased moisture combined with incoming heavy monsoon rains led to rainfall that was three times the national average from the past 30 years. Large amounts of glacial melt also contributed to the floods. As reported by The World Bank, “more than half of all South Asians, or 750 million people in the eight countries … were affected by one or more climate-related disasters in the last two decades.” South Asia is now known as one of the regions most vulnerable to the effects of global warming. The area has had more than its fair share of climate disasters over the years, and the disasters continue to increase in both magnitude and frequency. In Bangladesh, extreme rain in April 2022 caused rivers to overflow and led to what was called one of the ‘worst floods in memory’ and left around seven million people needing aid. This flooding spread to the eastern region of India and displaced around 270,000 people. Simultaneously, a heat wave in certain regions of India and Pakistan led to March 2022 being called the hottest month that India has experienced in more than a century. This heat killed crops and affected many, with most of the region looking forward to the upcoming monsoon season to help balance out the damage. No one expected the monsoon season to be another extreme climate event that would only exacerbate the destruction.

Photo by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Climate Protection in South Asia

Although South Asia has introduced climate favoring policies, full-fledged climate disaster protection requires outside assistance. The World Bank conducted a study in 2018 that revealed a projection of 40 million South Asian climate migrants by 2050 if climate-favoring policies are not passed in the regions, and 20 million migrants even with the policies. Climate disasters are unpredictable, especially now when they are reaching intensities never seen before. South Asia has been addressing these concerns with its solutions and approaches to climate-positive changes, but these steps are not enough to fully protect the area. The World Bank created Country Climate and Development Reports (CCDRs) for South Asia, with a goal to help increase development that is strategically climate-aligned. In 2021, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, pledged for the country to reach climate neutrality by 2070. Organizations such as the Climate Action Network South Asia are doing important work in advocating for South Asia during climate negotiations and encouraging governments and individuals to take action to help mitigate climate change. However, there does not seem to be a leading country in the South Asian climate movement that can push the region forward in its climate journey. As this region is still developing and addressing many other sources of chaos, climate research and action is not as abundant as that of countries who have the resources to allocate to those causes. Most countries in the South Asia region do not have sufficient infrastructure or resources to adequately prepare, and with the disasters’ added unpredictability, the level of preparation needed to protect this region is not feasible without external aid.

The Global North: Climate Impact and Responsibility

The Global North has contributed significantly to the burning of fossil fuels, which are the main contributor to climate change and global warming. Countries in the Global South have contributed less to the quickening of climate change in terms of emissions per capita. India’s emissions pale in comparison to those of the United States, with 1.9 tons of carbon dioxide per person in 2019 compared to the United States’ 15.5 tons and Russia’s 12.5 tons. Pakistan contributes to less than one percent of global carbon emissions, and yet a quarter of their population is currently suffering. This imbalance raises a question of responsibility, one that asks if the countries of the Global North should be required to lend aid to countries suffering from their direct actions.

The aid debate is complicated by the fact that countries in the Global South are generally hesitant to accept international aid because of distrust and fear of reliance. A governmental ban in Pakistan does not allow many international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) into their country. Save Our Children is a prominent NGO that was temporarily banned in Pakistan because of false associations with a doctor linked with the CIA during the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Although Save Our Children has now been taken off the ban list, many NGOs remain on the ban list due to this type of distrust. Moreover, aid from the Global North would bring with it a sense of indebtedness and dependence to the Global South. Aid sent between countries in the Global South could alleviate some of those attachment burdens, but the Global South does not have as many financial resources as the Global North, so this alternative is not effective.

The sentiment around international aid changes drastically when faced with the extremity of recent climate disasters. Distrust of international NGO aid is dissolving amongst Pakistani citizens, who are urging leaders to allow international NGO aid to mitigate the suffering of the greater population. Reporters were thrown a note from villagers isolated by the flooding, urgently requesting supplies and medicine. Soheil, one of the villagers, told the BBC that "these authorities and politicians come here for photo sessions and fun. They come, take photos and leave. No one is helping us." The governments of the Global South are severely unprepared for disasters of this scale, and external aid will be crucial to rebuilding.

To Aid or Not to Aid?

While the Global North may not have a legal obligation to contribute to recovery, they should consider whether they have a moral duty to do so. Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament, argues in favor of aiding the Global South, stating that “as the Global North, we have benefited from colonialism and globalization for centuries while we live at the expense of the countries of the Global South, who are not only suffering the most from the climate crisis but have also contributed to it the least.” The Revised Pakistan 2022 Floods Response Plan recently updated the ask for international aid to US$816 million, which is only approximately three percent of the predicted US$30 billion needed to fully recuperate losses. The Global North has recently met the existing US$100 million ask, with the total current paid contribution to the Pakistan Floods Response Plan at US$111 million, and a commitment of  US$49 million incoming. As extreme weather events continue to spread across the Global South, the Global North must review their moral commitments and assume greater responsibility in funding the damages their actions caused.

Cover Photo: "Flood in Pakistan 2022" by Ali Hyder Junejo. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.