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Karachi’s Heat Wave a Sign of Future Challenges to Pakistan’s Fragile Democracy

The searing heat disrupted electricity and water service, making life nearly unbearable. All told, officials estimate the heatwave killed at least 1,200 Pakistanis, more than twice as many as have died in terrorist attacks this year.

But meteorology alone cannot explain this turn of events. Rather, as with all disasters, Karachi’s heatwave is rooted in a complex web of natural and man-made factors. “The emergency is the product of a perfect storm of meteorological, political, and religious factors,” notes The New York Times.

Karachi’s rapid growth has heightened people’s exposure and vulnerability to heat. Since 2000, Karachi’s population has doubled, making it the fastest growing megacity in the world. This population explosion has overwhelmed the capacity of local government. At least half of all Karachiites live in informal settlements, with little access to infrastructure and vital services. Unplanned expansion has also led to widespread environmental degradation. Karachi’s annual concentration of fine particulate matter is 11.7 times World Health Organization standards (and more than double that of Beijing), making it the fifth most air-polluted city in the world. Karachi also faces an acute water crisis. Some of its poorest residents survive on just 10 liters per day, one-fifth of daily drinking requirements, while some estimates suggest more than 30,000 people die from water-related diseases every year.

Wide swathes of trees and other vegetation have been cleared for roads and buildings, limiting shade and exacerbating the urban heat island effect (the process by which urbanized areas absorb and retain solar radiation, significantly increasing local temperatures). Add to this the city’s construction boom which creates a major demand for manual labor and the onset of the holy month of Ramadan – during which Muslims can neither eat nor drink before sundown – and you have a recipe for disaster.

A Shortage of Governance

Each of these factors is rooted in a larger issue: Pakistan’s utter lack of effective governance. The electricity sector provides an excellent microcosm of these challenges. K-Electric, the city’s electric utility company, has come under fire for its inability to provide enough energy to power air conditioners, fans, and water pumps during the heat wave. K-Electric has become such an easy target that the Islamist militants Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan threatened to take action against the company.

When governments fail these tests of preparedness, instability may follow

While part of K-Electric’s struggles stem from the increased demand in electricity brought about by the heatwave itself, the fact remains that the company, which was recently privatized, is woefully mismanaged. Distribution losses eat up nearly one-third of the country’s power, while poor cost recovery mechanisms have saddled utilities with high debt. As the Wilson Center’s Michael Kugelman argued recently, “Pakistan’s energy problems are rooted more in shortages of governance than of supply.”

Ineffective governance has also undermined the government’s disaster response. Survivors have slammed the government’s inability to warn residents about the heatwave or to disseminate information on how to cope with it. Critical social services were not up to task, as public hospitals struggled to handle the influx of patients and health officials failed to protect vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly and the homeless.

It is thus unsurprising that the government has faced scrutiny. This principle holds true in other countries as well. In a 2010 article, Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra explored the connection between the incidence of tornadoes in the United States and how incumbent politicians fared in subsequent elections. “Citizens do not reflexively punish government for circumstances beyond its control,” they found. “Rather, the electorate’s response appears to depend on whether the incumbent robustly responded to the disaster.” When governments fail these tests of preparedness some scholars expect climate change will create political instability and even violent conflict.

The Specter of Military Interference

Pakistan’s woeful response is equal parts shameful and predictable. Because he feared that the newly formed nation may not survive partition, Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, created a highly centralized government based on a cult of personality. As political power was consolidated into the hands of a few elites, Pakistan failed to foster the development of strong democratic institutions, ensuring that its best and brightest stayed out of civil service. This process hamstrung governance, opening the door for the military to exert outsized influence over a weak crop of civilian leaders. And, as the Brookings Institution’s Stephen Cohen has noted, most Pakistanis supported the role of the military in the political sphere, seeing the organization as a “benevolent babysitter” who could handle the challenges of the developing state.

“Working with a benevolent dictatorship in emergency response was just fantastic!”

