UN chief sees ‘great heights’ of human endurance and heroism amid ‘climate carnage’ in Pakistan
New York: Secretary-General António Guterres on Saturday reiterated that the needs in flood-ravaged Pakistan are enormous and called for urgent financial support, as he wrapped up a two-day trip aimed at raising awareness of the climate-driven disaster with flights over some of the hardest hit areas.
The UN chief landed in Sindh province before flying over some of the worst-affected areas on his way to Balochistan, where he met with local residents, some of whom were directly impacted by the floods. Many had lost their loved ones, homes and everything they owned, amid the near continuous monsoon rainfall, flash flooding, and rain-induced landslides that have pummeled the country since mid-June.
More than 1,300 lives have been lost, and according to the United Nations, tens of millions of people are now homeless, one-third of this vast country is submerged, and livestock and crops have been wiped out. Moreover, education and learning has been interrupted for an estimated 3.5 million children, including in at least 61 refugee schools.
“I have seen many humanitarian disasters in the world, but I have never seen climate carnage on this scale. I have simply no words to describe what I have seen today: a flooded area that is three times the total area of my own country, Portugal,” Mr. Guterres told reporters as he concluded his field visits.
While he had been struck by the “unquantifiable depths of human suffering” he had witnessed, he stressed that he had also seen “great heights of human endurance and heroism – from emergency workers to ordinary people helping their neighbors.”
Earlier Saturday morning Mr. Guterres traveled from Islamabad to Sukkur in Sindh by plane, accompanied by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. His visit ended in Karachi on Saturday evening, where he held a joint press conference with the Foreign Minister at the airport.
Speaking on the tarmac, they were flanked by a freshly arrived aid shipment from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, that will be heading to help the effected communities.
The Secretary-General paid tribute to the massive response efforts of the Pakistani authorities – civilian and military, national and regional.
He added: “I also want to thank the civil society, humanitarian organizations and my UN colleagues who have rushed in. I also want to take profit to thank all those donors who have started to support Pakistan in this terrible hour.”
The needs are enormous, and that’s why “I urge massive and urgent financial support for Pakistan. And this is not just a question of solidarity or generosity. It is a question of justice.”
Foreign Minister Zardari thanked the Secretary-General, said that the UN chief had visited “Pakistan in our time of difficulty and witnessed first-hand the devastation that has been caused by the catastrophic monsoon rains that we faced for many months.”
He stressed that not only the crisis is not made by Pakistan, “but the response to this crisis must also be a global response.”
Displaced and destitute
Scenes of the submerged lands were clearly visible as the aircraft that carried the UN and Pakistani officials flew over the country’s southern areas; flood damage and high waters stretched as far as the eye could see.
In addition to witnessing damage first-hand, the Secretary-General met with local officials and residents who are now homeless, as well as with first responders and “selfless” locals who rushed to help when the floodwaters began to rise.
At Sukkur airport, Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah painted a dire picture of the scale of the disaster in Sindh province. “Literally all the rural areas on both sides of River Indus... have been affected,” he said. “We know that almost 600 people died, less than 10,000 injured and a rough estimate of 12 million people effected.”
He added that relief equipment was the focus, for instance providing tents for shelter, as well as mosquito nets, to help those who were displaced.
The Sukkur area was severely affected by the floods of 2010 and 2011, and again in 2022 has been among the most heavily impacted areas.
For his part, Mr. Guterres said that there has clearly been loss of life and destruction and loss of property and loss of livelihoods, but he told the Pakistani official: “Listening to you, I see that there is no loss of hope.”
For that hope to materialize, however, the UN chief underscored that the international community must, among others, “stop the madness stop with which we are treating nature... Now is the time to reduce emissions. This will be essential in the discussions in Cairo of the [COP27].”
From the Sukkur airport in Sindh to the next stop in Usta Muhammad in Balochistan, the scenes of devastation were equally vivid. The approximately 25-minute journey between the two areas by helicopter was heartbreaking: there was almost no sign of life in areas that once were inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people who are now simply homeless.
In Usta Muhammed, the Secretary-General, the Pakistani Prime Minister and Foreign Minister heard the harrowing accounts from displaced people. One of them was a man who lost everything in the floods, he lived in the outskirts of the town, and owned a goat.
The senior officials also met a woman who spoke about her health issues, and another who had given birth to baby boy Perwin, lying in her bed in a tent. She smiled as Mr. Guterres held the baby and inquired about her condition.
It’s nearly 100 degrees (38 Celsius) in this part of Pakistan. The heat can be unbearable, but the residents have no choice. Fans are installed in the tents, and in a UNICEF-allocated tent, little children were getting some education. The high-ranking officials from the UN and the Government listened attentively to these affected people, to their stories and their hopes.
