THE Long-Term Climate Risk Index places Pakistan at fifth place for countries most affected by climate change from 1999-2018. Pakistan was hit by 21 massive floods in the period from 1950-2011, causing economic losses of up to $19 billion.
Pakistan occupies a vast cryospheric space with the largest and densest collection of glaciers outside the polar regions. Global warming has accelerated the melting process of ice caps and glaciated areas increasing the risk of hydro-meteorological disasters with serious implications for both upstream and downstream communities. Given Pakistan’s geographical location and topographical features, the dangers confronted by the country as a result of a rapidly warming world include riverine floods, glacial lake outburst, floods, cyclones, sea level rise, landslides, heat islands and the subsequent loss of lives and livelihoods.
The disasters triggered by changes in the climate regime affect the precipitation cycle with a domino effect on many aspects of human security. The timing, amplitude and quality of water in the hydrological cycle play an important role in maintaining the socioeconomic and environmental sustainability of development indicators. Frequent deviation and disruption in this cycle or increase in the frequency and intensity of natural hazards can have a crippling effect on the economy and other social functions.
Disasters affect people disproportionately and vulnerabilities are exacerbated by factors that include age, gender, location and socioeconomic indicators. Women constitute nearly half the population in Pakistan but the perception of gender roles, power dynamics within communities and the social and cultural barriers put them at higher risk. Crises increase fragility and vulnerability erodes capacity for response. Together, it can trigger a meltdown that can spell ruination.
If climate disasters strike, how will people cope?
If more cities start facing urban flooding like in Karachi or if there is a shift in the summer monsoon and winter rain timings, and the glacial lakes burst, and riverine floods erode land, destroy assets and make people homeless and destitute, how will state institutions respond and how will people cope? Disasters bring with them dislocation, disruption, disease, hunger and many other problems that degrade quality of life and inflict hardship. Recurrent loss and damage diminish the state’s ability to manage risks or pay compensation.
Certain risk-aversion actions like land zoning, not allowing habitation in hazardous areas, improving drainage, managing waste and taking strong action against illegal cutting of trees can be taken at the country level but there are other hydro-meteorological disasters that require collaborated action for risk reduction. Keeping in mind that climate change is a global problem it is logical to presume that solutions will also have to be built on common platforms through dialogue, negotiation and consultation. The Paris Agreement offers us an opportunity to build global consensus on reducing the culprit emissions, but beyond that we need to work on a parallel theatre that is more regional in context and closer in proximity to our neighbourhood.
As part of South Asia, Pakistan shares many common features in geography and geology, and similarities in culture and social values in the region. Natural disasters triggered by climate change are also part of the shared geographical heritage that pose a common threat with spillover effects that can neither be contained within borders nor managed effectively without collaboration and timely exchange of information. Early warning systems and sharing telemetric information can go a long way in reducing losses.
Building cooperation in South Asia is not an easy task, or an easy ask. The history of the region has been marred by dysfunctional relations between Pakistan and India. This has prevented the region from utilising its potential for becoming an economic bloc and working for the growth and development of its people. However, the world has changed since 1947 and now there is a new player in the game with the name of global warming and climate change. The threats posed by this twin menace and its associated risks will require a different approach and a shift from the business-as-usual strategy.
The humanitarian cost and risk of social and economic destabilisation is too high to ignore the need for change or letting political differences hold hostage the future of millions who will be forced to pay the price for the intransigence of a few. With a common climate future and interlinked challenges, the time is right for shifting perspectives and starting a new paradigm of cooperation to address disasters and talk about risk financing that contributes to regional stability and paves the way for absorbing future shocks.
The writer is chief executive of the Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change.
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2020