Some two thousand years ago, in 325 BC, after a string of conquests across the Indus plains, the forces of Alexander of Macedon mutinied on the banks of the Beas River. They were exhausted and refused to advance, and Alexander grudgingly agreed to return home. First, he turned south and marched down the Indus, then he veered west, plodding through regions that today constitute the Pakistani provinces of Sindh and Balochistan. Here, too, unable to resist a chance at glory, he opted for an inhospitable route, one known to have brought previous imperial armies to their knees.
It was, from the outset, a disastrous decision. Dust storms confounded his forces. They dragged themselves over one dune after another, sinking into the sand “as if it were mud or untrodden snow,” according to the Greek historian Arrian in The Anabasis of Alexander. Heat-addled and hungry, Alexander’s men ate their own horses.
The Anabasis is the chief source on Alexander’s campaigns. At one point it describes a night when the dwindling army bivouacked next to a small stream, relieved to have found a source of fresh water. Strangers to the land, the fighters did not know that this stream could swell suddenly, exponentially, fed by faraway rains. Overnight, a large portion of the camp drowned in a flash flood—almost all the women, children, and animals. Ultimately, according to historians, between a third and three quarters of Alexander’s men perished in the desert.
Hill torrents are an inescapable feature of the craggy landscape west of the Indus, and over thousands of years the people living there have developed an intimate familiarity with them: when they swell, how they swerve, their tendencies, their idiosyncrasies. The Indus flows north to south through Pakistan, spanning the length of the country; the torrents course west to east, tumbling down various mountain ranges and ultimately emptying into the river. For centuries, communities constructed earthen bunds—mud walls, essentially—that stretched for miles on end, to first slow the surging waters, then divert them for agriculture. Building these was a festive affair: each year before the monsoon, local farmers came together, bullocks in tow, to construct new bunds or bolster old ones. At night, families told stories over sohbat, a garlicky meat stew served over shredded chapati—a special-occasion dish, meant to be eaten with others, from a shared platter. Marriages were arranged, gossip exchanged; in the morning, as farmers and animals began their work, holy men blessed the fields.
Remnants of earthen bunds dating back five thousand years have been found in Balochistan, but while this form of irrigation, among the oldest in the world, is still practiced in some parts of Pakistan, it is now associated with low-value subsistence crops and concentrated in regions far from the seats of power. It’s the grid of perennial canals—extending from the Indus and her tributaries to drive Pakistan’s largely agrarian economy—that is the apple of the state’s eye. Initially spurred by Britain’s profit-driven colonization of the Indus basin in the late 1800s and early 1900s and later maintained and extended to ensure a reliable supply of water to the new state of Pakistan, this network of canals is today the world’s largest contiguous irrigation system, studded with megadams and barrages (smaller dams that divert water but do not store it).
Older forms of water management were generally forgotten by bureaucrats and engineers. Instead, eyeing greater economic growth for a burgeoning country and supported by international finance institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), they built canals between the mountains and the river to coax water into semiarid regions west of the Indus and make them forever green. Local communities protested, pointing out that such structures, running parallel to the Indus, would directly impede the path of the hill torrents. Do not build against nature, they warned.
For a long while, it didn’t matter—not enough for the world or much of the country to take notice. Most years, in most parts of Pakistan, rain tends to be insufficient. The prevailing concern is too little water, an anxiety that has shaped the development of the country’s vast irrigation infrastructure. In Sindh, people once referred to the Indus as sagar, sea, because that’s what it looked like, unencumbered. Today, the two-thousand-mile river feeds water to more than 35,000 miles of canals. In particularly dry years, it struggles to reach the sea.
This has not been a dry year. By late August, writhing under a monsoon on steroids that was almost certainly exacerbated by climate change, a third of a country typically preoccupied with water shortages was drowning. Nearly 33 million people—one in seven Pakistanis—have been affected, with nearly eight million displaced. More than two thousand are dead, initially from rain-related accidents, then from waterborne diseases such as malaria and typhoid; the toll continues to climb. Pakistan has flooded before (the riverine floods of 2010, which ultimately killed nearly two thousand, were described as once-in-a-century), but it has never flooded at this scale, and never in so many ways at once: cloudbursts and glacial outbursts in the north, prolonged spells of rain in Sindh and Balochistan, flash floods in the foothills west of the Indus, and urban flooding in cities like Karachi—a mélange of meteorological disasters.
