Climate change is the catastrophe to end all other catastrophes

People walk through snake infested, contaminated flood waters to retrieve their belongings and get groceries. Their homes were still submerged and they could not afford to travel by boats in Dadu, Sindh, Pakistan on September 13, 2022. (Saiyna Bashir for The Washington Post)
People walk through snake infested, contaminated flood waters to retrieve their belongings and get groceries. Their homes were still submerged and they could not afford to travel by boats in Dadu, Sindh, Pakistan on September 13, 2022. (Saiyna Bashir for The Washington Post)

This past summer, the primordial elements conspired to ravage Greece, the birthplace of Western civilization. The Mediterranean’s many islands were swept by water, air and especially fire, leaving a trail of wreckage. Helios, the sun god, whose statue in Rhodes was among the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, brought scorching temperatures to that island, sparking hundreds of wildfires. In coastal Alexandroupolis, pine forests were “reduced to blackened, skeletal bark”, according to Reuters, while fires in the Dadia forest, home to a magnificent nature sanctuary, torched 281 square miles — an area roughly the size of New York City.

Across Greece, tens of thousands of people, locals and tourists both, had to be evacuated, creating harrowing scenes of fathers clutching children on their backs, mothers shouldering whatever necessities could be carried. Entire families displaced not by war or violence, but by climate change.

In September, scant weeks after the fires, came the deluge. Storms buffeted Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, precipitating massive floods. Regions logged record rainfall — a season’s worth in a day, according to one estimate. The crescendo — for now — was the inundation of Derna on Libya’s Mediterranean coast. Whole neighborhoods were swept out to sea after rains overwhelmed the city’s aging dams. The death toll there stands at 11,300, with 10,000 people still unaccounted for.

Climate change is the catastrophe to end all other catastrophes

This barrage in and around Greece could not help but remind me of my country, Pakistan, and the so-called super flood it endured one year earlier. As more adventurous tourists will be aware, the reaches of northern Pakistan are home to Earth’s largest collection of glaciers outside the polar regions — surrounded by the three highest mountain ranges in the world: the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush. The landscape is surreally beautiful: lunar visions of ice and rock, encircled by jagged peaks. But as global temperatures rise, glacial melt has led to the formation of more than 3,000 new lakes, posing flood risks to the 7 million people downstream.

Last year, extreme heat and melting glaciers contributed to a monsoon season in Pakistan that arrived earlier and lasted longer, resulting in rainfall 780 percent above average. The driving rains culminated in August’s super flood, which submerged a full third of the country. According to UNICEF, the deluge affected 33 million people, half of them children. Millions of acres of agricultural land were flooded, drowning livestock, destroying tomatoes, chiles and other staple crops, and contaminating sanitation systems. Fourteen and a half million people required emergency food assistance, while thousands of displaced families were housed in rickety tent cities, awaiting aid that only trickled in.

This year, even as the Mediterranean catastrophes captured headlines, Pakistan’s efforts to recover from its disaster have been complicated by another torrential monsoon season. In July, Lahore suffered “incessant showers” that broke a 30-year record for rainfall in the city. Flash floods and landslides in late July caused almost 200 deaths, most of them in the mountainous, deprived regions of Baluchistan. In such elements, people not only drown; they are also crushed as buildings collapse, or are electrocuted by downed power lines.

Pakistan’s suffering is compounded by seemingly intractable problems of complacency and misgovernment. The Sindh province, among the areas hit hardest during last year’s monsoon, has long been run by the Pakistan People’s Party, currently led by Asif Ali Zardari, once nicknamed “Mr. Ten Percent” for the allegations of engaging in graft during the tenure as prime minister of his wife, my aunt Benazir Bhutto. It is notable that in the many decades the PPP has ruled the province, it has never managed to cobble together a functional sanitation system. No disaster preparedness plan was in place in Sindh, where government hospitals remain understaffed and underfunded, perennially short of medicines.

