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A real threat

Rina Saeed Khan explains how climate change is threatening Pakistan’s fragile ecosystem in a number of ways

Pakistan today faces a range of threatening climate change impacts: changing monsoon patterns, melting glaciers, seasonal flooding, rising sea levels, desertification and increasing water scarcity. For the past two years, the country has topped the list of the Global Climate Risk Index produced by Germanwatch, an NGO that works on global equity issues. In 2010, Pakistan was listed as the number one country in the world affected by climate-related disasters; in 2011 it ranked as number three.

Some experts say that the effects of climate change could cost Pakistan’s economy up to $14 billion a year and need to be urgently dealt with. “The country cannot run away from the effects of a changing climate,” says Malik Amin Aslam, a former minister of state for environment and currently adviser to the United Nations Development Programme. He notes that “in the past 40 years, nine out of the top 10 natural disasters in Pakistan have been climate-triggered which shows the magnitude of the challenge”. Given the fact that Pakistan is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world, the federal ministry of climate change was set up in 2012, which launched a comprehensive climate change policy in February this year.

Dr Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, currently vice-president of the World Meteorological Organisation, who was the lead author of the National Climate Change Policy, explains: “If we look at the frequency and the trend of the extreme weather events impacting Pakistan then it is easy to find its link with climate change.” He adds that the pattern of recent extreme weather events in Pakistan (such as the floods of 2010 and 2011) are a clear indication of the increased frequency and intensity of such events, which is in line with international climate change projections. Scientists now agree that greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet and expect that this will lead in future to more evaporation of water, moister air and heavier rainfall.

“Flooding is one of the predicted impacts of climate change according to the Fourth Assessment Report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that came out in 2007,” explains Shafqat Kakakhel, a former United Nations Environment Programme official who now serves on the Pakistan government’s advisory group on climate change. “When I was asked after the floods of 2010 whether there was a possibility of recurrence, my reply was that there was no guarantee. Climate change is clearly disrupting the meteorological cycle. We can see how the monsoon is becoming more chaotic, erratic and unpredictable. Either it is coming too late or too soon or there is too much rain. What the country really needs is standard operating procedures for disaster risk reduction right down to the district level.”

A task force on climate change was set up by the government back in 2009 to advise it on the impacts of climate change in the country. The task force finalised its report and handed it over to the government in February 2010. In the section on ‘Past and expected future climate changes over Pakistan’ the report says: “It is projected that climate change will increase the variability of the monsoon rains and enhance the frequency and severity of extreme events such as floods and droughts”. The report formed the basis of the National Climate Change Policy. Experts say that the real work has to be done at the provincial level, but the planning must be done at the federal level and a national action plan to implement the policy is currently being made in consultation with all the provinces and regions.

Along with the threat of flooding in its major rivers, the country also faces the threat of glaciers melting in the high mountains of the Himalayas, Karakorams and Hindu Kush, causing glacier lake outburst floods. As temperatures in Pakistan’s mountainous regions rise and glacial lake outbursts become more common, people in Chitral — where every valley has at least one glacier — are becoming anxious.

Abdul Jabbar was in his house in the Bindu Gol valley of Chitral district when a glacial lake burst through the ridge holding it back high above. “We felt the ground shaking and heard the roar of the water, and we ran out of our homes,” he recalls. The 2010 flood destroyed a few dwellings in his village of Drongagh, as well as many orchards, cultivated fields and water channels. The boulders and rocks deposited by the massive flood also blocked the Chitral River at the base of the valley for 12 hours. When the river finally broke through, it swept away bridges and damaged settlements downstream.

Climate change impacts on coastal areas and river deltas are also a specific concern in Pakistan. Sea level rise is already resulting in inundation, increased storm surges, drowning of coastal marshes and wetlands, erosion, flooding and increased salinity. Coastal areas are also suffering from increased frequency and strength of tropical storms. Over 50,000 people may eventually be displaced from Pakistan’s coastal deltas. Already, there has been a substantial migration to Karachi in recent years from the town of Keti Bunder on the Indus Delta. According to Ali Hameed, a local resident, “All this was on the banks of the old river. Now it is the shoreline of the sea — and it’s washing everything away.”

Pakistan is also one of the most water-stressed countries in the world. The majority of Pakistan’s agriculture depends on a single river system and is therefore highly vulnerable. Its water infrastructure is old and poorly maintained and badly needs infrastructure overhaul and the introduction of water-saving techniques. Adaptation in irrigation and agricultural practices is urgently needed in Pakistan if the country is to become resilient to climate change.