Impending disaster

May 06, 2019

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The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.
The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

ADDRESSING the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Initiative in Beijing on April 26, Prime Minister Imran Khan identified climate change as a key challenge faced by developing countries, including ours. The observation was spot-on. A climate change profile of Pakistan shows that the country’s annual mean temperature has increased by 0.5 degree Celsius, and likely to increase by a further 3°C in the next 70 years. Annual precipitation rates have increased slightly and displayed substantial variation. The sea level, which increased by 10 centimetres in the last century, will increase by 60cm by the end of this one. It is adequately proven that climate change is not a myth, but a reality.

Pakistan is affected by various climate change fallouts caused by global and local actions. Besides common global factors such as carbon emissions and rising oceans, issues specific to Pakistan include droughts, unpredictable precipitation rates and monsoons, acid rains, depletion of water aquifers, spread of water-logging/salinity, melting glaciers, flash floods, and depletion of forest cover and marine pollution. Thus, sizeable damage has been done as a consequence of nascent development processes and locally induced factors.

It is vital to note that these impacts are a visible cause of losses in productivity, livelihoods and redundancy of precious ecological assets. Pakistan ranks 135th in terms of per capita greenhouse gas emissions, but is the seventh-most affected by climate-related impacts. While it is wise to take a proactive stance in global climate change initiatives, mitigating local causes is as important and urgent.

Institutional responses towards the challenges are not promising.

Pakistan’s coastal marine environment is facing a catastrophe — ironically at the hands of its very users, through deforestation of its mangroves in southern Karachi and nearby islands, mainly due to large real-estate developments. Researchers have also found that local people uproot and plunder budding plants for mundane utilisation such as for firewood. Uneven land reclamation by ambitious developers has cut the water flow, leading to the mangroves’ demise.

Marine ecology is also impacted by raw sewage inflow. At present, 400m gallons of sewage is pushed into the Arabian Sea from Karachi on a daily basis, constantly degrading the coastline’s micro environment. Oil spills from ships are another source of pollution. About 0.09m tons of used oil is discharged along Karachi’s coast annually. All of these contribute to the various climate factors that need to be scientifically analysed for proper prevention, mitigation and adaptation plans.

The Indus delta’s precious ecosystem is another case in point. It is spread across 0.6m hectares between Korangi and Sir Creek. This habitat relies on freshwater outflows from the Indus. Research has shown that 35MAF water flows down the delta, only three months in a year. Despite interprovincial conflicts and claims, it is found that the estuaries run dry for most of the year. The sea’s ingress and its impact on soil quality are two principal hazards faced by local communities. High salinity adversely impacts aquatic life. Overharvesting of marine resources, natural meandering of creeks and grazing by livestock are some of the concerns.

In Pakistan, institutional responses towards climate change challenges are slow and not promising. Planned, sustained actions are immediately needed to ensure existing cropping patterns, water conservation, protection of life and people’s assets, combating vulnerabilities to lesser income groups and, eventually, curtailing social dislocations. Meteorologists and other professionals have already predicted impending droughts and reduction in water availability.

For food production and conservation of settlements, it is vital to prepare a mitigation and adaptation strategy with political consensus. If food prices soar, it can lead to social and political upheavals. It is also likely that the country may suffer a greater scale of climate-induced migration syndrome. For a country that is already grappling with security- and conflict-based dislocations, a further wave of population displacements will prove quite harmful.

Some climate change responses have been launched. The prime minister mentioned his government’s flagship tree plantation drives. This is a step in the right direction, but we still need a national spatial strategy for scientific planning of land uses. National and regional land utilisation must be documented with an objective of conserving existing forest cover, identify and preserve biodiversity, indicate impending environmental threats due to mega developmental projects, and spell out mitigation measures. A national debate on curbing energy intensive consumption patterns is also necessary. By returning to low-carbon lifestyles, we may stem the damage.

The writer is chairman, Department of Architecture & Planning, NED University, Karachi.

Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2019