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Apathy worsens suffering of Pakistan’s climate-vulnerable poor

Marginalized communities are always first to be hit by natural disasters, and last to be tended

A family wades through a flood-hit area following heavy monsoon rains in Charsadda district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan on Aug 29, 2022

A family wades through a flood-hit area following heavy monsoon rains in Charsadda district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan on Aug 29, 2022. (Photo: AFP)

Published: October 04, 2023 11:26 AM GMT

Updated: October 04, 2023 11:29 AM GMT

As Pakistan grapples with the increasingly dire consequences of climate change, the suffering of the nation’s millions of poor people worsens due to glaring negligence from the state.

August was the second driest month in 63 years due to a staggering 66 percent drop in average rainfall, the Pakistan Meteorological Department announced recently.

Between June and August last year, heavy rain and flooding left more than 1,700 dead and displaced about 7.9 million.

About 37 percent of Pakistan’s more than 231 million people lived below the poverty line in 2021, according to the World Bank. The COVID-19 pandemic, a failing economy, staggering inflation and ongoing political upheavals have made millions of new poor.

The fatalities and the loss of livelihoods during the flooding were disproportionately higher in the poor and marginalized communities, both from majority Muslim and religious minorities. They are always the first to be hit, and the last to be tended.

The support the poor and marginalized receive from charities is insufficient and can be termed “a cosmetic development.” The rehabilitation assistance washes away when the next flood hits.

"The debt cycle never ends as the farmers can hardly make a stable income"

Such disasters make the poor even poorer, pushing their backs harder against a wall. Rights activists said that the 2022 floods forced many poor into bonded labor, a form of modern-day slavery still prevalent in parts of Sindh and Punjab provinces despite a legal ban.

The climate crisis increases personal debts and leaves sharecroppers and small farmers at the mercy of landlords and moneylenders.

In Sindh and Balochistan provinces, tenant farmers borrow money from a landlord or moneylender to pay for crop-cycle expenses. They prefer the less formal arrangements to microfinance banks, which demand collateral and identification documents.

Sharecroppers and landlords split the expense of farming, with the former offering credit for inputs like seeds, fertilizer, and other things. With the proceeds from the harvest, the farmer pays the landlord back. The debt cycle never ends as the farmers can hardly make a stable income.

Flooding, rising temperatures, and drought are a few of the extreme weather events that amplify the vulnerabilities of the poor and marginalized.

Religious and ethnic minorities who face social discrimination face even harsher realities.

Christians who make up the largest minority group are routinely despised by the majority for their abysmal socio-economic status due to low income from socially ostracized jobs like sweeping and cleaning.

Thus, they are not often on the list to receive support during flooding and drought. 

Climate change doesn't discriminate, but societies do, and this bias intensifies the suffering of those already marginalized. Their challenges range from displacement due to climate-induced disasters to water scarcity and food insecurity.

An Amnesty International report, “A Burning Emergency: Extreme heat and the right to health in Pakistan” released on World Environment Day, evaluates the impacts of extreme heat in Pakistan on people’s lives and right to health and livelihoods.

"The dumping of toxic waste and pollution in drains means the health of these poor people is perpetually endangered"

“People living in poverty do not have access to or are unable to afford electricity to run electric fans or air conditioning or to purchase solar panels or other alternative technologies to run them,” it stated.

It was based on interviews with 45 individuals affected by heatwaves in Lahore — the world’s most polluted city in 2022 according to the World Health Organization — and Jacobabad, one of the hottest places on earth where temperatures of up to 52°C were recorded in June 2021.

People in Jacobabad and Lahore described a range of different coping mechanisms that they use to try and keep their homes cool with many noting the high costs involved, which often consume a large portion of their monthly income — up to 30% for some.

Those interviewed were at higher risk of exposure to heat, especially those who perform outdoor work, such as farmers, brick kiln factory workers, delivery drivers, police officers, and sanitation workers.

Health professionals say heatwaves increase the risk of heatstroke, drowsiness, difficulty breathing, stomach burning, dizziness, fever, bodily discomfort, eye infections, and headaches.

Extreme heatwaves pose more danger for poor communities like Christian cleaners, who live in dirty, unhealthy shantytowns close to sewage and drainage lines. They are particularly vulnerable to flooding, torrential rains, and extreme heat.

Also, the dumping of toxic waste and pollution in drains means the health of these poor people is perpetually endangered.   

In 2020, Shunila Ruth, a former Christian member of the National Assembly inaugurated a 50 million rupee (US$172,794) development project in Bahar Colony, a poor Christian neighborhood in Lahore, seeking to cover old, overflowing sewage. This project never materialized, so the sewer is still open.

"State authorities need to think why these people are forced live in such miserable conditions"

Toxic gas from such an open sewer damages the copper wires of air-conditioning machines, according to an expert. One can only imagine its impact on human health.

The country’s largest Christian shantytown in Lahore's Youhanabad district with 150,000 residents has no health center, children's park, or vocation center. This densely populated neighborhood saw four Christians die from water-borne diseases between last Christmas and this January.  

Six Christian slums exist in Islamabad, the national capital, near large and small sewage points. Until the federal government covered them in 2007, the drains were open and flooded the homes of locals.

In Karachi, the nation’s largest city and home to a sizable Christian population, the authorities blamed the occupants near three main city water drains for unprecedented flooding in 2020. A demolition drive that followed razed 6,600 houses, and rendered 66,500 people, including Christians, homeless.

Such apathy is deplorable. State authorities need to think about why these people are forced to live in such miserable conditions.

In early October, a Christian charity, the Ecumenical Commission for Human Development observed the "Season of Creation." It welcomed youth leaders from Lahore, Faisalabad, and Multan who participated in a series of activities such as awareness seminars, environmental documentaries, and environmentally-themed artwork. Sadly, the Church hierarchy largely ignored this time of reflection, action, and advocacy.

The reality is the Church in Pakistan has also not done enough to uplift the poor and vulnerable from poverty let alone fight climate change on their behalf.

Climate change is a planetary emergency and a major priority for the world today. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable millions in Pakistan are neither receiving the due support from the state or charity groups nor are they in the global spotlight.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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