Over 30 million people are impacted by floods in Pakistan. Gus Woody describes how this supposed ‘natural disaster’ has been caused by the legacy of the British empire, international financial bodies like the IMF, and government inaction within Pakistan. An international day of solidarity takes place on Friday 9 September.
Around one third of the landmass of Pakistan is underwater. Extensive monsoon rains and melting glaciers since June have culminated in extensive flooding, arguably the worst in Pakistan’s history. As of 1 September, the death toll was estimated to be over 1,000 and rising, including over 300 children. More than 33 million people have been impacted by the floods since June, with damage to around one million homes. The scale of this destruction will continue to rise, as will become clear once there is a chance to actually take stock of this calamity. The desperation of the situation is perhaps best summed up in the words of Sherry Rehman, Pakistan Minister of Climate Change: ‘It’s all one big ocean, there’s no dry land to pump the water out.’
Within Pakistan, the state and people across the country are fighting a monumental struggle to contain the unfolding flood. This is a monumental task, with much of the impact and burden shouldered by the working class and oppressed of Pakistan.
Understanding the disaster
As Marxist geographer Neil Smith put it in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, ‘there is no such thing as a natural disaster.’ This is not to claim that hurricanes, floods, and heatwaves are not happening, but instead to point to the social factors that determine disasters’ exact impacts and forms. As Smith states:
The contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.
What Smith, and other socialist environmentalists, are saying when they make this point is that disasters cannot be depoliticised and disentangled from the problems of modern capitalism. It is easy in the wake of events like these floods for capitalist governments and businesses to present them as abnormal and ultimately beyond our control. But the floods in Pakistan can only be understood if we see them as part of the unfolding crisis of global capitalism in the environment, as well as its long history of colonial occupation.
Legacies of imperialism
The territories that now constitute Pakistan were part of the British Empire, a process beginning with the seizure of Karachi in 1839 and reaching completion in 1893. For over a hundred years, until the violent and disastrous partition of 1947, Pakistan was plundered by the British empire. Its water systems were often aggressively managed using the standards, techniques and methods developed during the British Raj. These colonial methods and infrastructure systems had more to do with British desire for profit than the needs of the people of Pakistan.
Perhaps most importantly for current events, partition led to escalating conflict over the Indus River system, a major source of water for both India and Pakistan. Burdened already by a colonial river management system, the World Bank and other Western powers intervened to secure the Indus Waters Treaty in 1960. In the context of the imperialist rivalries during the Cold War, India and Pakistan were given extensive ‘aid’ and ‘expertise’ to manage this system.
Throughout much of the late twentieth century, Pakistan has, often as a result of conflict with India or Bangladesh, been forced to take IMF loans. It has been one of many countries trapped in debt relations to the Global North – every time it has found itself struggling, the IMF and others have intervened with a loan and suggestions of privatisation, cutting taxes, and reducing the public sector. This has been just as damaging to the infrastructure meant to prevent floods and provide water for all.
The situation today
Consequently, the Pakistan floods are not a ‘natural disaster’, simply reducible to climate change, they are also due to the longstanding legacies of colonialism and imperialism in the region. Any attempts to build infrastructure capable of dealing with flood risk properly, with people and not profit at the centre, has been frustrated first by British colonialism, and then by the capitalist finance system inside and outside Pakistan. They are a crisis caused by continued imperialism and colonialism, both in the form of the actual infrastructure and its legacies, as well as the disproportionate emissions created by nations like the US, Britain, and others.
In 2010, catastrophic flooding led the UN to seek its largest ever disaster appeal of more than $2bn. Yet lessons have not been learned. In this decade of regular widespread flooding, action from the capitalist class inside Pakistan has been lacking. Repeatedly, most recently under the government of Imran Khan, the Pakistani ruling class have privatised public sector assets and cut public spending – leading to chronic underinvestment in flood planning. Over the past few years, during the power struggle between Khan and the new Prime Minister Shebaz Sharif, as different fractions of the ruling class jockey for power, there has been widespread neglect of flood management and water infrastructure. While many in the government of Pakistan point solely to climate change or international finance as responsible for these issues, this is insufficient. This is a triple crisis: of neglectful capitalist class rule in Pakistan, the global system of imperial finance, and the climate crisis.
Over recent years, there have emerged a mass of NGOs, UN bodies, and international finance institutions who focus on ‘resilience’ to disasters like flooding. Except, when push comes to shove, as it has over the last month, their workshops and reports are shown to be ineffectual. The forces of global capital do not want to open up a conversation about money and responsibility for disasters. Instead they talk of aid, charity, and other pathetic measures that do nothing to recognise wealthy businesses’ and nations’ disproportionate contribution to climate change and their responsibility for preventing development in the twentieth century.
In the short term, Pakistan needs immediate financial aid, which the IMF is more than happy to provide, along with widespread privatisation and worsening conditions for the working class of Pakistan. Ecosocialist campaigners should be pushing now for reparations from the nations and businesses most responsible for emissions and colonialism. We should be resisting the IMF’s and other nations’ attempts to take advantage of Pakistan’s suffering and we should be seeking debt cancellation from our own governments.
International Day of Solidarity
Networks of international climate justice campaigners have called for a day of action on the 9 September. More information can be found here.