Rescue workers evacuate flood-affected people in Zhuozhou, August 2023 Rescue workers evacuate flood-affected people in Zhuozhou, August 2023. Photo: CC BY 3.0

The devastating effects of climate change are already hitting poor countries, and the impact will map across inequalities within and across societies, warns John Clarke 

China and Pakistan face yet more devastating flooding, as the global impacts of climate change continue to intensify. The Guardian reports that China’s Guangdong province ‘has experienced torrid downpours for several days and strong winds due to severe convective weather, which has affected several parts of China over the past few weeks.’ Major rivers and reservoirs are now threatening to unleash major flooding and the government has had ‘to enact emergency response plans to protect more than 127 million people.’ 

Under the impact of the torrential rain, ‘sections of rivers and tributaries at the Xijiang and Beijiang river basins are hitting water levels in a rare spike that only has a one-in-fifty chance of happening in any given year.’ Guangdong officials have urged municipalities to take emergency measures and prepare to deal with huge numbers of displaced people, with some 20,000 having already been evacuated in Qingyuan. It is very likely that the conditions will worsen, with the majority of hydrological stations reporting daily rainfall in excess of 50mm (1.97in). The extreme weather also involves the neighbouring region of Guangxi, where ‘violent hurricane-like winds whipped the region, destroying buildings, state media video footage showed … [and] 65 landslides were recorded in the city of Hezhou located in Guangxi.’ 

Melting glaciers 

Meanwhile, Pakistan ‘has witnessed days of extreme weather, killing scores of people and destroying property and farmland. Experts say Pakistan is experiencing heavier rains than normal in April because of climate change.’ Arab News reports that in ‘the mountainous north-west province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which has been hit particularly hard by the deluges, authorities issued a flood alert because of the melting of glaciers in several districts.’ 

Throughout the province ‘46 people, including 25 children, have died in the past five days due to rain-related incidents [and] at least 2,875 houses and 26 schools have either collapsed or been damaged.’ Muhammad Qaiser Khan, from the local disaster-management authority, warned that if ‘timely safety measures are not taken, there is a possibility of heavy loss of life and property due to the expected flood situation.’ 

In the southwest province of Baluchistan, which has also faced torrential rain, local authorities are concerned that they only have limited resources to cope with the emergency and they may have to rely on an appeal for help to the central government. The heavy rainfall and risk of flooding is particularly alarming because it is happening well before the start of Pakistan’s monsoon season in June

In both countries, the present flooding is part of an emerging pattern. Last August, according to Al Jazeera, ‘days of heavy rain hit areas in Beijing’s mountainous western outskirts especially hard, causing the collapse of 59,000 homes, damage to almost 150,000 others and flooding of more than 15,000 hectares (37,000 acres) of cropland.’ In the same period, heavy flooding occurred in other parts of China, ‘with many reported killed by flood waters across northern China, which has been battered by heavy rain since late July, disrupting the lives of millions.’ 

As described by the United Nations, the floods that Pakistan faced in 2022 were triggered ‘by torrential monsoon rains … submerged one third of Pakistan, claimed over 1,700 lives, destroyed two million homes, critical infrastructure, and affected 33 million people – half of them children.’ The UN Children’s Fund also reported that in the aftermath of the floods ‘around eight million people (half of them children) in flood-affected areas, remain without access to safe water, 3.5 million children remain out of school, and about 1.5 million require lifesaving nutrition assistance.’ This dire situation, moreover, was greatly compounded by ‘pre-existing problems and inequities.’ 

It is abundantly clear that an increased risk of devastating floods is one of the major effects of climate change. Last March, a study published by the journal Nature Water, found that the ‘intensity of extreme drought and rainfall has “sharply” increased over the past 20 years … These aren’t merely tough weather events, they are leading to extremes such as crop failure, infrastructure damage and even humanitarian crises.’ 

The study drew on data that was obtained by satellites that ‘were used to measure changes in Earth’s water storage — the sum of all the water on and in the land, including groundwater, surface water, ice, and snow.’ Based on the data, the researchers concluded that ‘both the frequency and intensity of rainfall and droughts are increasing due to burning fossil fuels and other human activity that releases greenhouse gases.’ Study author Matthew Rodell told PBS that he was ‘surprised to see how well correlated the global intensity was with global mean temperatures.’ 

It is known that a ‘warmer atmosphere increases the rate at which water evaporates during dry periods. It also holds more water vapor, which fuels heavy rainfall events’ and this ‘means continued global warming will mean more drought and rainstorms that are worse by many measures — more frequent, more severe, longer and larger.’ 

The 2023 State of the Climate Report, issued by the American Institute of Biological Sciences, concluded that we ‘are now in an uncharted territory. For several decades, scientists have consistently warned of a future marked by extreme climatic conditions because of escalating global temperatures caused by ongoing human activities that release harmful greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere … We are entering an unfamiliar domain regarding our climate crisis, a situation no one has ever witnessed firsthand in the history of humanity.’ 

Global South 

As the climate crisis spins out of control, the extreme vulnerability of countries like Pakistan becomes clear. Al Jazeera pointed out in an article published last October that despite ‘contributing very little to the global climate crisis, Pakistan remains one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.’ In the areas that were flooded, communities ‘grapple with the harsh reality that they lack the necessary preparations to face another flood, and they have no clear plans for shelter should their already fragile homes become uninhabitable.’ 

‘I am filled with worries about the world my children will inherit, given the constant destruction of our village by floods,’ said Gul Khatoon, who was ‘seven months pregnant when the devastating floods hit in 2022, displacing her from her village. She ended up giving birth in a makeshift roadside shelter without any medical assistance or proper care.’ 

Yet, as climate-driven extreme weather produces such appalling suffering, Pakistan must make massive debt payments to private banks and international agencies like the IMF. In January, Pakistan Today reported that the country was ‘obligated to repay $23.83 billion in foreign debt and an additional $3.64 billion in interest payments.’ That such massive payments are being extorted while people in Pakistan struggle to survive in the face of terrible destruction and dislocation, is nothing less than an indictment of the present world order. 

As carbon emissions continue unabated and the impacts of climate change intensify, the crisis will unfold along the lines of social inequality even in the wealthy countries. In the Global South, however, the situation that is developing is unimaginable. A UN report in 2019 warned that climate ‘change will have the greatest impact on those living in poverty … Even if current targets are met, tens of millions will be impoverished, leading to widespread displacement and hunger.’ 

The report added that we ‘risk a “climate apartheid” scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.’ That prediction is clearly being confirmed at the present moment by the latest floods in China and Pakistan and in other dreadful manifestations of climate disaster. 

It becomes clearer than ever that the fundamental inability of capitalism to create a sustainable relationship with the natural world is producing far worse effects than anyone could have expected. Massive struggles for the resources needed to survive in the face of extreme weather and the most robust forms of international solidarity will be vitally necessary under the intensifying conditions of climate disaster. 

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.