For ten days and ten nights in late August, it rained without stop in the village of Chowki Jamali in Jafarabad, a district in Balochistan near the border with Sindh: an arid plain, surrounded by mountains on three sides, made arable by canal irrigation. Water pounded down with a ferocity that baffled even its oldest residents—they could recall no precedent. Almost all the mud houses crumbled, disintegrating under the force of the rain and the torrents that surged from mountains to the north and the west. The roads turned to sludge. Mobile networks became more sporadic than usual. To talk to me on WhatsApp, Nauroz Jamali, a volunteer with a local mutual aid group called Madat Balochistan, paced back and forth in a clearing, waving his phone in the air to catch a whiff of signal—“like a bomb detector,” he joked.
Jamali’s home had experienced intermittent flooding in the past. “I’ve always said, no matter where the water might be from—from a breached river embankment in the east or from the mountains above—it always likes to stop by our village for tea,” he told me. Usually, the water sweeps swiftly in and out; the villagers hold their collective breath and survey the damage once it passes. It is the water that pools over days—in this case, weeks—seeping into the ground, inching upward, that causes terror.
As it continued to accumulate, finding no path to the river or the sea, Jamali watched his relatives’ houses, made of concrete, collapse in slow motion—a wall here, a chunk of roof there. Then his own. A tenant farmer who worked on Jamali’s family’s land had saved up for a decade to build his own house; knowing the old man might not be able to recover from the devastation even if they did, Jamali and his cousins scrambled to salvage it, using a small machine to pump out water. But there was nowhere for the water to go, so it kept rising. He and his cousins had recently embarked on a fish-farming venture; as the floodwater became level with the reservoir, their fish swam away.
Versions of this scene played out across central and southern Pakistan: in Dera Ghazi Khan, a Seraiki-speaking district in southern Punjab where vestiges of older forms of water management linger, rain-bloated torrents tore down the mountains. Farther south, sagar is once again an accurate word to describe the floodplains of Sindh.
In Jafarabad, villagers considered breaching one of the canals themselves, Jamali said, to give the water a path to drain into the river or nearest lake. They knew this was likely to drown the adjacent settlement. “In the past, in such a situation,” he told me, “we’ve had neighbors turn up on our land, brandishing guns or the Quran.” Faced with the prospect of prolonged conflict with the people living next to them, in their desperation invoking the threat of violence and the wrath of God, the villagers decided to let nature—or the irrigation department—determine their fate. As the water continued to pool, they knew it was time to leave.
In late August, Jamali crossed over into Sindh. He entered the province via a bridge built over a branch of the Right Bank Outfall Drain, a World Bank–funded series of drainage channels intended to transport effluents and riverine floodwater from the upper districts of Sindh and adjoining regions of Balochistan to the Arabian Sea, about 360 miles to the south. These structures between Sindh and Balochistan also obstruct the path of the hill torrents, and during heavy rainfall, Jamali told me, the Sindh government frequently keeps the gates closed to prevent flooding within the province, which forces the water to pool in Balochistan instead.
During a previous bout of flooding, one of Jamali’s cousins had scribbled on the parapet of the bridge a plea: FOR GOD’S SAKE, OPEN THIS. As he left his home, Jamali noticed that the graffiti was still there.
Closer to the Indus, in Larkana district in Sindh, Rahmat Tunio, a freelance journalist, was scrambling to file stories for international outlets suddenly paying attention to Pakistan; between interviews, he was scouting price-gouged rentals in Larkana City, one of the few areas that wasn’t entirely underwater. Tunio’s village, a cluster of five hundred households that narrowly skirted the 2010 floods, was washed away by the rains in August; when we spoke in early September, his family was living in a government school building on higher land a few miles outside the village. More than half a million people are in shelters, according to officials, which represents only a fraction of the millions displaced—many more are living in makeshift tents or crouching under charpoys along highways and on embankments, forced to drink the same water in which the carcasses of their dead goats and buffalo float.
Tunio watched his house buckle before his eyes. I asked him how he had felt. “Like a statue,” he said. “For a few minutes, I lost all sensation—the only thought in my mind was, How am I going to cope with this?”
Only months ago, he’d been reporting on an entirely different calamity: an extended heat wave that began in March, unusually early, and gripped the province through the summer. In April and May, temperatures hovered over 104 degrees for prolonged periods; on one May day, the city of Jacobabad, about fifty-five miles north of Larkana, topped 124 degrees. Jacobabad, home to some 300,000 people, is one of two cities on Earth that researchers say recently passed heat and humidity thresholds above what the human body can tolerate. (The other is Ras al Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates.)
