It is difficult to look beyond the weather as a starting point for this article. An unusually early heatwave struck India and Pakistan in March and April this year, causing at least 90 deaths, as well as wheat crop failures, power outages and forest fires. In April, temperatures in a number of parts of southern Pakistan reached 49C, and here in Hyderabad I found it probably the most difficult in my time here. What was exceptional and worrying, is that the heatwave started so early, in March, and continued into May. March and April have never been that hot; by the end of March, temperatures had already reached the mid 40’s in many parts of Sindh. National rainfall was 62% below normal and in most of Sindh none at all, this has adverse effects on many crops, especially wheat. Though the heatwave officially ended in early May, nonetheless temperatures were low to mid 40C right throughout May and June until the rains came.
According to an international team of climate scientists at the World Weather Attribution initiative, the heatwave which struck India and Pakistan in March and April this year was made at least 30 times more likely by human-caused climate change, also show that such heat could become a further 2-20 times more likely if global temperatures reach 2C above pre-industrial levels, the upper limit of the Paris Agreement.
It is not just in Pakistan; according to NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, March 2022 was Earth’s fifth-warmest March since global record-keeping began in 1880.
The temperatures reduced with the onset of the monsoon rains, which swept into Sindh from the Arabian Sea on July 1st, though they had stated in northern Pakistan by mid-June. It has continued relentlessly to the end of August; it has been the worst monsoon in decades and the Government has declared a national emergency. According to the “2022 Pakistan Floods Response Plan (FRP)” which was jointly launched by the Government of Pakistan and the U.N. in Islamabad and Geneva on August 30, more than 33 million people had been badly impacted in many parts of the country. Over 1,100 people have lost their lives, many more are injured; 287,000 houses have been destroyed and over 662,000 more homes have been damaged. Approximately, 4,000 km of roads and more than 200 bridges have been damaged which makes getting in aid even more difficult. An estimated 735,000 livestock have been lost and over two million acres of crops have been seriously damaged. The economic losses are estimated to be over $10 billion. The emergency relief phase is focusing on the basic needs of water, food, shelter and medical care for millions; the longer rehabilitation phase will take years and billions of dollars will be required.
For the last number of months, Pakistan has witnessed a political rollercoaster of intense drama and intrigue, including a constitutional crisis on April 3rd which eventually led to the removal of PM Imran Khan in a no-confidence vote, the first time for this to happen. Khan was elected in 2018, but his coalition government was struggling for quite a while. An economic crisis with record inflation fuelled public dissatisfaction; Khan seemed to also lose the support of the military, the real power behind the throne, for his antagonistic stance towards the U.S. and China, among other issues. Inside parliament, all opposition parties put aside differences and came together in order to topple the government. When Khan lost some of his coalition partners and majority in parliament, the opportunity arrived and the opposition tabled a no-confidence motion.
This is where the drama really began; on April 3rd the National Assembly speaker dismissed the no-confidence motion, alleging that a foreign country’s involvement in the regime change is against Article 5 of the constitution (Khan is accusing the U.S. of this) Moments later, Khan stated in a televised address that he had advised the President to dissolve the National Assembly, which would lead to an election. However, the Supreme Court became involved and four days later ruled in a 5-0 vote that the dismissal of the no-confidence motion and dissolution of the Assembly were unconstitutional and ordered the NA to be reconvened on April 9th. On April 10th, Khan lost the no-confidence vote and was dismissed; on April 11th, Shebaz Sharif was elected PM and leads a coalition government of all the opposition parties.
Khan took to the streets organizing rallies all over the country continuing with his conspiracy theory as well as attacking the SC, military and election commission, with surprising levels of public support. Khan’s party won back the seat of Chief Minister in the Punjab, again with the intervention of the SC, this time in his favour, which leaves the Federal government in a weak position as Sharif’s party has control of none of the provincial governments and leaves doubts as to whether it can complete this term to August 2023.
While the political drama has been compelling and entertaining, economically it has led to a near catastrophic situation, leading one to wonder will Pakistan become the next Sri Lanka. The Pakistani economy is in a shambles, going from bad to worse, due in no small part to the above political uncertainty. There is gross unemployment, shortage of foreign exchange, dangerously low foreign reserves, and growing foreign debt.
The inflation rate continues to skyrocket, 22.4% for July 2022, which is making life almost intolerable for the poor who cannot afford the basic necessities of life. The Pakistani rupee has been spiraling downwards; in July 2022 it dropped 14.5 % against the US$, the worst monthly performance in almost 50 years (today 1$ = Rs. 215, six months ago = Rs. 174, 12 months ago = Rs. 160).
A further major factor is IMF pressure; Pakistan and the IMF signed a $6bn bailout accord in 2019. But the release of a $1.7 billion (seventh and eighth) tranche has been on hold since earlier this year, when the IMF expressed concern about Pakistan’s compliance with the deal and political uncertainty. Some of the economic hardship and inflation is caused by the new government try to comply with IMF demands – cut spending, increase taxes, withdraw fuel subsidy etc. The IMF announced on August 29 that the $1.7 billion will now be released.
In fact most of Pakistan’s economic problems are the creation of its own mismanagement, lack of planning, political uncertainty, and, above all, (esp. under Khan) the deteriorating relations with neighbouring countries that have had traditionally good relations with Pakistan – U.S., Saudi Arabia, Turkey, China.
Pakistan may not be in Sri Lanka’s shoes yet, but are not very far off as there are some comparable symptoms.
Once a tool in the hands of the Pakistani army, religious extremism is now firmly part and parcel of Pakistani politics, seen clearly in Imran Khan courting of such parties and groups for political gain. It could be seen in the celebrations at the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, seemingly forgetting the bloody history of recent decades. The underlying drift to the Right that now characterises Pakistan will be understood by the mainstream parties, who will inevitably move to the Right to capture this fundamentalist vote, and thereby push Pakistan even more towards extremism. In a country that is already in severe economic straits, that’s a dangerous drift.
One unfortunate example of this was when a Sri Lankan factory manager was beaten to death and set ablaze by a mob who accused him of blasphemy in Sialkot in December 2021. Where will it take us? Another occurred on August 21st in Hyderabad, when a Hindu sanitation worker was accused of blasphemy by allegedly burning pages of the Quran; the extremist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) staged protests, but on this occasion the swift action of the Police and Rangers prevented any serious incidents occurring.