Lessons for the 2022 Pakistan flood response

Unprecedented flooding in the summer of 2022 left more than one-third of Pakistan under water and 20.6 million people requiring humanitarian assistance. It was Pakistan’s wettest August for more than 60 years, with rainfall estimated to be 243% above the national average. This was coupled with rapidly melting glacial ice from extreme heatwaves, leaving 70 districts of Pakistan ‘calamity-hit’.

Pakistan is no stranger to disaster, especially floods. Flooding in 2010 was, at the time, Pakistan’s largest disaster, prompting a record-breaking UN humanitarian appeal of $2 billion. Although the scale and magnitude of the 2022 floods are significantly greater, funding and attention to this crisis was a fraction of 2010 levels, with an initial appeal of only $160 million.

The figure raised questions about the accuracy of assessments, concerns about the lack of media attention resulting in late global awareness and a low urgency, and the impartiality of global aid flows given the amount of funding being directed elsewhere. A revised appeal was issued on 4 October running until May 2023 which raised the funding requirement to $816 million, targeting 9.5 million people.

Pakistan floods 2022

Along a narrow path lined with temporary shelters, trucks from the EU’s partner Cesvi offload relief items. Photo credit: Flickr/ European Union (Abdul Majeed)

The recent floods come on top of other problems besetting the country. These include a severe economic recession, soaring inflation rates and general political instability. While there are significant differences between 2010 and 2022 – the size and scale of disaster, the socio-political situation inside Pakistan, and the global macroeconomic landscape – common threads from 2010 are worth recognising.

ALNAP, in an effort to support the current humanitarian response, commissioned a rapid synthesis of evaluations from the 2010 floods, reviewed COVID-19 lessons, and spoke with stakeholders currently responding. The aim of this article is to stimulate reflection, offer lessons and insights from past responses, promote learning and accountability, and ultimately enhance humanitarian performance today.

5 key takeaways

Below are the five takeaways from past responses, as well as new points for consideration, to help guide the current flood response.

1. Local knowledge and leadership are essential to an effective response, especially in a country with distinct regional differences

Agencies have involved and consulted communities in project implementation and to some extent in intermediate-level decisions. However, there is a need to give them [a] greater role in decision-making and building agency programs on community perspectives in the recovery phase.’

Pakistan Floods 2010, Disasters Emergency Committee Real-time Evaluation Report, 2011

"Government and non-government local capacities have generally not been utilised or sufficiently involved as local contextual knowledge was often poor. In Punjab and Sindh, collaboration from the government was irregular and presence of government officials a rare sight."

Inter‐Agency Real Time Evaluation of the Humanitarian Response to Pakistan’s 2010 Flood crisis, 2011

Evaluations from 2010 characterised the flood response as one having poor linkages between international and local responders, with international actors tending to overlook local knowledge, capacities and skills. As in many large-scale emergency responses, most international organisations directly implemented programmes. While others relied on local counterparts, they did not treat them as autonomous decision-makers.

As a result, few of the flood responses at the time, or subsequently, were locally appropriate or sustainable. For example, evaluations note that water filters were not appropriate for seasonal changes in cooking practices and materials used in pipes could not withstand the heat in Sindh. Interviewees also recalled occasions in 2010 where a lack of local ownership or exclusion from decision-making resulted in low sustainability of reconstruction, and poor maintenance and upkeep of water points.

International agencies had been operating in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa since the 2005 earthquake and subsequent conflict, and therefore had strong local connections and staff. Outside those areas, especially in flood-affected places like Punjab and Sindh, international staff did not have the same links. Evaluations note they struggled to gain access and adapt programmes to fit the local culture.

The international humanitarian presence in Pakistan has scaled down in recent years, leaving a dearth of international responders at the outset of the August 2022 floods. While it has taken some time for the international machinery to get started, the local response - community members, foundations, madrasas and grassroots organisations - has been active from the outset. Some international groups have played a brokering role, connecting local initiatives with grant funding, technical expertise and other forms of remote support.