The current floods are probably linked to those extraordinary heat waves, which, according to climate scientists affiliated with World Weather Attribution, an international organization that analyzes extreme weather events, were made thirty times more likely by climate change. Those higher temperatures may have also led to higher rates of glacial melt into the Indus. (Pakistan is home to over 7,200 glaciers, more than anywhere else outside the polar regions.) More crucially, given the nature of the current floods—caused primarily by widespread rainfall rather than overflowing rivers—warmer air tends to hold more moisture, eventually unleashing it in the form of heavy rains. According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department, this August was the wettest on record in Sindh and Balochistan, with rainfall 726 percent and 590 percent above average, respectively.
In early summer, Tunio was interviewing farmers lamenting their sun-seared irrigation channels; it was planting season for rice, a particularly thirsty crop especially at the sowing stage, but there was no water. Richer farmers revved up their wells, reaching deep into the ground to water their crops, but many fields were simply left fallow. Now, those that were cultivated have been destroyed by standing water. According to the government, nearly 15 percent of Pakistan’s rice crop and 40 percent of its cotton crop were lost—as were the personal grain stores that many farming families rely on for food throughout the year. “As far as agriculture is concerned,” Tunio said, “nothing is left.”
Since the water is unlikely to recede soon in Sindh, the rabi, or winter, crop—most importantly, wheat grain—stands to be affected too, another blow to the debt-ridden country’s ability to feed itself in the coming year. Despite this, however, irrigation officials are already estimating a shortage of water for the upcoming agricultural season, the pendulum swinging once more from deluge to drought.
Pakistan’s current prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif—younger brother of the former leader Nawaz Sharif—assumed power earlier this year, after a contentious vote of no confidence removed his predecessor, Imran Khan. Sharif was previously chief minister of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab. He has a reputation as a brisk administrator with a penchant for what one might call conspicuous construction: large urban infrastructure projects, such as bridges and metrobus lines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s summit in Samarkand this September, Sharif exhorted the heads of state in attendance to “build a wall” against climate change—an unfortunate choice of metaphor, given that the flooding was exacerbated by concrete irrigation structures.
After the floods of 2010 and 2011, the Benazir Income Support Programme, the government social safety net scheme that assists millions of Pakistanis living below the poverty line, was expanded to also help those displaced by the disaster. This time, that mechanism of cash transfers kicked into action sooner, distributing 65.1 billion rupees (about $300 million) to 2.6 million families as of mid-October. Still, the sheer scale of devastation has overwhelmed the government’s abilities, and many people continue to wait for relief. Weeks after the flood, communities have complained that they’ve received no assistance from the state.
Many of the international charities and aid organizations that bolstered rescue and relief operations during previous disasters can scarcely be seen this time around: Pakistan has in recent years turned against such organizations, alleging that they work against the state. (Save the Children, for instance, which had been in the country for thirty-five years, was expelled in 2015, after the government linked it to a fake vaccination program used by the CIA to track down Osama bin Laden, an accusation that the charity denies. The ban on Save the Children was ultimately reversed, but dozens of other groups, including ActionAid, Plan International, and World Vision, remain suspended.) In September the head of the Edhi Foundation, Pakistan’s largest charity, appealed to the government to lift the ban on international NGOs for just one year, remarking that 90 percent of those affected by the flooding had not received assistance.
In 2010 international charities operated with relative ease in Sindh, distributing food, tents, and clean water to the 20 million affected by the flooding that year. (They were more cautious in the northern parts of the country, where aid workers had previously been targeted by militant groups.) Sajida Parvez, in her early twenties at the time, found her first job with Oxfam in her native Johi, a town in the arid foothills of the Kirthar Mountains. This year, the district where Johi is located—Dadu, in Sindh—was the most severely affected in the country. For days, Parvez told me, women and men in Johi and nearby Mehar stacked one sandbag on top of another to strengthen embankments that, if breached, would send water pouring into their houses. A contingent of two thousand residents kept vigil day and night, reciting verses from the Quran to ward off disaster. As the waters recede, Parvez has continued doing relief work, distributing rations, setting up tents for the displaced, providing medical assistance to those about to give birth. This time, however, she says it is mutual aid networks providing the bulk of supplies and funds—but these are piecemeal, and limited.
