Climate risks

11 Feb 2019


The writer is a freelance journalist.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

THE warnings are coming fast and furious. The latest takes the form of a report from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, that finds that even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius (which is unlikely), 36 per cent of glaciers along the Hindu Kush and Himalayan range will have melted away by 2100. This will lead to surging river flows from 2050 to 2060, with declines after that. That means floods, droughts, and severe energy crises within our children’s lifetimes.

There is no denying Pakistan’s vulnerability. Germanwatch’s Long-Term Climate Risk Index in 2018 identified Pakistan as the seventh-most country affected by climate change based on data compiled from 1997 to 2016. An IMF report last year ranked Pakis­tan third among countries facing water shortages.

Sadly, there are no signs that Pakistan is heeding the warnings. Rapid urbanisation and infrastructure development are driving deforestation, only part of which will be redressed by the 10-billion-tree tsunami. Economic plans centred on connectivity may increase carbon emissions by 300pc over the next 15 years. The desire for a quick fix for Pakistan’s energy crisis has led to an anachronistic obsession with coal, particularly under CPEC. We continue to focus on water-intensive industries, without thinking about efficiencies. And then there’s the booming population.

There are no signs that Pakistan is heeding the warnings.

The PTI government acknowledges the challenges but shies away from highlighting the sociopolitical implications of climate change. The most crucial is internal migration. According to a recent Oxfam report on climate-induced migration in Sindh, over 40 million people in South Asia will migrate by 2050. In a country with many ethnic, linguistic and sectarian divisions, and which is highly weaponised, the resulting competition for resources is a recipe for persistent conflict.

Climate change also has a neglected gender dimension. Women who in rural areas are responsible for sourcing potable water may face the punishments of failing to secure scarce water supplies. They will also be denied nutrition and educational and occupational opportunities as they are left behind in resource-scarce communities to care for the young and elderly while men migrate.

Then there’s the regional aspect. The Indus Waters Treaty which has worked well so far was not designed for an era of climate change. Our hyper-patriots are typically hyperbolic when it comes to projecting conflict with India, but their predictions of a water war future are not infeasible. There is certainly a water dimension to Pakistan’s growing economic and security reliance on China, given that China is upstream of India, and could retaliate on Pakistan’s behalf to any Indian attempt to limit our water supply.

But there is less discussion of water as a future point of contention in Pakistan-China ties. After all, both countries to some extent compete for the same water source in the Hindu Kush and Himalayan range. Some have pointed out that China’s involvement in Pakistan’s agricultural sector as part of CPEC, which would likely involve the export of water-intensive crops to China, may be an indirect way to benefit from Pakistan’s water supply.

In this context, the government should initiate transborder water-sharing agreements that go beyond Pakistan-India ties to include other Indus Basin countries such as China and Afghanistan, or even all the nations up to Myanmar that will be affected by the glacial melt.

Climate change experts are recommending the interventions needed to manage the resource fallout of climate change. But the government also needs to prepare for the sociopolitical aspects.

It should start by strengthening interprovincial coordination under the 18th Amendment, as climate-relevant subjects such as the environment and agriculture fall under the provincial domain, and internal migration will demand a collaborative approach.

A public-awareness campaign must be launched on an urgent basis. In a low-literacy, high-faith population, climate change is likely to be perceived as divine intervention, and ignored. The media can play an important role both in putting climate change on the political agenda and highlighting the ways in which people can make a difference, for example, by saving water and electricity. One hopes the deepening antagonisms between the government and fourth estate do not prevent such productive messaging.

The government can also initiate regional cooperation. The glacial melt report was requested by the eight affected countries and produced by more than 200 scientists. Such joint efforts will be key to assessing and mitigating climate-related risks. For them to succeed, the government will have to reduce the suspicions around academics and advocacy groups that receive foreign funding and engage with regional counterparts. Without progressive thinking, Pakistan will face the worst, unprepared.

The writer is a freelance journalist.
Twitter: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, February 11th, 2019