Pakistan flood recovery conference a ‘good’ sign on the climate agenda

Swiss foreign minister Ignazio Cassis shaking hands with Prime Minister of Pakistan Shehbaz Sharif, next to UN secretary general António Guterres, ahead of the Pakistan climate summit in Geneva, 9 January 2023. (Keystone/Salvatore Di Nolfi)

Countries pledged more than $9 billion at a conference in Geneva on Monday aimed at helping Pakistan recover from last year’s devastating floods.

The conference came two months after Pakistan and other countries most vulnerable to climate change succeeded in their call for the establishment of a loss and damage fund at the Cop27 summit.

Addressing the gathering at the United Nations European headquarters, Pakistan’s prime minister Shehbaz Sharif said his government was seeking international assistance from the country’s development partners to cover around half of the estimated recovery and reconstruction costs of $16.3bn. He said Pakistan planned to provide the other half.

“I am asking for a new lifeline for people who need to power our economy and re-enter the 21st century with a future that is protected from such extreme risks to human security,” he said.

The meeting’s co-hosts, the United Nations and Pakistan, said more than $9bn had been pledged by bilateral and multilateral partners, exceeding Islamabad’s goal.

“Today has truly been a day which gives us great hope,” Hina Rabbani Khar, Pakistan's minister of state for foreign affairs, said following the conference. “I think the message from the world is clear: the world will stand by those who go through any national calamity.”

International pledges included $4.2bn from the Islamic Development Bank, $2bn from the World Bank and $1.5bn from the Asian Development Bank. The European Union, Germany and China said they will commit $93 million, $88m and $100m, respectively.

The United States meanwhile announced it planned to double its allocation for Pakistan, pledging an additional $100m. Saudi Arabia pledged $1bn.

Read also: Pakistan appeals for flood aid ahead of Geneva conference

Achim Steiner, administrator at the UN Development Programme (UNDP), said the outcome of the conference was “quite unusual” compared to other international pledging calls, which generally fall short of expectations.

According to a UN-backed post-disaster needs assessment, Pakistan suffered more than $30 billion in damages from the flooding, representing nearly a tenth of the country’s GDP. The estimate includes the $16.3bn in reconstruction costs, half of which Pakistan had sought support for, as well as $14.9bn in flood damages and $15.2bn in economic losses.

Between June and October 2022, some 33 million people were impacted by the flooding, eight million of whom were displaced.  Over 1,700 people were killed and more than two million homes destroyed. It is predicted that the disaster will push an additional 9 million people over the poverty line.

Sharif likened the disaster to  “a tsunami from the sky”. He added that Pakistan was “racing against time” to help the victims amid a harsh winter.

At the conference, UN Secretary General António Guterres called the destruction  “a climate disaster of monumental scale.” He said it was essential that the global community help Pakistan recover and prepare for future shocks.

“Pakistan is doubly victimised by climate chaos and a morally bankrupt global financial system,” said Guterres. He later added that the current system was “biassed” towards the rich countries who conceived it.

Officials from some 44 countries as well as private donors and global financial institutions gathered in person in Geneva while a number of heads of state, including French president Emmanuel Macron and Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, joined virtually.

A test for climate responsibility?

The conference has been viewed as a test case of how willing wealthier states most responsible for global emissions are to help developing nations like Pakistan manage the impact of climate-induced disasters and prepare for future shocks.

Despite Pakistan playing a minimal role in global warming, responsible for less than one percent of carbon emissions, it is one of the countries most affected by climate-induced disasters. A number of scientific studies released after the flooding have emphasised that the catastrophe was partly fuelled by climate change.

On Monday, Guterres said people in South Asia are 15 times more likely to die from climate impacts than elsewhere.

“No country deserves to endure what happened to Pakistan,” he said. “But it was especially bitter to watch that country’s generous spirit being repaid with a climate disaster of monumental scale.”

The disaster was a focus at Cop27, where Pakistan led other developing nations in the push to set up a fund for loss and damage caused by climate change. The details of the fund are expected to be worked out by a committee ahead of the next climate summit in December. Countries like Pakistan, who are most vulnerable to climate change despite contributing comparably little to the problem, would be expected to receive compensation from the fund.

“We need to be honest about the brutal injustice of loss and damage suffered by developing countries because of climate change,” Guterres told Monday’s conference. “If there is any doubt about loss and damage – go to Pakistan. There is loss. There is damage. The devastation of climate change is real.”

Read also: Long term solidarity needed for flood victims: Pakistan’s UN ambassador

Professor Karl Blanchet, director of the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies, said the strong commitments from development banks and a long list of donor governments, including Saudi Arabia and China, was a positive sign that the international community was prepared to take responsibility for climate disasters.

“This is very good as it demonstrates the sense of responsibility in this climate change policy agenda, and it’s also a relief for the EU, US and Western governments to see that new donors are coming on board,” he told Geneva Solutions.

Ahead of the conference, the UN warned that international funding for Pakistan’s flood recovery will run out on 15 January, as the organisation had so far received only one third of the $816 million in emergency aid it sought last October for food, medicines and other supplies for survivors.

Blanchet said Monday’s conference was a success compared to the “very disappointing” emergency response from the international community in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

“Few governments agreed to fund the emergency response and that was a huge disappointment, not only for the Pakistani government but also for all the relief agencies,” he said. “But what we see now is actually more positive – I think that's very clear.”

Pakistan’s government has said additional funding is crucial amid growing concerns about its ability to pay for imports such as energy and food, and to meet sovereign debt obligations abroad. Pakistan’s foreign minister was meeting with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on the sidelines of the conference in Geneva, according to reports.

UNDP’s Steiner said the next phase of the Pakistan climate response represented a “monumental moment of reckoning for the entire world”.

“In Pakistan we have an opportunity to choose a new direction with an innovative model for international cooperation,” he told the conference. “That begins with a recognition that the country’s plight is not its own alone.”