Receding waters reveal scars of climate change in Pakistan

The impact of last year’s historic floods will be felt for years to come by children and their families.

By Juan Haro and Jason Miks

Noor is only 22 years old, but she has already experienced heartbreaking losses. The first time was due to complications during pregnancy. The second was amid devastating flooding in 2022 that destroyed her home in Sindh Province.

Just days after giving birth at home, Noor was forced to evacuate with other members of the community in a makeshift boat. But the stress took a physical as well as a mental toll. “I was barely eating during the rains and couldn’t breastfeed,” Noor says.

Her newborn baby stopped breathing just a few days later. “We buried my baby a few metres from home. It was still raining.”

Pakistan is highly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change, with different parts of the country exposed to different climate-induced hazards – flash flooding and landslides in the northern mountainous and hilly areas; tropical cyclones, coastal flooding and erosion in the southern coastal areas; and desertification, drought and heat waves in arid and semi-arid southern regions.

During the monsoon season in 2022, Pakistan was hit by its worst floods in over 100 years.

Crisis on top of crisis

Months later, millions of people still living in flood-affected areas remain deprived of safe drinking water, leaving families with no alternative but to drink and use potentially disease-ridden water.

Yet for Benazir and families like hers, such struggles long pre-dated last year’s floods.

Benazir also lost a child amidst the tumult of the floods. Now, her eight-year-old daughter, Uzma, has had to drop out of school to work in the fields as the family struggles to make ends meet. “My husband works when he can in the banana plantations and earns around 200 or 300 PKR (around $1 a day),” Benazir says.

“We have to feed six children with that. We can only afford bread and a little chili for one meal a day.”

The challenges Benazir and her husband face in trying to feed their children are felt by countless families. A protracted nutrition emergency characterized by high rates of wasting, particularly in districts most affected by floods, is pushing children to the brink. Children experiencing wasting are too thin and their immune systems are weak, leaving them vulnerable to developmental delays, disease and death.

In flood-affected areas, more than 1.5 million boys and girls are already severely malnourished, a number that will only rise in the absence of safe water and proper sanitation. Eight-month-old Sahil is one of them. He’s being cared for by his grandmother, Son Pari, while his mother is hospitalized.

“She suffers from anaemia,” Son Pari says of her daughter. “She’s unable to breastfeed and had complications after giving birth. I hope she returns soon. Her baby needs her.”

If treatment with RUTF – an energy dense, micronutrient paste made using peanuts, sugar, milk powder, oil, vitamins and minerals – goes well, Sahil will start gaining weight and gradually get stronger.

Vicious cycle

Children are the biggest victims of the climate crisis. When droughts diminish food supplies, children suffer from malnutrition and stunting. When wells dry up, children are the ones missing school to fetch water.

As floods become more frequent and more damaging, more communities are displaced, making access to safe water more unpredictable. Unsafe water and poor sanitation are underlying causes of malnutrition, with associated diseases such as diarrhoea preventing children from getting the vital nutrients they need. Moreover, malnourished children are more susceptible to waterborne diseases due to already weakened immune systems – perpetuating a vicious cycle of malnutrition and infection.

Even before last year’s monsoon season, just over one-third of water in Pakistan was considered safe for consumption. The historic floods damaged most of the water systems in affected areas, forcing more than 5.4 million people to rely solely on contaminated water from ponds and wells.

An additional obstacle to practicing good hygiene is the lack of proper toilets, which disproportionally affects children, adolescent girls and women who are at added risk of shame and harm when defecating outdoors. For Saima, this often means waiting until it’s dark to try to find some privacy.

“Now we don’t have a bathroom, so at night I have to walk alone,” she says. “But I’m scared of creatures like scorpions and snakes.”

The invisible toll

Flooded fields, makeshift shelters perched precariously by the sides of roads near stagnant and contaminated waters, treatment centres for wasted children – all are tangible, visible signs of the enormity of the impact of the floods. But another, equally pernicious, effect is being felt – the upheaval and uncertainty is taking a devastating psychological toll on children’s educations, and by extension, their futures.

Bushra Anum, 10, misses going to school, but last year’s deluge compromised the building’s structure and it’s no longer safe to hold classes there.

As we look around her old school, she takes a seat at a desk and recounts how the boat she was rescued with almost sank.

“I can’t wait to be back in my classroom,” she says.

Almost overnight, millions of Pakistan’s children lost access to education as thousands of schools were damaged or destroyed. Many children had only recently returned to the classroom, having endured some of the world’s longest school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of its response, UNICEF has established hundreds of temporary learning centres in the worst-affected districts and supported teachers and children with education supplies.

“It wouldn’t stop raining. It felt like a prison.”

Climate change is causing distress, anger and other negative emotions in children. But for children in emergencies, education is about more than having a place to study. Schools protect children from the physical dangers around them – including abuse and exploitation. They offer psychosocial support, giving children stability and structure to help them cope with the trauma they experience in the wake of natural disasters. And as much as anything, they are a place where children can meet with their friends, play – just be children.

Almost overnight, millions of Pakistan’s children lost family members, homes, safety, and their education, all under the most traumatic of circumstances.

To support children’s mental and physical health, UNICEF is training teachers on psychosocial care and health screenings and has helped communities prepare back-to-school and enrolment activities for schools that have been cleaned and rehabilitated to allow classes to resume safely.

“These kids became adults too quickly. We need to get their childhoods back,” Shan adds.

“It hurts to see children and the mothers of my country suffering,” says Emergency Specialist Zahida, who is leading UNICEF Pakistan’s Hyderabad hub office in the south of Sindh Province. “But we are going to stay here, supporting them, no matter how long and what it takes.”

Months since the catastrophic floods, the extreme weather shows little sign of abating. The next monsoon season is already approaching, and many here say parts of the country felt like they skipped right past spring and straight into the scorching heat of summer.

Prolonged and widespread heat, combined with lower-than-average rainfall in some areas, has impacted millions of people in some of the most densely populated areas of the world.

In each case, these climate-related crises do not affect everyone equally. Children suffer most, with those in the poorest communities bearing the biggest burden. And as the world continues to get warmer at an alarming rate, almost every child is placed at risk of more frequent and destructive climate hazards. Without urgent global action, the climate devastation seen in Pakistan will prove to be another precursor of the many more child survival catastrophes to come.

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