Ever since we farmed the rich soils of river valleys, flooding has challenged humanity. This is one reason why flood myths are nearly universal. The solutions haven’t changed much either. An incredibly massive capital investment saves humanity in Genesis and the Quran, in the form of Noah’s Ark.
Modern governments take the same approach. The Flood Control Act of 1928, introduced to tame the Mississippi after the previous year’s devastating flood, was at the time the largest public works project ever authorized by the U.S. government, costing more than the Panama Canal. Flood management makes up one of the largest parts of China’s budget, with 1 trillion yuan ($144 billion) invested in such projects in 2017 (the last time data was released), representing more money than was spent on health care or railroad construction. .
As the largest irrigation system in the world, the Indus Valley is another monument to massive investment with roots dating back over 4,000 years. However, like Pakistan, of which it forms the backbone, the Indus and its tributaries have been deprived of the investments necessary to effectively manage the risks of natural disasters.
Some of the most important lines of defense against flooding are colonial-era projects such as the vast Sukkur Dam – a system of dams and canals that divert water from the Indus River to irrigate the arid southern province of Sindh. Many are in poor condition, due to years of underinvestment in maintenance; Corruption; and disputes between the four provinces of Pakistan over the allocation of water and funds.
The Tarbela and Mangla reservoirs on either side of Islamabad are so clogged with silt from the Himalayas that they are losing their ability to absorb flood waters and prevent flooding further downstream. Only 57% of Tarbela’s storage capacity is now available, and increased siltation could clog it completely, a government committee said earlier this month.
The underinvestment that has led to this state of affairs is chronic. Of the world’s top 20 economies by population, only Egypt has a lower rate of gross capital formation than Pakistan, a sign of a country unable to build the infrastructure it needs to support a growing population. With the rising costs of climate impacts, more and more money is going to be spent not on the long-term investments needed to protect the country against future natural disasters, but simply on cleaning up and compensating for the loss. post-disaster productivity.
Climate change will further exacerbate the problems currently facing Pakistan. Warmer air is able to hold more moisture, making extreme monsoon rains more frequent. It also causes mountain ice to melt faster – a significant problem in Pakistan, which is home to more glaciers than any country outside the polar regions. Flash floods from overflowing glacial lakes can be devastating, especially in mountainous parts of the country near the Afghan, Indian and Chinese borders.
The global pool of finance available to tackle climate change is not up to the challenge, and more than three-quarters of the total still goes to mitigation – investments in transitional technologies to prevent future emissions. These expenses are significant, but they are unlikely to be as useful for a country like Pakistan, whose emissions are minimal. It needs funds much more to adapt to the changes already underway.
Sufficient spending could solve many of these problems in one fell swoop – but Pakistan is struggling to climb a downward escalator, with a reliance on energy imports, low agricultural productivity and a lack of external investment contributing to a vicious circle of underdevelopment. Even when the money was made available for nation-building infrastructure (the country was one of the largest recipients of Chinese funding for the Belt and Road projects, much of it going to the hydropower and water management), Pakistan’s exposure to economic shocks has left it ill-placed to pay its way.
Rich countries are quite reluctant to invest in Pakistan’s energy transition, which at least offers the prospect of even meager and uncertain returns. They are even less likely to give the grant funds needed to protect one of the world’s poorest countries from the impact of rising global temperatures. Money can’t prevent a flood, but it can prevent natural disasters from crashing an economy. Pakistan badly needs this support.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Pakistan cannot afford another political crisis: Mihir Sharma
• The political crisis in Pakistan was also an energy crisis: David Fickling
• What if India and Pakistan really got along? : Tyler Cowen
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
David Fickling is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy and commodities. Previously, he worked for Bloomberg News, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
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