Officials warn that it may take up to six months for the water to completely recede, but international aid and attention are waning. Even local sympathy is souring. City dwellers carp on Twitter and WhatsApp about the dangers of “illegal immigrants” and the influx of “bandits,” dredging up old prejudices.
What could repair—ecological, social—look like at this moment? There is a growing call to cancel Pakistan’s foreign debt, which amounts to roughly $100 billion, so that the country can direct money toward investment in climate resilience instead of repaying external loans. Others are demanding that international banks at least stop funding future water infrastructure projects.
The response from the financial titans has, however, been predictable. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank did announce $2 billion and $1.5 billion in aid, respectively, and proclaim their commitment to “communities’ climate resilience,” but they have failed to reckon with the damage caused by their own past projects, like the ADB-funded Chashma Right Bank Canal in Dera Ghazi Khan. After repeated flooding exposed a fundamental design flaw, engineers over the past two decades built siphons to provide passage for the hill torrents. In the recent flooding, the anthropologist and activist Mushtaq Gaadi explained to me, these siphons were either blocked or the torrents changed course. Both were the result of the silt-heavy nature of the region’s water bodies—something any local farmer or fisher could have told them, if only they’d been consulted.
Sherry Rehman is a former journalist turned politician who today serves as minister for climate change in Sharif’s cabinet. After the floods, she issued a call for climate reparations, invoking the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change’s notion of “loss and damage” payments (which asks that countries that grew rich through heavy use of fossil fuels compensate poorer ones on the front lines of the climate crisis). “Global warming is the existential crisis facing the world, and Pakistan is ground zero—yet we have contributed less than one percent to emissions,” Rehman said after the floods, in an interview with The Guardian. “Obviously the bargain made between the global north and global south is not working.”
In late September Rehman announced an ambitious climate initiative called “Living Indus,” aimed at “reviving the natural routes” of the river. It would cost between $11 billion and $17 billion. The state, she pointed out, could not foot the bill on its own. “All our funds have been diverted to humanitarian funds to rehabilitate flood victims,” she said. Pakistan will launch the initiative at COP27, this year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Loss and damage—that is, climate reparations—is also expected to figure prominently at the conference. UN Secretary General António Guterres has called it a “litmus test” of seriousness and “a moral imperative that cannot be ignored.”
Meanwhile, the displaced worry about what will happen next. Marvi Latifi, a member of the Women’s Democratic Front, a feminist political collective spearheading relief efforts in many parts of country, told me about a woman she met in Hyderabad. “Is this life now?” she asked, sitting on the ground in a tent city, surrounded by her children. “Will we keep getting drowned this way, again and again?”
There is a term in medicine, iatrogenesis: illness that comes as the result of treatment (in Greek, “brought forth by a healer”). It can be an infection acquired in a hospital, or the nasty side effect of a prescription drug, or a superbug arising from the misuse of antibiotics—a medical riff, according to the Yale anthropologist James C. Scott, on the adage that the cure can be worse than the disease. Scott, who researches peasants and nonstate societies in Southeast Asia, is writing a book on the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar. He argues that modern management of rivers—for instance, the vast canal irrigation system that exacerbated flooding in Pakistan—has brought about the environmental equivalent of iatrogenic harm.
Pakistan’s love affair with large dams began early in the country’s existence. The hastily drawn border between them gave India control over some of the tributaries of the Indus that fed water to Pakistan. Within eight months of independence, at the start of the 1948 summer sowing season, India cut off water to Pakistan, an extraordinary blow that shaped its subsequent approach to rivers—and, most crucially, led to the World Bank–brokered Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, effectively a partition of the basin. The rights to three eastern tributaries—Ravi, Sutlej, Beas—went to India, and in exchange Pakistan received nearly $900 million in loans and grants from Western countries and the World Bank itself to build a series of dams, barrages, and link canals.
It is often said that, due to this treaty, India and Pakistan have not engaged in any subsequent wars over water. But the engineering projects arising from it have devastated the environment in Pakistan. “In my view, there’s a case to be made for ecocide in The Hague,” Hassan Abbas, a water resources expert, told me, referring to the role of the World Bank. Ecocide—destruction of the environment by negligence or deliberate human action—is not currently within the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, although there is a growing movement to add it, led by small island nations like Vanuatu and Mauritius and supported by leaders like Guterres and Pope Francis.
