THE frequency and ferocity of climate-induced disasters in recent months have been frightening. Equally alarming are the knee-jerk responses by our policymakers. For the most part, they do not seem to comprehend the complexity of climate change and are communicating some illusionary signposts as policy objectives.
Ad hocism has compounded our climate vulnerabilities, and inaction restricts climate adaptation options, leading to irreversible impacts known in climate negotiations as ‘loss & damage’. It is time to take immediate, systematic and long-term actions to protect the Pakistani people and economy from the unfolding climate crisis.
Pakistan needs to shed the following three misplaced assumptions for effective designing and communication of impact-oriented climate actions.
First, rather than referring to Pakistan as among the countries most vulnerable to climate change, it would be more accurate to describe it as one of the least prepared. Policymakers often play up the vulnerability card to play down their own responsibility thus presenting a fatalistic approach. The ‘victim card’ is routinely highlighted by governments to somehow dilute their responsibility to reduce vulnerabilities. Accepting that we’re poorly prepared increases the accountability and direct responsibility of the concerned federal and provincial government departments as well as the presently non-existent local governments (LG), which are ultimately responsible for bottom-up adaption planning for national resilience.
Vulnerability and resilience are not static concepts. They are relative terms as they increase or decrease with development interventions. To a very large extent, vulnerability and resilience are a function of good or bad governance. Systematic and coordinated development initiatives can help reduce vulnerabilities. Flood preparedness by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) offers a hidden success story.
To a very large extent, vulnerability and resilience are a function of good or bad governance.
The magnitude of the super floods of 2010 made Pakistan one of the most vulnerable countries to climate impact in the world. It inundated one-fifth of the country, affected 20 million people and claimed over 2,000 lives, in addition to damaging roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. In response, Pakistan developed an overly ambitious National Flood Protection Plan.
However, even before the 10-year plan could be formally approved by the Council of Common Interests in 2017, NDMA started taking precautionary and preparatory measures for flood risk management in partnership with key stakeholders. By undertaking a series of non-structural measures that always cost less, NDMA steadily reduced direct losses from riverine floods even when the monsoons were abnormally intense. The risk of riverine floods has not disappeared altogether, but it is not a small feat for Pakistan to begin a low-cost, consultative process to address the annual risks.
These initial steps alone have steadily reduced Pakistan’ global ranking on the list of the most vulnerable countries. That unenviable position is now occupied by the Philippines and Haiti that face more frequent tropical storms.
While vulnerability to riverine floods has reduced, Pakistan still faces an overwhelming multitude of climate threats that are characteristically present in large continents or in very big countries that stretch over several time zones. For example, Pakistan faces at least five types of floods, in addition to the annual riverine floods (mostly in the summer monsoon, fewer in winter rains) — each category requiring unique, area-specific action plans: flash floods, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), urban floods, torrential rains and cloud outbursts in both urban and rural areas.
Additionally, the sources of vulnerability range from tropical storms and seawater intrusion in the south to heatwaves, landsides, snowstorms and GLOFs in the north. The level of vulnerability in each instance can be reduced substantially by low-cost, non-structural interventions in concert with stakeholders — without always seeking international finances. They all beg for systematic interventions for enhanced preparedness.
Second, it is a misplaced argument that climate change is a technical climatology issue on which only climate modellers can guide us. It is, in reality, a development issue that can only be tackled by pursuing climate-smart agriculture, water, energy, urban planning and LG issues. All these sectors are provincial subjects under the Constitution, even if the federal government routinely encroaches on these subjects by cunningly using interwoven layers of parallel institutions and invoking weak provincial capacities. The 18th Amendment is an incomplete agenda.
It is now a prerequisite to meet climate-induced challenges. The Planning Commission together with the provincial planning boards can spearhead the process, but this cannot be meaningfully delivered without constitutional amendments that would ensure that LG institutions, are financed, regularly held and given clear mandates without interruptions. The foundation of climate justice in Pakistan will need to be laid in LG institutions in order to strengthen inclusion and equity.
Third, it is inaccurate to say that climate change can be stabilised if developed countries reduce their emissions and developing countries like Pakistan focus on adaptation. The fact is that both adaptation and mitigation are intrinsically linked and inseparably tied. Actions on each result in climate and economic co-benefits and contribute towards resilience. In fact, Pakistan’s first official submission to the UN in 2016 of Nationally Determined Contributions specifically committed to adaptation. However, successive governments have since failed to develop national adaption plans, despite the availability of international financing.
A cursory look at the budgetary allocations since 2012 when the first National Climate Change Policy was approved shows that development expenditure has effectively decreased. This inaction is costing Pakistan an estimated 9.2 per cent of GDP, an amount that is already more than double of the projected economic growth rate. Pakistan may or may not meet its projected economic growth rate, but climate costs will go further up unless climate-induced disasters are prioritised as a non-traditional security threat. This would require development expenditure to be increased by 2030 from the present 2.7pc to the same level that we had during 1972-77 ie 21pc, as recently argued by economist Kaiser Bengali in another context.
Climate change is not just a north-south issue, though the West should — but will not — extend financial assistance as it is responsible for emitting high levels of carbon into the atmosphere. Our moral indignation aside, the protection of Pakistan’s growing population is our responsibility. The sooner we shed our delusional paradigms, the better it will be for strengthening our climate resilience.
The writer is an expert on climate change and development.
Published in Dawn, July 8th, 2022