A newborn held aloft in Pakistan sums up the sheer injustice of the climate crisis | Fatima Bhutto
This summer, intense monsoon rains combined with glacial melt caused super-floods across Pakistan. We are home to the second largest number of glaciers after the polar regions and, thanks to global heating, they are melting at unprecedented, terrifying speed. This is the year the climate emergency came home to me, and this is a photo that haunts me.
The floods wiped out approximately a million livestock, decimated crops, displaced 30 to 50 million Pakistanis, destroyed thousands of kilometres of roads – and months later, the damage is still going on. Stagnant water means farmers cannot plant new crops – those who could not plant rice in October, with water in certain parts remaining thigh high, will have no harvest to reap come March.
Famine is not a possibility: it is a certainty. There is a health crisis: hundreds of thousands of pregnant women have no access to maternal care, and fetid water means there are epidemics of snake bites, malaria and dengue. Medicine shortages affect the poor – who cannot access even basic relief – above all. Millions upon millions of people have lost their homes, their livelihoods and their loved ones. Today, a third of Pakistan remains under water.
My brother Zulfikar, our friend Menaal and I were horrified by the floods. Together, we put together an auction and organised online talks with writers and artists to raise money for three charities working on the ground in Sindh, the worst-hit province. With the help of friends and the kindness of strangers we raised funds, but it wasn’t enough. My brother organised medical camps, collecting medicine and arranging for volunteer doctors to spend the day seeing people in badly hit villages. He took this photo in Warah, Sindh, where people had no access to ordinary painkillers, like Panadol or Calpol, and are likely not to have been seen by a doctor for months, if not years.
They treated about 1,000 people that day, and Zulfikar sent us this photo from the camp of a father holding a newborn baby aloft, hoping to carry him over the sea of waiting people so he could be seen by a doctor. The baby is wearing the traditional black thread to protect him from the evil eye, from harm and jealousy. Even though his eyes are closed, when I zoom in to the picture I can still see the swipe of kohl, another talisman against bad fortune.
This photo encapsulates the injustice of the climate crisis. Pakistan is responsible for less than 1% of global emissions; we are not climate criminals but climate victims. In November, during Cop27, the division could not have been starker. In a recent report, Carbon Brief estimated that the US, the UK, Canada and Australia are billions behind contributing anything close to their fair share of climate funds. The US, whose mega emissions mean it owes some $40bn to the $100bn fund that rich countries pledged to donate a year by 2020, has only coughed up just over $7bn. These rich countries pollute with abandon while the poor of the global south pay the price.
At the same time as the world’s climate villains hemmed and hawed at Cop27, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, the tech activist and writer who was on hunger strike in his Cairo prison cell, served as a living embodiment of solidarity. Every week, Abd el-Fattah writes one letter to his family. One week, no letter arrived. His family panicked, fearing the worst. But the letter had been censored: in it he had written about his fears and worries “about global warming because of the news from Pakistan”.
Reading about Abd el-Fattah’s concern reminds me how I felt seeing the picture of the innocent baby, asleep in his father’s open, hopeful hands, as the world burned around them. “Hope is a discipline,” the activist and abolitionist Mariame Kaba said. I have thought about that sentence a lot this past year, and will carry it with me always, especially now when things seem so dark. We have no other choice. We have to fight for the living world, fight with everything we have, or we will have nothing left.