All Quiet on the Climate Change Front

Spearhead Analysis – 26.10.2017

By Raja Safiullah
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Higher temperatures, receding glaciers, ice-bergs melting, loss of habitat, species nearing extinction and volatile weather patterns, were images that evoked little or no emotions. However, the world is starting to come to terms with the reality that these images are not of a distant Antarctica anymore: Hurricanes in North America, Wildfires in Europe, Floods in Asia, and Heat waves across the world, have woken us from a woeful slumber. Awake to this reality, Pakistan too is finally starting to chart a way forward, having already been ranked 8th in the list of countries most vulnerable to climate change by the German Watch, Global Climate Risk Index. Dawn newspaper recently reported that 133 events directly attributed to climate change in the last two decades and at the very least cost the country around $3.82 billion in monetary terms, not to mention the loss of life. This issue requires concerted effort on the part of not just the Pakistani state, but also the civil society, along with relevant transnational bodies. For it can only get worse from here, if not worked on; with researchers from MIT suggesting that intense heat in Pakistan by the turn of the century could make ‘human survival in the region very difficult’.

Pakistan finds itself in an unfortunate position of being one of the worst hit countries in the world by climate change. This has primarily happened due to the climatic conditions in the region, exacerbated by trans-border contributions to climate change – primarily Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Pakistan has contributed a meagre 0.47% to the annual global Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emission in the last year, but is already experiencing significant decrease in the agricultural production and livestock rearing owing to higher temperatures, reduced rainfall, increased flooding and droughts that have disrupted the overall environment. Floods in 2010, 2011 and 2012 which claimed approximately 3,000 lives in Pakistan, as per the Economic Survey of Pakistan, are not just a consequence of erratic spells of rain but also because of the notable recession of Hindu Kush-Karakoram-Himalayan (HKH) glaciers. With fresh water reserves diminishing at an alarming rate with loss of water to the Arabian Sea, Pakistan has failed to retain or store the available fresh water for later use despite being declared a water-stressed country. 

The implications of this hazard from an economic standpoint are immense and need to be addressed. As water levels rise across the world, the coastal regions are bound to shrink. Nasir Pahnwar, an environmental expert has shown through his research that in Pakistan almost 3.1 million acres of agricultural land around Badin, Thatta and Sujawal districts has already been submerged in the sea. While studies carried out by Global Change Impact Study Centre (GCISC), have predicted almost 16% reduction in wheat production and around 20% reduction in rice production in Pakistan by the end of the century, due to loss of agricultural land and changing weather patterns. Livestock production is expected to nosedive and decrease by 20% – 30% in the next decade, as per the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Pakistan Chapter, which will directly reduce supply of household diary goods along with meat. These predictions have served to create serious doubts over the issue of food security in the future. The negative impact of these events on the employment rate will be substantial, since the agriculture sector alone accounts for 40% of the employed in Pakistan. Loss of these livelihoods could place a lot more people on the fringes of poverty, or those already lingering on the fringes into the pits. Along with these key sectors would be the diminishing fortunes of forestry, fishing, tourism and recreation sectors. The receding HKH glaciers present the possibility of glaciers vanishing altogether and the repercussions for the Indus Water System, that not only provides life-sustaining water resources but also the energy needs of an already energy-deprived country. These concerns collectively raise major economic issues for Pakistan, especially in terms of food, water, and energy security.

And like most states of the world battling to counter climate change, Pakistan too has found itself overwhelmed by the task at hand. While recognizing the need to protect the environment, Pakistan has witnessed an alarming rate of deforestation over the years as substantiated by a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report in 2010, where Pakistan was said to have the highest annual deforestation rate in Asia, at around 2.1%. Pakistan has also failed to live up to the commitments made under the Millennium Development Goals, to increase its forest cover from 2.5% to 6.0%. This extensive deforestation that has largely remained unchecked, has caused loss of habitat and has resulted in increasing the risk of other environmental disasters – events such as floods, earthquakes and droughts. The governments reaction to such calamities has been to dole out compensation to the victims – an economic burden that is unsustainable in essence. The need is to be proactive in terms of building earthquake and flood resistant infrastructure and ensure that the environmental damage is minimized.

CPEC, termed a game-changer, while offering the potential for economic prosperity, will come at a cost with potentially higher GHG emissions from the power plants being set-up based on non-renewable resources. The situation on the coastlines is also getting worse with rising waters, saline water intruding into the Indus Delta, causing harm to the fish breeding grounds; and, the rapid pace at which the mangroves have disappeared given the highest rate of deforestation across all categories of forests in Pakistan. This tremendous loss of mangrove forests has compromised the fish sanctuaries and exposed the coastal cities to hurricanes or tsunamis – and more mangroves are expected to be cleared out for CPEC related projects.

From the security point of view, there is much for the Pakistani state to deliberate on. As the agricultural production declines and the arable land shrinks owing to rising water levels, competition for limited resources rises within the country. There could be increased migration from agricultural lands located in the rural regions to urban regions that already face capacity constraints. This situation has the potential to further intensify the ethnic groupings especially in over-crowded urban centers; as insecurities and trust deficit start to take the shape of clashes in the social, economic and political spheres. Similar implications appear to be emerging in the case of Real Estate, where annual flooding in the doabs and gradual shrinking of the coastal lands is bound to reduce the amount of land safe from these potential calamities. This will reduce affordability and has the potential to give rise to unique socio-economic issues that could engender civil unrest. There is also the possibility of developing international ‘conflict’ over limited shared resources with the neighboring countries. The Indus Water Treaty with India is a prime example, where tensions have already been noted between the two nuclear-armed countries, and the situation over the water-sharing arrangement could get trickier with diminishing water sources and changing weather patterns.   

A step in the right direction has been taken by Pakistan government in passing the National Climate Change Act, recently, with the government now recognizing the need to draw out a national plan, following its ratification of the Paris Climate Change Agreement in 2015. The more immediate concern identified through this initiative is to prepare Pakistan for adaptation to climate change. Given Pakistan’s primary sources of water are the glaciers and snow covers that are melting away at an alarming rate, there is a need to develop greater storage facilities in the form of dams and barrages. Water conservation initiatives by remodeling existing irrigation systems to minimize water loss are needed, along with creating awareness and generating dialogue over water loss in the general public. Sectoral water allocation also needs to be reevaluated in light of the climatic changes, and changing needs. On the agriculture side, there is a need to invest in research for developing new seed varieties resistant to increased temperatures, heat waves and water-scarcity, while the extensive barani lands (rain-fed) regions should be connected to improved irrigation systems, to reduce rain dependency. Additionally, small-scale farmers need to be reached out for climate change adaptive techniques, and hazard warning systems need to be installed across the country. The afforestation initiative taken up by the KPK government is a step in the right direction, and an aggressive afforestation scheme to complement the former needs to be drawn out for the country. While a Mangroves Protection Scheme needs to be enforced with renewed vigour, and a possible restoration of the coastline habitats that were once compromised needs to be envisioned. For it is not a matter of choice anymore, but rather a necessity for survival.

Pakistan has shown political will, after years of sidelining the climate change issue. It has shown character and diligence in becoming party to international agreements on collective action to counter climate change. It has set the stage to follow-up on the political will, through substantive steps in first adapting to the climate change at home, and then breathing life into a more renewable environment-friendly and sustainable world.