Pakistan’s ambassador to the EU, Asad Khan, arrived in Brussels with important priorities to pursue, both in terms of Pakistan’s growing relationship with the European Union and his country’s wider concerns at a time of geopolitical instability. But when Political Editor Nick Powell sat down with him for an interview, there was only one place to start and that was the flooding that has devastated so much of Pakistan in recent weeks.
Ambassador Khan emphasised in his interview that the situation is still developing and affecting the whole of Pakistan and beyond, not just the vast areas actually flooded, such is the extent of the disruption and the humanitarian crisis that has hit his country. He was in no doubt that it was a consequence of climate change and not just a natural disaster.
He said this was far from a normal monsoon. “It started early this year and has lasted much longer than the norm. The water comes down the hills, south onto the plains and as the rains continue to fall, the water can keep increasing, it’s turned into an ocean of water, as has been captured by some of the satellite images”, he explained.
“Our planning commission came up with about $10 billion in losses and damages and now they have revised that estimate to 17 to 18 billion. I would say we still don’t really have a really good estimate because all the cotton -the area that was worst affected is the area where we grow most of our cotton- is gone, the other food and vegetable crops also”.
The rice crop has been lost and not all the wheat had been harvested before the floods came. The Ambassador pointed out that the seed stock for the next season had been swept away as well. All this at a time when grain supplies were already stretched because of the suspension of imports from Ukraine. Reconstruction and rehabilitation will be an even more enormous challenge than the initial crisis.
“Clearly we can see this disaster moving from being a flood disaster to a food disaster, to a health disaster, to a livelihood disaster, turning into a huge humanitarian crisis”, he added. “Just look at the numbers, 33 million affected, almost 1.7 million houses damaged or destroyed”.
“And then the problem is that even in those areas that are not impacted by the floods, industrial activity, production activity, has come to a standstill. Those industries that rely on raw materials are unable to accept raw materials because 5,000 kilometres of road, connecting the south to the north, are either underwater or destroyed”.
Such destruction was the cause of the livelihood crisis that the Ambassador knew was coming. As for the health crisis, waterborne diseases would develop as the water only slowly drained away from saturated land. Most alarming was the prospect of the dengue virus spreading in such conditions.
Ambassador Khan warned that the world had yet to realise the enormity of the challenge and the scale of the disaster. “The recognition or realisation is perhaps missing, the world needs to really look at that”, he said. “We have done what we could from our own domestic resources. The UN has launched a flash appeal and as we speak the Secretary General of the United Nations is in Pakistan, personally seeing the impact of the floods and as a sign of solidarity for the people which is greatly appreciated. So we are grateful for the support and assistance that we are receiving from our partners but clearly the needs are far more than what is being provided”.
He called on the international community to step up as a sign of solidarity with a people who are facing a crisis which is not of their making. “We clearly see this as a climate change induced disaster. We are seeing a series of extreme weather related events. Even this summer, we witnessed temperatures going as high as 53 degrees celsius, in parts of Pakistan”.
“In the south of Pakistan, in Sindh province, the rainfall that we have received is six times more than the thirty year average. Similarly in Balochistan, it is between five and six times the average and nationally three times of whatever rain we have received annually over the last thirty years. Pakistan is unique in the sense that we have these areas which are overflowing with water and then we have areas where we have drought.
“This is clearly linked to climate change and obviously with our very very low emissions we have clearly not contributed to this but without going into the question of responsibility, what Pakistan needs is needs is an act of solidarity.The Pakistani people need to see the international community standing with them in this hour of need because it is clearly now a humanitarian crisis”.
Beyond the immediate crisis, the Ambassador called for more international solidarity in tackling climate change, fast-tracking assistance to poorer countries without the resources to meert the challenges. He said there was no room for any more scepticism on climate change, it was a reality for all of us.