Since 2010, major policy directives - the Transformative Agenda and then the Grand Bargain’s localisation agenda - have reinforced the principle of subsidiarity. Direct funding for civil society will be critical for upholding these commitments in this response. In addition, international organisations will need to find a role for themselves and connect with the ongoing work of local actors across Pakistan especially in places like South Baluchistan where they have had little previous engagement.

2. Humanitarian actors need to consider their role within a nationally led response by coordinating effectively with a range of actors.

'Coordination was one of the most challenging and complex aspects of the relief phase whether between centre–province, government–UN, interagency or within the overall humanitarian community in general.'

Pakistan floods 2010: Learning from Experience (Pakistan National Disaster Management Authority Lessons learned report)

The 2010 flood response was coordinated through about a dozen activated clusters. While some at the time thought this was too many, the cluster system generally worked well in organising relief and information-sharing among international entities. Evaluations from 2010 however, suggest that the international community did not respect the decision-making authority of national government institutions and the cluster system did not engage effectively with government entities. Parallel decision-making bodies – including the different layers of the government’s devolved National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the UN – created confusion about mandates.

In the 2022 response, the government has taken a leading role and has asserted its control. Tellingly, the government of Pakistan and the UN co-authored the revised flash appeal, whereas the 2010 appeal was ‘the product of the Humanitarian Country Team’, and was criticised by the NDMA as having been launched by the UN without government sign-off. In contrast, the 2022 appeal labels the response strategy as a ‘Government-led humanitarian response’ and frequently reminds the reader of this authority.

Evaluations of the 2010 response recommended creating sufficient surge capacity both nationally and internationally for future emergencies. Indeed, interviewees highlighted that most provincial governments had gained experience and capacity in disaster management since 2010 and that roles between them and the federal government were more defined. Yet interviewees expressed concern that today, those locations lacking large-scale emergency response experience and adequate staffing may not be up to the task of coordinating the response. Effective communication between layers is also apparently lacking.

Mechanisms for supportive coordination between the international community and the government have not always been clear in the ongoing response, with interviewees noting a need for more precision about roles, decision-making processes, and entry points for support. Humanitarian agencies point to the National Humanitarian Network and the Pakistan Humanitarian Forum as key structures for sharing information and linking with the government. Yet without the cluster system, coordination mechanisms for different sectors are reportedly unclear. Reliable access for NGOs – both local and international – to different regions through the issuing of longer-term No Objection Certificates (NOCs) is still in question, as access has become more constrained in recent years.

Effective coordination outside the humanitarian system will also be key in the 2022 response where international humanitarian funding is small in comparison to other sources, including the World Bank which has pledged $2 billion, the Asian Development Bank’s $2.5 billion pledge, diaspora support and private sector contributions.

International humanitarian agencies will need to consider how they can effectively add value, with initial discussions suggesting that a focus on harder-to-reach locations and more complex forms of support may be a useful complement to other efforts.

3. Building in early and long-term recovery considerations from the outset are critical for sustainability and proof against future shocks. Upfront investments in mitigation and preparedness may pay dividends when the next disaster strikes.

‘Most of the international response focused on relief rather than on recovery activities. Strategy related to early recovery, recovery and rehabilitation was not carefully planned for by most clusters as requirements from NDMA and OCHA were inconsistent and changed over time.’

Inter-agency Real-Time Evaluation of the humanitarian response to Pakistan’s 2010 Floods crisis

‘The more prepared a nation, the less lasting damage disaster causes and the quicker it is to recover. …The international humanitarian system needs to be much better prepared to respond to natural disasters to reduce the risks to life and livelihoods. Predicted increases in the incidence and severity of natural disasters, coupled with demographic trends, call for a step change in the system.’

