Pakistan suffered its deadliest floods in August 2022. Approximately 1700 were killed and 33 million people were affected, including 16 million children; 18,000 sq km of food crops were ruined and 750,000 livestock drowned. Densely populated and poverty ridden, Pakistan remains the 8th most vulnerable country on the global index of countries bearing the brunt of global climate crisis. Yet the country omits less than 1% of the global carbon omission levels. The country’s biblical level floods as a result of climate catastrophe is one example of a rapidly and dangerously declining global natural environment, discussed at COP27 in Sharm al Sheikh this month. The call to governments and policy makers at this event was mainly around global mitigation, adaptation, finance, loss and recovery and stocktaking. Having witnessed and written about floods in Pakistan in 2010, I argue that media’s involvement and engagement with vulnerable, local populations should be an added theme at future COP events. Raising local public awareness through media to save the immediate environment and giving out the message of ‘what to do?’ ‘What not to do?’ ‘What can be prevented?’ ‘How can it be prevented?’ is crucial. Equally, global and local media also has huge responsibility to present the case of climate vulnerable communities before, during and after a natural calamity such as floods, fire or hurricanes, especially in the global south.
The role that media can play as the mouthpiece of the worst affected climate communities must be a priority if global or local sustainable climate change policies are desired. Indeed, climate change has been more in media discussion in recent years. According to the study conducted by IPCC (United Nations Intergovernmental Panel of Experts on Climate Change) print coverage of climate issues in 59 countries rose from 47,000 articles in 2016-17 to approximately 87,000 in 2020-21. There has been a similar positive shift towards climate change related stories in news, television feature programmes, commercial films and documentaries. But more needs to be done. The media’s sporadic and impersonal climate change/ crisis narrative can do more, with consistency and giving voice to the most affected.
Taking the case of Pakistani mainstream media’s flood coverage of 2022, there were noticeable lapses where the flood reporting was speedily dropped; the local perspective from those most affected voice was often forced, or staged. Pakistan’s mainstream media has been criticised for this ill-considered coverage of this gigantic natural disaster for three reasons:
Firstly, the way in which the floods were reported was ‘too little too late’; because of this, local communities remained ill-informed and did not have enough time either to escape or prepare better before the floods. Observers have pointed out that the mainstream Pakistani media delayed coverage of the floods mainly because they were busy covering the ongoing political rivalries and rallies in Punjab and Islamabad, and not focusing on the current government’s mismanagement of the disaster.
Secondly, during the natural calamity as bridges and roads were destroyed in the poorest parts of Pakistan, insufficient efforts were made to cover that story of collapsing infrastructure and communications. Lack of resources seemed to be one of the factors why reporters on the ground could not be sent to the worst affected areas, resulting in the story not being offered authentically and often staged.
Lastly, in the post reconstruction phase, the media is not providing substantial coverage to the poorest and hardest hit communities.
Pakistan’s mainstream media, like most global media, prioritises stories for corporate or political benefit. The media follows the same rule for climate change/crisis coverage. Climate stories receive more mainstream media attention if they are politically backed. For example, the plantation of the billion tree Tsunami in KPK [SO1] which started in 2014 was given national mainstream media coverage extensively after 2018 because it was a project initiated and backed by former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s sitting government. The media coverage of the 2022 floods has been given the same approach. The provincial government by the Peoples Party in Sindh (a partner of the current PMLN led government) has undertaken the flood message, highlighting damage and loss and demanding global financial compensation. While the Pakistani mainstream media carry the current government’s narrative demanding financial compensation from the carbon omitting countries, the mismanagement of the natural catastrophe by Pakistan’s present government has not been highlighted. As a result, the concerns of the the poorest and the hardest hit remain unanswered and ignored.
When asked why the Pakistani mainstream media did not cover the floods properly – a senior journalist’s response was
“The Punjabi and Karachi dominated mainstream media’s bias was obvious because the floods affected some remote areas of Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The floods victims’ story was not making money while ratings were going up for the political rallies” (Lahore, October 2022)
The answer of a senior editor of a newspaper to the same question was:
“We did not have enough resources to send our teams to the flood affected areas. With shrinking print media market, we have financial resources to barely cover stories in Islamabad and Lahore. How could we send reporters to remote parts of Pakistan? Also there was no way to reach those communities so we did not push our bosses to get that story and also the social media footage was very authentic ... sending out reporters was not financially viable” (Lahore September 2022)
While the mainstream national media fell short, the provincial television networks and local reporters covered the disaster tirelessly and with dedicated diligence. Ghulam Mustafa ( Director of News and Current affairs of Kawish Television Network News (KTN ) in the province Sindh) told Reuters that regional media acted as guides and emerged as heroes as they knew where to get resources such as boats and hotels etc. With local reporters, language was not an issue; indeed, so many times they also worked as social workers - distributing food packets, and rescuing people while reporting on them. The catastrophe was vast, but they tirelessly multiplied their responsibilities. Despite taking on all these roles, he thought that they failed to make an impression initially because even though Sindhi language has about 6-7 TV channels, they were broadcasting to those who were drowning, and not to those who could come to save them.
Social media and radio was vital for remote rural villages. CDAC has reported that the combination of radio and social media was instrumental in getting messages out to the right audiences in rural villages. The popularity of social media is growing in Pakistan and 89% of the population has mobile cellular coverage. For example, ten days after the floods hit, a village near Nowshera, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, still had had no contact from the authorities, despite their significant needs for assistance. The community members, together with the Amplifying Voices in Disaster (AViD) team, made audio recordings and filmed interviews about their situation. The audio-visual clips were shared via both FM radio broadcast and social media groups linked to the local Disaster Management Authority (DMA). Soon afterwards, the DMA responded by sending street-cleaning machinery, a drinking water tank, food, and spray to prevent the spread of dengue fever.
In his book, Who speaks for the Climate? (Cambridge Press, 2012), MT Boykoff stresses the importance of climate change narratives based on the experiences of climate vulnerable communities. According to Boykoff, the complex politics of decision makers and stakeholders have to connect with public perception and social behaviour in order to critically evaluate their proposals, processes and products for enduring climate policy and lasting transformation of human attitudes. Boykoff’s critical articulation of the notion of the involvement of climate change media narrative around affected communities still holds true and needs concerted acknowledgment. If his notion is applied to the case of media reporting of mass floods in Pakistan, it is evident that the policy makers, stakeholders and media have failed to create an effective, necessary and preventive climate change media narrative after the massive floods which hit the country in 2010, because the same climatic devastation returned on a mammoth scale creating far more destruction in 2022. No lessons had been learned, similar mistakes have been repeated not only in Pakistan but in communities in the global South primarily because the local affected voice is not communicated well or enough. If climate risk communities are not brought into centre stage for the future of the climate change discussion for decision-making and global action, this debate is unlikely to achieve feasible effective outcomes. Global and local media can and should play a critical role.
Dr Kiran Hassan is research curator for the media freedom initiative at the ICWS and can be contacted at: email@example.com.