Universities urged to help avert disastrous flood impacts

Almost one-third of Pakistan is inundated as devastating floods have displaced 33 million people and damaged 1.6 million homes besides causing massive damage to roads, bridges and other infrastructure including hospitals and educational institutions, according to the country’s National Disaster Management Authority.

Universities have undertaken some swift measures such as deferring tuition fees for students in flood-hit areas. But universities have also been called upon to play a bigger role in tackling flood relief and to take part in long-term planning to avert future floods.

While some university research is underway, academics say it lacks coordination and resources to respond to national disaster emergencies.

Pakistan is among the worst-hit countries due to the impacts of climate change and has been affected by massive floods many times in the past despite accounting for less than 1% of contributions towards the world’s total carbon emissions. Scientists have linked rising temperatures as a cause, inducing heavy monsoon rains and melting glaciers in the country.

More than 18,500 schools and colleges have been damaged and 15 universities across three provinces are now just a lake, due to floodwaters which have damaged infrastructure, furniture and equipment. Academic activities at these universities have been suspended.

The government has estimated that the catastrophic floods have caused losses of more than US$10 billion. More than 1,325 people including women and children have died, 12,700 have been injured and 800,000 animals killed.

Tuition fees deferred

The massive damage to agrarian and poor communities during the latest devastating floods has made it difficult for university students to continue their education.

Although universities have undertaken some quick measures such as deferring tuition fees for students in the flood-stricken areas of the country, the institutions are looking to government for financial support as Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has tasked the federal education ministry with devising a special scholarship programme for students in flooded regions.

Mukhtar Ahmed, chair of Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC), told University World News: “The collection of dues from students of flood-affected areas has immediately been halted and has been deferred for some period. A comprehensive plan is being devised for waiving tuition and hostel fees, besides offering scholarships to graduate and undergraduate students of those areas.”

Ahmed explained the fee waiver would be either full or partial depending on the level of damage and socio-economic conditions in flood-stricken areas. “It will be implemented on allocation of resources by the federal government as universities are already facing financial crisis,” he said.

He acknowledged that “universities themselves would need financial support to cover losses incurred due to damage to buildings, equipment and furniture and other infrastructure of the universities in areas where floodwaters have hit the university campuses”.

“The burden on the national exchequer due to the heavy blow to the economy because of floods would also bring universities under financial pressure and our plans and efforts to contribute for long-term solutions might be affected,” Ahmed added.

Universities asked to help in relief efforts

Foreign aid in the form of relief goods has already started arriving in Pakistan after appeals for emergency aid, including a United Nations appeal for over US$160 million for Pakistan, but external aid is seen as meagre compared with the losses estimated by the government at over US$10 billion.

At the end of August, a meeting of all vice-chancellors of Pakistan’s public universities was organised by Pakistan’s HEC to take stock of immediate flood relief measures as well as to consider long-term planning for averting frequent floods in future. A similar meeting of all private sector universities was organised by the HEC on 1 September.

At the 28 August meeting, the HEC directed agricultural universities to work towards devising ways to avoid crop losses due to heavy rains and flooding, while medical universities were urged to set up medical aid camps in the affected areas to curb the spread of post-flood diseases.

Veterinary universities have been asked to send teams to the affected areas to devise measures to protect livestock, crucial for the livelihoods of the affected population, while the Virtual University of Pakistan has been tasked with establishing a centralised database and a portal for coordinated efforts by higher education institutions for immediate relief measures and long-term flood control solutions.

“Through these coordinated efforts, from crop protection to saving livestock from post-flood diseases, the universities of the country have taken a step for food security in the country,” the HEC’s Ahmed told University World News.

Ahmed said agricultural universities must now play a larger role to help avert a food crisis in the country as rice, cotton, vegetables and fruit orchards in the food basket areas of the country have been swept away by fierce floods, pushing farmers and landowners into poverty and the country into food insecurity.