One of the impacts of the flooding has been the disruption of food and other humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan, a landlocked country that depends on Pakistan’s ports, roads and railways. That brought us to relations with the regime in Kabul, which Pakistan, like other countries, does not recognise.
Ambassador Khan said that whatever happens in Afghanistan has always impacted on Pakistan, so his country had and an inherent stake in peace and stability there. “When it comes to the people of Afghanistan, they have suffered for too long, they continue to face a very precarious domestic economic situation. They also faced an earthquake, they also had floods, so there is a humanitarian crisis unfolding in Afghanistan”.
“Unfortunately if the situation worsens in Afghanistan more people will have an incentive to leave, to come to Pakistan or Iran or even to come as far a Europe. That’s why we are very keen to support efforts which would facilitate at least economic stability and ease the burden on the people of Afghanistan”.
On relations with another neighbour, India, the Ambassador said that Pakistan’s attempts to establish a dialogue had not been reciprocated. Pakistan remained ready to engage, particularly over Kashmir, the Muslim-majority province divided by a ceasefire line between the two countries. “They have unilaterally revoked the special status of the illegally occupied Jammu and Kashmir. The manner in which they are trying to bring in people to change the demographic composition of the territory, something that we apprehended from day one, is really worrisome. Kashmir imposes a serious security threat to peace in South Asia”.
Ambassador Khan said Pakistan also hoped that the international community would pay more attention to the treatment of Muslims in India. “Muslims are being pushed to the wall. Unfortunately they are being linked to Prime Minister Modi’s approach to Pakistan, creating another complication in our bilateral relationship. On top of Kashmir, the treatment of the Muslim minority is so worrying for us”.
In contrast, the Ambassador spoke of a long and close relationship of trust and friendship with China, as equal partners, respecting each others’ sovereignty. “That continues to be the case, the relationship has grown from strength to strength and there is greater Chinese investment and an economic footprint in Pakistan which was perhaps not there before”.
That friendly relationship with China had been there even when Pakistan had been known as the ‘most allied of the allies’ of the United States, during the Cold War. “We have been able to maintain that important balance in our relationships and we would want it to continue that way”, Ambassador Khan said. The polarisation between Russia and the United States and its NATO allies presented a challenge to countries around the world but Pakistan will not want to pick sides.
“Any escalation only makes that task of staying in the middle frankly more difficult and challenging. For instance, peace, stability and security in Afghanistan is an area of interest, an issue of concern for everybody, for the United States, for Europe, for Russia, for China, for Pakistan, for Iran. Any escalation should not lead to a breakdown in that consensus that we have seen formed and contained over the years in terms of our countries seeking to push for peace and stability”.
He said Pakistan will continue to welcome investments and closer relationships with all its historically important friends and partners. The Ambassador also pointed to Pakistan’s own international importance as the fifth largest country in the world by population, the second largest democracy in the Muslim world, and one of the largest Indian Ocean littoral states.
Ambassador Khan said the EU is a very important partner for Pakistan, its largest export destination and a significant source of investment in Pakistan, as well as foreign remittances. His country was this year’s largest recipient of scholarships from the EU’s Erasmus Mundus programme, open to graduate students from around the world who want to study at European universities. There had been an explosion of interest from Pakistani students in exploring educational opportunities in Europe, as more and more universities were offering courses through the medium of English.
It was also a sign that the world was recovering from the pandemic and international contacts at all levels were resuming. The embassy was working on more bilateral dialogue and political consultations, with high level engagement on commerce and security. It was a ‘win-win’ relationship. Pakistan’s exports to the European Union grew by 86% in recent years, EU exports to Pakistan grew by 69%. It was a very attractive market of 220 million people.
Ambassador Khan said political upheaval in such a large democracy was not going change the broad direction of foreign policy. “In foreign policy issues, like a number of other countries, the overall priorities of political parties may differ in degree in some cases but the broad contours of our foreign policy priorities have never changed over the last 75 years”.
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