The summer of 2022 was a stark reminder of Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate change when it was ranked 5th on the Global Climate Risk Index 2018. This vulnerability was particularly evident in August 2022, when the country experienced excessive rainfall, with 192.7mm (area-weighted) of rain – a record-breaking 243% above the average. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that 38,287 km2 (9.4 million acres) of crops were flooded, resulting in the displacement of nearly 10 million people.
This devastating impact on agriculture, coupled with the ongoing economic crisis, presents significant challenges to food security and basic nutrition in flood-affected areas. Due to climate change, World Bank has projected 216 million people could be forced to migrate within their own country. It is expected that climate-led internal migration will increase exponentially as economic security in rural Pakistan becomes increasingly reliant on climate-vulnerable sectors such as agriculture and livestock.
Unfortunately, the government of Pakistan has traditionally discouraged migration from rural to urban areas, citing the precarious state of urban infrastructure as a major concern. The planned growth of urban centers in the country has been hampered by corruption, incompetence, and structural issues, leading to a strained urban infrastructure that is ill-equipped to accommodate a significant influx of migrants.
According to the World Economic Forum, Pakistan ranks 77th in the world for the quality of its road infrastructure; the ranking quite aptly paints the dismal picture of its substandard road network. For example, in the country’s largest metropolitan city of Karachi, 75% of the city’s roads are damaged and drainage facilities are poor while 80% of commercial areas are prone to flooding due to aging infrastructure. Since Sindh is the most affected province by the recent torrential floods, Karachi is likely to be a major destination for internal migrants seeking to escape the impacts of climate change. However, the government’s approach to internal migration has been to discourage it, viewing it as a national threat rather than also weighing its potential benefits.
The challenges posed by climate-led internal migration in Pakistan are compounded by the high levels of urban inequality and the depleted state of urban infrastructure. Poor urban residents, in particular, are likely to bear the brunt of the negative impacts of internal migration, as they are often forced to live in informal settlements with limited access to basic services such as clean water, sanitation, and healthcare. These informal settlements are also often located in vulnerable areas prone to flooding and other climate-related disasters, exacerbating the risks faced by their residents. Furthermore, the inadequate state of urban infrastructure means that even those with access to formal housing may still face significant challenges, such as water shortages, power outages, and poor sanitation.
Studies in India and China have shown that internal migration can play a significant role in spurring rural development, reducing poverty, and adapting to climate change. In China, for example, internal migrant remittances have played a critical role in reducing rural poverty from 60% to 9%. In 2014 alone, Chinese internal migrants sent $50 billion in remittances to their families in rural areas, while in India, domestic migrants sent between $14-20 billion to their families in villages. In contrast to these countries, Pakistan lacks data on the number of internal migrants and their contribution to the national economy.
Prioritizing climate action
The National Security Policy of Pakistan 2022-2026 does address the need for mainstreaming climate adaptation, management, and response mechanisms, as well as reenergizing the rural economy and the equitable development of smaller cities and towns to reduce urban migration. However, improving urban infrastructure and planning should also be a priority, given that Pakistan has the highest rate of urbanization in South Asia. According to the 2017 Population Census, 36.4% of the population lives in urban areas, and the UN Population Division estimates that by 2025, nearly half the country’s population will be living in cities.
The socioeconomic impact of climate-led internal migration in Pakistan cannot be overstated. As more and more people are forced to leave their homes and communities due to the impacts of climate change, they face significant challenges in terms of finding work and accessing basic services. This can lead to a downward spiral of poverty and social exclusion, as internal migrants struggle to build a new life in an unfamiliar and often hostile urban environment.
In addition to the direct impacts on individual migrants, climate-led internal migration can also have broader economic and social consequences. The loss of skilled and productive members of the rural workforce can impact the overall productivity and resilience of rural communities, undermining their ability to adapt to and recover from the impacts of climate change. At the same time, the sudden influx of migrants into urban areas can strain already stretched urban infrastructure and social services, leading to increased competition for limited resources and potentially contributing to social tensions.
Given these significant impacts, it is essential that the government of Pakistan takes a more proactive approach to address the challenges posed by climate-led internal migration. By adopting a diverse policy framework that takes into account the potential benefits of internal migration, such as remittances and improved food security in rural areas, the government can help to mitigate the negative impacts and drive economic and social development. By looking at the examples of India and China, Pakistan can learn from the successes and challenges of these countries and develop a more nuanced and effective approach to internal migration.
The author is a Research Officer at Strategic Vision Institute. Their articles have appeared in local and international publications. The views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.