The Humanitarian Response to the Pakistan Floods: Government Response to the Committee's Seventh Report of Session 2010–12, UK

Despite Pakistan being among the top 10 countries vulnerable to extreme weather, climate change experts have noted years of government inaction and mismanagement in preparing for disaster. This is despite acknowledgement of structural inequalities in marginalised areas and dam breaches across the country. Some believe that the government is now deflecting responsibility for their mismanagement by pointing to climate change as the sole factor leading to disaster.

Evaluations from 2010 point out disappointing links between relief and recovery. In particular, livelihood support was delayed, hindering people’s longer-term recovery. Interviewees lamented that reconstruction was poorly planned and maintained people’s vulnerability. Disaster risk reduction was deprioritised, and contingency planning was generally missing, and the disaster management orientation was primarily focused on response.

Regarding the 2022 floods, interviewees expressed concern that many aid groups are still at the early stages of relief and few have the time or resources to consider early recovery efforts. While some households have started rebuilding shelters using recovered materials, a holistic plan to protect people from future floods is still required.

A contextualised shift from relief to recovery is necessary this time around as the floods have affected parts of the country differently: in some places water has already receded and in others water is still standing. The World Bank recommends that timelines for relief and recovery be even further refined based on household needs in different areas, and ‘should not be planned for any arbitrarily determined length of time’.

The evaluations from 2010 also recommended a more focused emphasis on DRR. Observers in 2022 point to areas where damage was reduced due to useful defences built after 2010. Also, while monsoon response plans exist for some aid groups and technical triggers are in place to support early action, these are based on past patterns of rainfall.

Climate change is making the amount and timing of rain more unpredictable, meaning that triggers should be continually refined and updated to enable future early action.

The threat of climate change and future floods must be front of mind when replacing infrastructure and when linking activities and strategies with development actors. Both funding and programming for disaster risk management must include climate-smart solutions.

4. The response overall and its accountability mechanisms must be inclusive, contextually appropriate and responsive.

'Communication has been a general issue in the response as many affected people were not properly informed about what they were expected to receive, when, by whom and for how long. The humanitarian community and governmental counterpart should agree on a simple but clear communication strategy in order to avoid misunderstandings and abuse… Civil society is also sidelined in matters related to accountability as no platforms or mechanisms exist where their views and opinions can be raised.’

Inter-Agency Real-Time Evaluation of the humanitarian response to Pakistan’s 2010 Floods crisis

The 2010 flood response was not sufficiently accountable to affected people who were generally dissatisfied with relief support. Transparency about the response itself as well as entitlements was poor, and there were numerous reports of corruption. Agencies were criticised for being unresponsive to the phone-based feedback mechanisms they set up and for not effectively engaging with women who lacked access to mobile phones and had limited opportunities for interaction in conservative areas. This was also a problem in the 2005 Pakistan earthquake response.

These considerations remain important for the current response. While availability of mobile phones and connectivity has increased since 2010, the ability of the humanitarian community to engage effectively with different segments of communities needs to be assessed given the ongoing connectivity gaps for women and the elderly. This is particularly important in areas where organisations have not worked before and have limited knowledge of languages and culture.

The 2022 response must include the perspectives of women. There are already concerns about women having poor access to food rations and the health of – in particular – pregnant and lactating women. The flash appeal notes gender inclusion this as a priority, but it is important that this mention is not just tokenistic and that priorities are set by women with a rights-based approach.

Previous evaluations placed a limited focus on inclusion beyond gender targets in implementation and disaggregated data. This is an issue both for implementation and for an accountable and participatory response. Other elements of inclusion – of older people, people living with disabilities and LGBTQI people – were generally absent. Interviewees raised concerns about adequately meeting the needs of different populations within the vast scale of need. They also raised questions about the potential for programmes to take the opportunity of the societal upheaval caused by the mass flooding to help shift the power of different social groups rather than the response enforcing the status quo. Interviewees also raised the challenge of being inclusive of populations who are not registered with the government, particularly in Sindh where both migrants and marginalised Pakistanis may not have formal identification.

