Pakistan floods show why adaptation alone won’t help prevent climate disasters

Despite Pakistan’s growing number of adaptive measures, mostly in the form of foreign investments in its water and agriculture sector, recent floods all but destroyed this South Asian country. In light of this, we should critically discuss whether taking adaptative measures can really help Pakistan (or any country) prepare itself for climate change-related disasters that are becoming increasingly unprecedented in magnitude and scale. Radical climate action that moves beyond adaptation is needed to truly protect vulnerable regions and communities from catastrophic events, writes Isbah Hameed.

“A catastrophe of epic scale”

The enormity of the floods that recently swept across Pakistan as a result of abnormally heavy monsoon rains has left the country baffled. Vast swathes of land were submerged, millions of people were displaced, and their belongings and property were destroyed. The devastating floods affected over 33 million people, displaced over half a million people, and claimed a thousand lives, with losses estimated at more than 40 billion euro according to the government of Pakistan. In the wake of the disaster, a state of emergency was declared, and Pakistan’s national climate change minister called the floods “a catastrophe of e­­pic scale“. Right now, massive relief work is being carried out by government organizations, national and international NGOs, and private institutions to help this flood-stricken country recover.

No-one can tell exactly how long it would take for the millions of displaced people to go back to their homes and how long it will take the country to get back on its feet following the social, ecological, and economic losses that it has suffered. Much uncertainty remains, also about what to do next. What’s clear is that any optimism that might have existed about the effectiveness of adaptive measures to increase the country’s resilience to the effects of climate change was swept away by the floods. The sheer magnitude of the floods, which simply washed out the country from Kashmir in the north to Kotri in the south and even beyond, leaving one-third of the country under water, made it clear that adapting was simply not enough to protect it from the floods. So what can be done to better protect it from future climate change-related disasters?


Swept away by the floods

As one of countries most at risk of climate change and its effects, dozens of adaptation strategies have been identified by Pakistan in its Nationally Determined Contributions1 (NDCs) that form part of the Paris Agreement. Most of the adaptation strategies are in the water and agriculture sectors and include water conservation measures, improvements to irrigation systems, the strengthening of risk management systems for agriculture, a move toward climate-smart agriculture, and the improvement  of emergency response systems as adaptation measures. In addition, Pakistan’s National Adaptation Plan (NAP), which focuses on “building resilience to climate change”, is already in the making with the support of UNEP. These plans are helping identify technical, institutional, and financial needs of the country in integrating climate change adaptation into its medium- and long-term national planning and financing.

The measures taken by Pakistan hinge on international investments and funding because it  is already facing many challenges on economic and political fronts; climate adaptation is an additional task to comply with along with already existing developmental constraints. But measures taken or promoted so far to help increase its resilience to floods and climate change in general seem ineffective as the recent massive floods engulfed the country and, with it, all efforts to prevent this from occurring. It simply implies that no adaptative measure at all would practically be commensurate with disasters of this scale, at least in developing countries.


Asking the right questions

Adaptation is widely promoted by international institutions as a way in which to mitigate the effects of climate change, and the call for more adaptive measures to be taken has been strengthened in the wake of Pakistan’s recent floods. However, floods in general and these floods in particular due to their destructive potential can lead us to ask whether adaptation alone can really help countries minimize the damage caused by such disasters. The question is not which specific measures should be taken, which sector should be targeted first and most intensely, or in which ways international donors should be persuaded to pledge money for these measures. Rather, it is more plausible to ask to which degree, at which scale, and for how long the undertaken adaptation measures can help climate change-affected countries to remain unyielding in light of extreme weather events that may come to challenge even the most resilient environments.

Unsurprisingly, the idea of adaptation can thus be misleading given the enormity of such disasters, because it’s simply not enough. This suggests us to ask why adaptation is being promoted, if proven to be ineffective, and by whom. Indeed, adaptation and its technical underpinnings have already been criticized by academic scholars2 for being apolitical and for being unable to address the root cause of the climate problem. But the focus here is on what can be done if adaptation doesn’t work, especially given the inherent unpredictability of the scale of future events taking into account the complex feedbacks of the climate system. Is it wise to invest in and engage human and global capital in designing and implementing adaptation strategies that won’t be effective? I don’t seek to answer these questions in this article, but wish to show that we need to start talking about this both as scholars and as policymakers.


A wake-up call

In light of the recent events in Pakistan, one should ask whether adaptation should be considered a way forward at all. The case can help us shift our attention to what international institutions are and should be doing to address the root causes of the problem instead of advocating adaptation. These disasters are a wake-up call to the world that more radical measures are needed; reducing greenhouse gas emission and adapting to soften the blow of climate change is not enough. COP27 is set to take place in Egypt in November in parallel with Pakistan’s post-disaster recovery efforts. It will be significant to see what will be discussed and what future line of action will be proposed at the conference following this devastating event.

  1. A Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) is a climate action plan to cut emissions and adapt to climate impacts. NDCs are at the heart of the Paris Agreement which aims to hold the global average rise in temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, preferably limiting the increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius; thus avoiding the projected rise from 2.9 to 3.4 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. Signatories to the Paris Agreement are required to establish NDCs and update these every five years.
  2. Adaptation strategy as a response to climate change is being criticized by many academic scholars for example, Siri Eriksen et al (2021), Aaron Atteridge &Elise Remling (2018) have discussed that adaptation strategies tend to reinforce existing causes of vulnerability, and also redistribute and create new sources of vulnerability rather than reducing them.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:


Isbah Hameed is a doctoral candidate in the Political Ecology Research Group at ISS. Her research is focused on studying the socio-political implications of embracing Climate-smart agriculture as an adaptation strategy in Pakistan.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

What do you think?

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

1 Comment
  • Rabia
    30 October 2022

    Totally agree we need a historical view and unfold the development agenda that denies any mention of the socio-political context of grave inequality and imperialist project that is aggravating financial dependence and promoting agrarian modernization policies that are relentlessly destructive of local social ecologies