‘I am here to serve my people’: First responder
The next stop was Mohenjo-Daro, another area affected by the floods. The Secretary-General and the government officials met with displaced people. On the way to a crowded settlement, tents could be seen erected on the embankments, as desperate people try to avoid the threat of rising water.
Mr. Guterres interacted with families, and women who told him they lost everything. His message to them was: “I am here to ask the whole world to give the massive support to Pakistan.”
The Secretary-General and Foreign Minister Zardari also visited a nearby hospital where they met with first responders and nurses, and female health workers, as well as citizens who had rushed to help the effected communities.
Dr. Sumeira Abasi, a field medical officer, had been coming to the hospital since the flooding began, and being a mother of three, she lamented that the situation was challenging for her. But she added: “I come here to serve my people; this is my passion.”
Lady Health Worker (LHW), Amna Khatoon, whose house collapsed during the rains, has been lending a hand ever since. She told UN News that there was a lot of water, but she was helping pregnant ladies and providing nutrition and other treatment. “There were no road communications, we were using local boats to evacuate the people.”
Mr. Muhammad Shifa Arijo, Secretary of Union Council Anwar Adab, Larkano, had risked his own life rescuing some 300 people from slums that had been in the path of the raging floodwaters, and subsequently helping to move them to Quaid Awam Engineering University. He had also been given the responsibility of delivering food each day to hundreds of people affected by the floods.
For his part, Mr. Guterres said that while he had heard excellent briefings during his visit by the different centres in Islamabad, in Sukkur and in Balochistan, the testimony of the first responders was perhaps even more important.
“It’s not about numbers, it’s about people, about the farmers that have lost their crops, about those that have lost members of their family, about those that have seen their houses destroyed, about those that have lost their cattle, about those that have no money to pay the loans that they have contracted to be able to plant,” he said.
Just a short drive from the hospital, the Secretary-General visited Mohenjo Daro, a UNESCO World Heritage Site impacted by the floods.
The archaeological ruins at Mohenjo-Daro date back to the 3rd millennium BC and represent the best-preserved urban settlement in South Asia, according to UNESCO. The ruins are located on the right bank of the Indus River, 510 km northeast of Karachi and 28 km from Larkana city in Larkana District, Sindh Province.
The head of the United Nations toured the ancient area, wearing an “Ajrak” a traditional head cover used in the Sindh province, which he was gifted at the scene.
Humanitarian response facilities
The World Food Programme (WFP) Humanitarian Response Facilities (HRF) are a network of warehouses at strategic locations across Pakistan, established at the request of the Government of Pakistan. The country has eight HRFs, aimed at decentralizing relief support and response across provinces. The HRF in Sukkur was completed in 2016. It has a facility area of 10 acres and a capacity of 3.200 mt.
Resident Coordinator, Julien Harneis, told UN News that HRF was essential during this disaster: “Without the warehouses there and the stocks that are in there, people would have received assistance months later.”
He added that the scale of the catastrophe is so big, but in his opinion, for the future, “we need to be thinking about how to better work with first responders, how to better work with local governments, associations, the civil society, that’s one part... so, we need to be building different models for the future.”
Pakistan paying the price for actions of others
In Karachi, Mr. Guterres said that climate change caused by human activity is supercharging storms and catastrophes in Pakistan, but also in Chad, the Horn of Africa with their terrible drought and the risk of famine, and beyond.
“All these countries did not cause the problem – but they are paying the price.”
These extreme weather events have the fingerprints of human activity all over them – specifically, the burning of fossil fuels heating our planet, he added.
He recalled that the G20 countries are responsible for 80 per cent of today’s emissions – one per cent, 80 per cent – and developed economies are responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gases throughout history.;
“Here from Pakistan, I want to reinforce a clear point: Wealthier countries are morally responsible for helping developing countries like Pakistan to recover from disasters like these, and to adapt, to build resilience to climate impacts that unfortunately will be repeated in the future.”
He pointed that Pakistan is paying the price of something that was created by others.
“Today, it’s Pakistan. Tomorrow, it could be your country, wherever you live” and he added that all countries – with the G20 leading the way – must boost their national emissions reduction targets every year, until the world’s 1.5C temperature limit is guaranteed, “and we are at risk of making it irreversibly impossible.”
People living in high climate vulnerability conditions, including in South Asia, are 15 times more likely to die from climate impacts. Nearly half of humanity is now in this category, the overwhelming majority in the developing world.
“As Pakistan is deluged, as famine stalks the Horn of Africa, rich countries must step up adaptation finance.”