Environmental havoc aside, Pakistan’s overbuilt irrigation system is also a cause of chaos during disasters. In mid-September, residents of villages near the town of Pangrio in southern Sindh, east of the Indus Delta, waited for word from authorities on whether or not to evacuate. Rain had not yet wrought extensive damage on their lands, but as the irrigation and drainage structures heaved to contain water—from upstream, from the western hill torrents, and from continued rains—news arrived of a sudden breach in the Left Bank Outfall Drain (another World Bank–funded project, intended to address waterlogging and salinity issues in upper Sindh). The breach brought the residents out of their homes, and they fled within hours. Leela Ram Kolhi, a local organizer, sent me a video of young villagers, water up to their calves, pushing an elderly man on a makeshift raft made from an upturned charpoy, buoyed by plastic water containers.
Kolhi believes the breach emerged naturally, but scared and angry villagers wondered if someone somewhere had made the decision to drown their lands to save someone else’s. In subsequent days, different communities blockaded a major highway—the newly renamed Thar Coal Road, which links to a major Chinese-backed coal project—making rival demands. One opposed a planned breach in the Left Bank Outfall Drain because it would flood their lands; the other asked that it be made as soon as possible, otherwise their settlements would be inundated. The communities clashed sporadically; after six days, they were reportedly attacked and forced to disband by a third group, which blamed them for the death of a seven-year-old from their community who died when her ambulance did not reach a hospital in time—a cascade of incidents stemming from an increasingly untenable vision of absolute control over nature.
Abbas, for his part, has advocated for a restoration of Pakistan’s floodplains: rewilding the Indus and her tributaries. This way, during high flood, water could chart its natural course, absorbed by rehabilitated wetlands, slowed down by regenerated forests. Floods, he argued, are part of the annual cycle; they represent, as Scott put it, “the lungs of a river in a literal sense, the condition of its vitality and that of the creatures who depend upon it.” The sentiment resounds through centuries of Sindhi music and poetry. From a folk song celebrating the Indus in spate: “All of Sindh is golden, all of Sindh is fragrant/May the Indus flow through Sindh forever.”
When engineers build dams and drains, their design parameters—“maximum probable floods,” for instance—tend to be based on historical data. With climate change playing havoc with our precedents, these calculations are no longer as useful. Abbas proposes dismantling the canals throttling the Indus floodplains: to meet the country’s water needs, look under its rivers. “More than 500 million acre-feet of freshwater is stored under the Indus floodplains, in riverine aquifers that are continually replenished by the river,” he said hopefully. “That’s equivalent to at least three years of Pakistan’s annual water usage.”
For a country whose economic edifice rests on its irrigation infrastructure, this is a radical proposal. Without constant vigilance to ensure their sustainable management, however, there’s no reason to believe that the reserves wouldn’t run out. Abbas acknowledges the need for regulation but is adamant that pivoting to subterranean pipes would bring economic as well as ecological benefits and, moreover, give farmers greater independence from the bureaucrats who control and apportion water through canals. In practice, given the nature of local power and politics, this loosening of control may be the proposal’s undoing. Pakistan is often described as a “developing” country, but in some administrative respects it is overdeveloped, a concept formulated by the sociologist Hamza Alavi to describe states where colonialism’s legacy is upheld by local elites, making it difficult to enact meaningful change.
When I spoke to Nauroz Jamali, in Jafarabad, he lamented how swiftly those in power co-opt the language of climate justice. Local leaders—tribal chiefs and large landholders, with a vested interest in the status quo—are busy giving disaster tours to out-of-town dignitaries and journalists, but still refuse to listen to the experiences of those whose lives have been upended, just as they failed to heed their warnings. The pattern is older than the country itself.
Jamali told me a story about Mai Jori Jamali (no relation), an unlettered farmworker and mother of nine who in 2010 ran for a parliamentary seat from Jafarabad against a powerful landowner, the nephew of a former prime minister. He moved around in sleek vehicles, flanked by bodyguards; she campaigned on a donkey cart. Mai Jori, predictably, did not win, but she did manage to fulfill a campaign promise: she successfully pressured local officials into opening one of the gates to the Right Bank Outfall Drain, allowing water that would otherwise flood local villages to drain, by announcing that village children would refuse polio drops until this demand was met.
Flooding in some remote Baloch region of Pakistan was not a pressing concern, for Islamabad or the world—not then, at least—but eradicating polio was. Mai Jori leveraged one concern to address the other. “This is how things get done in this part of the world,” Jamali said. The hand of power has to be forced, sometimes by women like Mai Jori, sometimes by nature itself.
—October 26, 2022