The ability to respond effectively to community inputs and to enable meaningful participation remains a perennial challenge for the humanitarian community. Interviewees expressed concern that government ministries and the military leading the response may not be aware of core humanitarian standards. Evaluations describe the military response to the 2005 earthquake as unaccountable, intolerant of criticism and undemocratic in its decision-making. This underscores the imperative of humanitarian actors to uphold and support principles of accountable and responsive action.

5. Cash programming can be effective but may not fulfil all needs.

‘Despite budget constraints, transfer values should be clearly linked to a rationale relating to meeting households’ needs and maintaining resilience during the shock, even if programmes are not meant to cover the full extent of household needs. Trade-offs between coverage and adequacy and their effect on poverty reduction should be considered when designing emergency responses.’ ‘The EEC response has highlighted the need to strengthen the mechanism for registering and resolving citizens’ feedback during a shock. Moving forward, the GoP should develop a robust and systematic appeals and grievance mechanism that allows applicants and beneficiaries to register complaints. It should also ensure that information regarding the mechanism is communicated openly and clearly to applicants and beneficiaries.’

Towards shock-responsive social protection: lessons from the COVID-19 response in Pakistan

Evaluations from 2010 cite cash programming as an integral component for both relief and recovery phases that should be continued. Cash was preferred to vouchers for buying livestock due to the greater choice over vendors and the quality of animals. Some critiqued the modality however, when it came to access, inclusion and longer-term resilience. For example, there was a concern that infrastructure-focused cash-for-work activities tended to exclude women and calls for cash programming to be better linked to livelihoods.

Pakistan’s main social protection programme, the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP), was most recently used for the COVID-19 response. Evaluations note that coverage was impressive, but the low benefit value did little to off-set the pandemic’s poverty impacts. In addition, evaluations note that while technology was helpful in ensuring a broad reach and an efficient roll-out, it may have risked excluding some vulnerable groups – especially those without national identity cards, or access to communication technology, chiefly women and older people.

While cash programming has become more mainstream in humanitarian responses since 2010, interviews revealed current challenges. These include coordinating with the government system, supporting unregistered populations excluded from government programmes, and ethical questions about sharing and storing personal data of cash recipients.

While cash programming can have multiple benefits, in areas where markets are not functioning due to access constraints and crop destruction, it may not be the best choice. Small individual payments are also unlikely to help tackle some of the structural concerns of the recent response, including access to clean water, WASH infrastructure and healthcare systems. Tailored strategies will be important in different parts of the country to complement cash, with other initiatives subject to the context and people’s priority needs. The need for local market resilience and recovery must also be considered.

New Learning for 2022

People line up to receive relief items. Pakistani authorities estimate it could take up to 6 months for floodwaters to recede in the hardest-hit areas.

Some important issues did not appear in the 2010 evaluations but have been raised as key areas of focus for the 2022 response.

While few evaluations from 2010 focused on health risks, disease outbreak is a pressing concern today. In 2010, flood waters receded quickly, but as of today, much of the country is still covered by standing water. This not only causes problems for clean drinking water but also creates a breeding ground for mosquitoes and threatens food supply. Preventing and treating disease or malnutrition will likely be a priority in this response.

Very few evaluations mentioned insecure land rights, but those that did raised it as a systemic challenge to providing sustainable shelter to the most vulnerable, especially those who are dependent on landowners. Interviews in 2022 flagged this as a continuing issue and raised questions about the role of humanitarian actors in challenging existing social structures. Interviewees also raised concerns about protection risks tied to a lack of land security. People are reportedly reluctant to leave their flooded homes for internally displaced persons (IDP) camps due to fears of losing the homes forever. This exposes tenants to health risks associated with standing water and security threats from looters.

Indeed, protection was an issue scarcely mentioned in the previous evaluations but one that will require more attention and learning in the current response. Interviews already point to the threats of looting, dangerous roads, exploitation of women, lack of shelter, out-of-school children and increasing psychosocial fragility among a population hit by recurrent crises.