According to the United Nations, over 800,000 farm animals have perished in the floods while two million acres of crops and orchards have been destroyed, posing a serious threat to food security in the months ahead, particularly as floodwaters may take many months to recede. This is especially the case in Sindh province, which lies close to the Arabian sea and has higher levels of underground water.

“Now, the challenge before us is to find ways for timely sowing of winter crops, including wheat, amid many inches of water still staying on the lands,” Ahmed said.

Enhancing universities’ role

Academic experts in the country have been stressing the need to enhance the role of universities to address these adverse climate change impacts through research and technical support to the relevant institutions. But results have been negligible.

Muhammad Tufail, vice-chancellor of Ghazi University in flood-hit southern Punjab, told University World News that “despite being among the top 10 most affected countries due to climate change, universities in Pakistan are engaged in traditional research and a majority of those have not adopted needs-based research”.

He pointed out: “Among over 200 universities in the country, only a few are offering degrees in climate change or in disaster management. Although degrees in classic environmental studies and agriculture are being offered, syllabi have not been updated to meet national needs and emergencies.”

Tufail added that although there is some research on climate and environment, “the impact is not visible because that research has not been applied to tackle national issues.”

He said the reason was that “research conducted at universities in Pakistan is not being coordinated at national level. The climate change institutions are working without centralised coordination.”

Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Climate Change Sherry Rehman told University World News: “There are some gaps in our national approach for tackling climate change in terms of research and development, but Pakistan alone is not fully capable to take climate action. Rather, the country is paying the price for what industrialised nations have done to the climate.”

Poorly coordinated climate change research

A few universities have their own climate research centres like the University of Agriculture, Peshawar and COMSATS University Islamabad.

Centres and departments dealing with climate research are not linked with each other or with the Ministry of Climate Change which has its own climate research bodies, all working independently of each other.

Arif Goheer, principal scientific officer and acting head of the agriculture, forestry and land use department of the Islamabad-based Global Change Impact Studies Centre, told University World News the problem was not lack of research at universities, but lack of its implementation, causing wastage of resources.

He stressed the need for a coordinating body to avert duplication of research efforts at different universities. “The country needs a centralised system and mechanisms to benefit from the research being done at universities,” he said.

Muhammad Ismail Kumbhar, a professor at Sindh Agriculture University, told University World News: “The research work at universities needs to be integrated into actionable measures by the relevant agencies.”

He added that some agriculture universities prepared land use plans and have the required data and expertise, “but that is not being exploited to avert disasters like floods in the country.”

More than 70 Offices of Research, Innovation and Commercialisation (ORICs) at the country’s public universities were created to coordinate research and innovation according to social and market needs. However, these offices are also resource constrained.

The Pakistan Meteorological Department has a dedicated Climate Change Impact and Integration Cell with affiliation to three climate research centres, besides having close coordination with specialised government centres including the Flood Forecasting Division. However, according to academics, research and development institutions in the country only work within their own domain, with minimal coordination with a wider network of universities across the country’s provinces.

Pakistan’s National Climate Change Policy, passed in 2012, identified vulnerabilities to climate change in water, agriculture, forestry, coastal areas, biodiversity and vulnerable ecosystems and recommended appropriate measures to address these issues.

It was passed after a detailed discussion of the floods in 2010 and 2011, which were termed ‘super floods’ as they affected 20 million people, but the 2022 floods have had far greater impact, affecting 33 million people. The policy stressed the need to avert floods in future but in the absence of concrete measures, the country is facing yet another flood disaster.

The country set up the National Initiative for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), established different support units across provinces to implement these goals and has surpassed Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), as reflected in its report as a party to the Paris Agreement of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

But the lack of coordination to mitigate climate change impacts has been the major hurdle in the implementation of the measures recommended by the local and international climate research centres, highlighting the need for international technical support to align its policies and specialised institutions for coordinated efforts to realise SDG 13 (Climate action) that requires nations to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.