The recent devastating floods in Chitral and the meager relief response by the government and civil society has exposed the country’s vulnerability to disaster management. Floods regularly occur on the Indus system and it appears the government has done little preparations after the record floods of 2010 that killed thousands and displaced millions.
Pakistan incurs an annual loss of $24 billion as a result of adverse impacts of climate change and environmental degradation. For a developing country like Pakistan, spending a fraction of that amount on devising local strategies to fight climate change could end up in very large dividends.
Pakistan is faced with a myriad of environmental hazards closely attributable to climate change. Heatwaves are just one of the manifestations of the Holocene climate change which the earth is witnessing in the 21st century; 14 of the last 15 years have been the hottest in recorded history. Sea surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean are rising at rates much higher than the other oceans of the planet thereby changing the monsoon patterns. This will inevitably give rise to another geologic hazard namely salt water intrusion. In this case saline water from the ocean will gradually replace fresh water aquifers along the Sindh and Balochistan coastlines affecting drinking water supplies and mangrove habitats.
Floods, droughts and desertification are already adversely affecting the livelihood of poor peasants all over the country. Pakistan has seen the worst loss to its vegetation canopy in the past three decades because of over-population, deforestation and haphazard urbanization. Timber mafia has been emboldened by very high demand for lumber and augmented by the eroding law and order situation in the country. Reforestation campaigns have not produced any tangible results as they have been mainly focused on style rather than substance.
Chronic air- and water-borne diseases are on the rise and can quickly become endemic or even pandemic in the face of meager healthcare facilities, especially in rural parts of the country.
The 2010 floods in north Pakistan were the worst natural disaster in recorded history and scientists at the World Meteorological Organization in Geneva said there is no doubt that higher sea surface temperatures contributed to the disaster. Fresh Snowpacks, glacial melts and unprecedented monsoon rains had caused flooding in the Indus River Basin since then on a yearly basis. This fact alone calls for an effective flood control system by building small and medium dams on the Indus and Kabul Rivers which will also help mitigate chronic power shortages in the country.
General public is well aware of the dangers posed by climate change to their communities, however, the government’s perception needs a drastic makeover. Mushahidullah Khan, Minister for the newly elevated Ministry of Climate Change was quick to blame Indian nuclear reactors in Rajasthan for the recent devastating heatwave in southern parts of the country that killed more than 1200 people in less than a week. When category-4 tropical cyclone Nilofar was developing in the Indian Ocean in October 2014, it was clearly headed for the Karachi coastline. When a female lawmaker turned the attention of Sindh Assembly Speaker Agha Siraj Durrani towards the impending danger, he declared it on the Assembly floor that the tomb of Saint Abdullah Shah Ghazi will save Karachi from cyclone Nilofar. He also advised those who were “afraid of the cyclone” to move to interior Sindh. Predictably, no warnings were issued and no assets were mobilized by the government. Had Nilofar made a landfall on Karachi coast, the damage to life and property would have been unimaginable.
There is no continuation of policies to tackle climate change from one government to the next. Though there is no need for a separate ministry for climate change, but it was set up nonetheless by the PPP government in 2012. Indeed, for the current government, which is battling terrorism and energy shortages, climate change is clearly not a priority and the ambitious National Climate Change Policy that was launched by the previous government in March 2013 was shelved right after its launch. The ministry was downgraded to a division within the Environment ministry by the current Nawaz government who once again flipped the coin and elevated it to a full ministry last month. There is no budgetary allocation for the ministry which is housed in the same building as it was in 2012, its only job is to coordinate climate change strategies and facilitate the stakeholders.
Pakistan is having a hard time fighting climatic hazards because the people’s confidence in government solving their issues is almost non-existent and the lowest in the South Asian region. Fighting climate change will be a long, arduous road and government will be well-advised to make it an integral part of school and college curriculum. Disaster management departments of the government are fighting climate change by organizing seminars and conferences which is a good start but it is tantamount to barely scratching the surface of this behemoth issue.
Plenty of international funding is available to fight climate change. Last week Bill Gates unveiled plans to invest $2 billion in clean energy projects over the next five years, Pakistan must strive to secure a sizeable chunk of this money to tap into its vast potential for solar and wind energy. With enormous power line losses, there is no way Pakistan can remain dependent on its dwindling hydro power generation from large reservoirs which have already been silted up. Alternative energy resources are the only viable option for Pakistan to overcome its chronic energy shortages.
Water is not an unlimited resource; fresh water aquifers are under severe strain and Pakistan will be a water-starved country in the next seven years. It is high time to devise a comprehensive water conservation strategy and women participation must be ensured for any meaningful outcomes. The time has come to stop the enormous water wastage for personal, industrial and agricultural purposes. Pakistan must adhere to the “5 R’s” of conservation; Reduce, Repurpose, Reuse, Recycle, and Restore.