KARACHI, Pakistan — Year after year, Murtaza Hussain and his neighbors in the Kausar Niazi Colony, a slum in the port city of Karachi, watched as the monsoon rains flooded their homes, damaging furniture, televisions and other valuables.
When particularly heavy monsoon rains began to soak Karachi earlier this month, Mr Hussain braced himself for more: water poured into his home. Floods inundated his neighborhood. At least one of his neighbors has drowned.
“It took us almost two days to clean the water and get the house back to normal. There was no help from the government,” said Mr Hussain, 45, who works in a textile factory. “Every year the government says there will be no floods, but the problem is getting worse.”
Pakistan struggles with the monsoon season every year, which hits the country from June to August, prompting widespread criticism of poor government planning.
But this year’s season has been particularly brutal, a stark reminder that in an era of global warming, extreme weather events are increasingly the norm, not the exception, across the region – and that Pakistan’s major cities remain woefully ill-equipped to cope to deal with
Monsoon rains have killed at least 282 people, including many women and children, in the past five weeks, the National Disaster Management Authority said on Thursday. The flood also damaged critical infrastructure, such as highways and bridges, and around 5,600 homes, the agency said.
Pakistan has long been among the world’s most climate-vulnerable countries, according to the Global Climate Risk Index, which tracks the devastating human and economic consequences of extreme weather events. It is estimated that between 1998 and 2018 the country lost almost 10,000 lives to climate-related disasters and suffered about US$4 billion in losses.
There are already signs that climate-related devastation will intensify in the coming years, experts say. Rainfall this year was 87 percent heavier than the average downpour, according to Sherry Rehman, the country’s climate change minister, who has linked the new weather pattern to climate change.
She warned that the country should prepare for more flooding and damage to infrastructure as its glaciers continue to melt at an accelerated pace, causing flash floods.
“This is a national disaster,” Ms. Rehman said at a news conference this month.
Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, experienced record rainfall just two years ago. This month’s monsoon rains broke records again, raising alarmed questions about how the country’s economic hub might survive if the trend continues, according to Sindh Provincial Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah.
The floods have turned main roads into rivers. Houses were filled with sewage spewed out of manholes. Power was cut for hours or days to prevent exposed wires from contacting water on the streets and electrocuting people. The devastation has left the port city paralyzed for days, killing at least 31 people, many electrocuted or drowning after roofs and walls collapsed on them, according to the provincial disaster agency.
The devastation has also prompted an outcry from residents over the government’s unwillingness to deal with urban flooding.
Even before the rains swept Karachi, the city was already in ruins, with crumbling streets and growing slums, and bereft of basic government services, though it provides Pakistan with about 40 percent of its revenues. But even in the more affluent areas of the city with a relative advantage in services, the rains have wreaked havoc.
Murtaza Wahab, Karachi’s administrator, said the city has old drainage and sewerage infrastructure that could not withstand the torrential rains, and acknowledged that updates are vital. But he said the city has fared better this year than in 2020 because the government has started unblocking drains ahead of schedule and building some new ones.
Fazal Ali, an accountant living in the Defense Housing Authority, a military-managed housing association, was forced to leave his home this month and move to a private hotel after floodwaters breached the main gate of his home and submerged the house would have.
“The water waves rushed into the house when a vehicle passed our house through the street,” Mr Ali said, adding that the iron gate was also broken in a flash flood two years earlier. “The government has not learned any lessons from past disasters.”
Rainwater also flooded the metropolitan business district, where most of its wholesale markets dealing in goods and garments are located, causing traders to lose billions of rupees.
“Traders rushed to their shops to move their supplies to safe places, but to no avail as there was so much water that the roads were impassable,” said Hakeem Shah, a leader of Karachi’s traders.
“It was utter incompetence on the part of the government,” he added. “Now the government should compensate the traders who are already suffering from inflation.”
The flooding comes just two years after another devastating monsoon season hit Karachi in August 2020, killing over 40 people and hitting an economy already struggling with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
It took weeks after the end of the monsoon season to repair the damage from these floods, which also took a psychological toll on residents who feared even a normal rainy day could bring the city to a standstill again.
The severe damage from these floods and subsequent protests in Karachi prompted government officials to take action to protect the city from the annual monsoon.
Then-Prime Minister Imran Khan announced a nearly $14 million financial package to fix chronic infrastructure problems in Karachi. Thousands of makeshift homes and stalls near drainage systems were demolished. The provincial government launched a campaign to free drains from piles of rubbish.
But two years later, not much has changed.
“There is no accountability,” said Amber Danish, a Karachi-based social activist.
After the floods began in Karachi this month, Wasim Akhtar, a former mayor of Karachi, blamed the provincial authorities, which control the city’s local government.
“The people of Karachi pay billions in taxes to the government, but after every rainy season, Karachi turns into a mess,” Mr Akhtar told a news conference. “Where is all the money that the state government gets from the federal government?”
But Mr Shah, the Prime Minister, blamed the heavy rain.
“The provincial government handled the situation as best it could,” Mr Shah said at a July 12 news conference.
Most analysts blame a combination of factors for Pakistan’s increasing monsoon devastation. Climate change is causing increased rainfall, government officials have shown incompetence and an inability to coordinate, and sporadic urban planning has left major cities particularly vulnerable to damage.
Coordination between Pakistani city, provincial and national governments – which are often run by different political parties with little incentive to work together – is virtually non-existent. In the case of Karachi, rural voters tend to dominate provincial polls, meaning the city’s urban woes have little political ramifications for its provincial leaders.
And Karachi itself is a jigsaw puzzle of overlapping administrative fiefdoms, where civilian and military administrations often overlap in confusing ways.
“All of these problems stem from the city being poorly governed and being exploited by multiple political parties that are vying for control of the city’s economic resources but failing to provide basic services to all of its residents,” said Jumaina Siddiqui, Senior Program Officer for South Asia at the US Institute for Peace.
Meanwhile, amid increasingly brutal rains, the city’s residents are left to their own devices.
This month in Karachi, a Dane, a single-name carpenter, was riding his motorcycle with his wife and two children when they fell into an open drain after heavy rains flooded the street. Residents managed to rescue him and his 3-year-old daughter, he said, but his wife and 2-year-old child drowned.
“It wasn’t rain that killed my wife and child,” Danish said. “It was the incompetence of the government and the helplessness of the people.”
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