As the government has continually failed to address the country’s needs, the military has stepped in to fill the gap. Granted, militaries are uniquely trained and equipped to provide disaster relief assistance. U.S. officials call in the National Guard in the wake of domestic disasters and American military personnel are routinely dispatched to provide humanitarian assistance abroad. Pakistan’s military has the training, resources, and wherewithal to play this role, as it has proven on a number of occasions. Moreover, many Pakistani troops have served in United Nations peacekeeping operations, exposing them to international humanitarian norms. But whereas no (reasonable) American fears that the National Guard will seize political power once an emergency situation ebbs, this is not the case in Pakistan.

Consider the response to the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. Pakistan was under a period of military rule after General Pervez Musharraf wrested control of the government from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. As Pakistani military personnel demonstrated their disaster response capabilities, international humanitarians eagerly worked alongside them, sidelining civilian officials. One UN official reportedly exclaimed, “Working with a benevolent dictatorship in emergency response was just fantastic!”

Musharraf left the country under pressure in 2008, opening the way for new general elections. But contrast the response under his watch with the current situation in Karachi or the government’s woeful reaction to the historic 2010 Indus River floods. Many Pakistanis are likely to remember from the latter experience that President Asif Ali Zardari was reportedly lounging at his French chateau as the floodwaters rose.

Overtime, the inability of Pakistani civilian authorities to manage disaster response efforts will take its toll. Though some observers fears that the military would use Zardari’s incompetence after the 2010 floods to reassert its authority never came to pass – perhaps because military leaders were still reeling from the downfall of Musharraf two years earlier – Pakistan’s failure to consolidate and strengthen its democratic institutions ensures that the scenario remains a real possibility.

A Global Challenge to Democracy

A considerable body of research shows that countries that are neither strongly democratic nor strongly authoritarian are highly unstable. These semi-democratic states – “anocracies” in political science speak – are more likely to collapse and experience violent conflict than those on either end of the spectrum. In a massive study of all governments from 1800 to 1992, the University of Oslo’s Håvard Hegre and colleagues concluded that anocratic regimes last just 5.8 years on average, compared to 7.9 years for autocracies and 10 years for democracies. And in a landmark 2003 study, Stanford University’s James Fearon and David Laitin found that anocracies are 68 percent more likely to experience civil war in any given year.

Climate change could stymie the spread of democracy

These results paint a bleak picture for Pakistan, a country which consistently ranks among the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, like Karachi’s heatwave and the extreme flooding which struck in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013. While it enjoyed its first peaceful, democratic transition of power in 2013, its civilian government remains weak. Unless the Pakistani government is able to dramatically ramp up both its disaster risk reduction and disaster response capacities, future disasters will make military interference more likely.

Given these realities, the international community should actively work to make disaster response and climate adaptation efforts in Pakistan conflict sensitive. The need to ensure that such initiatives do not exacerbate conflict risks was spelled out in a recent G7 report. Second, developed countries should leverage climate financing mechanisms, including the Green Climate Fund, to strengthen the capacity of Pakistan’s democratic government – and others like it – to mitigate and respond to disasters. As Neil Bhatiya of the Century Foundation has argued, Green Climate Fund monies could even be brought to bear as a peacebuilding tool in fragile states.

Clearly, there will be more tests to come and efforts should be undertaken now to strengthen democratic institutions. Failing this, climate change could stymie the spread of democracy, already declining, and make the world a more dangerous place.

[This article originally appeared on]

Tim Kovach is an independent analyst and blogger from Cleveland who researches and writes about climate change, disaster risk reduction, and environmental peacebuilding. He completed his MA in global environmental policy from the American University School of International Service in Washington, DC.

Sources: American Political Science Review, BBC, The Brookings Institution, Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, The Century Foundation, Dawn, Forbes, Foreign Policy, Freedom House, Germanwatch, The Guardian, Loyola Marymount University, National Bureau of Asian Research, Nature Climate Change, The New York Times, Reuters, South Asia Terrorism Portal, Stanford University, Tufts University, World Health Organization.