It ought to be a scandal that six months after the super flood, 10 million Pakistanis still lacked reliable access to safe drinking water. A year later, Islamic Relief Worldwide has observed stunted growth among children in these areas, where stagnant or contaminated water contributes to outbreaks of dengue fever, malaria and gastroenteritis.

People from flood-affected areas wait to get free food distributed by a charity, in Chachro, near Tharparkar, a district of southern Sindh province, Pakistan, on Sept. 19, 2022. (Pervez Masih/AP)
People from flood-affected areas wait to get free food distributed by a charity, in Chachro, near Tharparkar, a district of southern Sindh province, Pakistan, on Sept. 19, 2022. (Pervez Masih/AP)

I’d rather not write about the climate emergency. I am, or was, primarily a fiction writer, and I’d love to get back to working on novels. I am a feminist, too, frequently asked to speak about all manner of women’s issues in Asia and elsewhere. Yet I increasingly find myself unable to talk about anything other than the failure of our institutions to face up to the climate breakdown. There is no more urgent feminist issue in the world. Questions about whether actresses in the last Marvel movie made the same six figures as their male counterparts, or how many Fortune 500 CEOs are women, are irrelevant to the future well-being of most women on this planet. Even our boldest notions of how to improve the status of women — expanding access to education, health care, housing and liberty — will be meaningless if women are swept away in mega floods, buried in landslides or suffocated by wildfires.

While countless Pakistanis have been dying in the monsoon catastrophe, many more may die trying to escape it. A few weeks before the onset of the Mediterranean wildfires this past summer, a rusty fishing trawler called the Adriana capsized off the coast of Pylos, Greece. The ship, with an estimated capacity of 400 passengers, was carrying about 750 people, many of whom were Pakistani. Human smugglers had promised many of them transit to Italy, and their families had paid for their passages. In the early hours of June 14, hundreds plunged to their deaths in the Mediterranean. (Precise accounting of the missing and the dead may be impossible, but Greek authorities confirmed only 104 survivors.)

A photo taken from a Greek Coast Guard vessel shows the Adriana before its capsize. (Greek Coast Guard)
A photo taken from a Greek Coast Guard vessel shows the Adriana before its capsize. (Greek Coast Guard)

The circumstances surrounding the Adriana’s sinking remain obscure, pending criminal investigation. Greek authorities maintain that the overloaded trawler had refused assistance — a bizarre claim, given that the migrants, including about 100 children, had been without food or water for days. The Greek Coast Guard had been notified about the desperate trawler the morning of June 13, but did close to nothing to help until it overturned and sank after midnight.

A video before the disaster shows one of the dead, a Pakistani man named Sajid Yousaf sitting with his young son on his lap. Yousaf’s family had taken out huge loans to secure his spot on the Adriana, and he had been eager to go. In the video, smoke curls up from a cigarette enclosed in his hand as his son asks him to buy him a bicycle as soon as he gets to Italy. Such a modest dream, such a promise to break, but Yousaf appears confident he can keep it, nodding to his little boy.

A car mechanic pours water over himself to cool down in extreme heat on June 13 in Jacobabad, Pakistan. (Saiyna Bashir for The Washington Post)
A car mechanic pours water over himself to cool down in extreme heat on June 13 in Jacobabad, Pakistan. (Saiyna Bashir for The Washington Post)

We live in an era of dreadful superlatives. July was the planet’s hottest month ever recorded. In China, people suffered an all-time-high temperature of 126 degrees Fahrenheit, and numerous other countries sweltered.. Similar records were broken in August and September, suggesting that “hottest ever” is the new normal. Three months of extreme weather displaced 150,000 people and killed 18,000 globally. These ever-rising milestones, ever-deadlier temperatures, portend accelerating horrors for the billions of people who call this planet home. The same pound of flesh will be extracted from every nation, rich or poor, whether their leaders believe that things aren’t really so bad. We will endure these disasters — wildfires, super floods, hurricanes and tsunamis — for as long as possible. Not long at all, I’m afraid.

Fatima Bhutto is a Pakistani writer and novelist. Her latest book is “New Kings of the World”.

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