Climate stresses

Published March 4, 2024
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst
The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst

LAST week offered a juxtaposition that captures Pakistan’s predicament. In Lahore, PTI supporters took to the streets to protest rigging and the lawfare against Imran Khan. Meanwhile, in Balochistan, lashing rain led to flooding dire enough to uproot houses, wash away roads, and paralyse trade.

Our political crises and elite bargaining always come at the expense of governance and service delivery. Democracy – in its true sense, not a hybrid facade – is a prerequisite for a functioning government that can provide prosperity and protection. But while we fight for the former, we are losing hope of achieving the latter.

The flooding in Balochistan is the latest reminder that climate change-related disasters remain among the top challenges for our country. And these disasters are not tragic one-off events that can be mopped up with a quick dab of emergency relief and rescue. Each disaster has social, political and security implications that extend for years. Today’s floods are tomorrow’s famine, protest movements, insurgency.

Balochistan is a particularly dire example of how climate change-related stresses will exacerbate fragility and potentially fuel conflict. A 2021 survey by the IPC Integrated Food Security Phase Class found that 25 per cent of Balochistan’s rural population was food-insecure, with some districts facing emergency-level food shortages. Given that more than half the province’s population relies on agriculture or livestock-related activities for their livelihood, this food insecurity can partly be attributed to drought and climate change more widely. Other drivers are food inflation, soaring fuel prices and livestock diseases.

The current flooding will exacerbate food insecurity. Flooding will destroy agrarian families’ food stocks, usually amounting to three to six months’ sustenance. Other farm inputs — stored harvests, seeds, fertilisers — are also subject to damage during flooding.

Balochistan’s challenges may soon feel unsurmountable.

The same survey found that 64pc of the province’s farming households struggled to sell their produce, propelling a vicious circle of food insecurity. This was because of difficult access to markets, either due to poor infrastructure that led to transport delays and crop damage or the high cost of transportation. Last week’s rains will worsen this situation: the roads that have dissolved will take months, if not years, to repair, impairing mobility. Local fuel costs will likely soar, following disruption to Pakistan-Iran border routes due to flooding. Secondary sources of income such as inter-provincial or cross-border trading will be hard hit.

Add other dynamics to this food insecurity, and it becomes apparent that Balochistan’s intersecting challenges may soon feel insurmountable. Consider the long-running grievance of the coastal fishing community, which has increasingly protested against illegal trawling resulting in depleted fish reserves. This is another community that for both climate-related and geopolitical reasons finds its livelihood threatened.

Research shows that a local temperature rise of 0.5 degrees Celsius increases the likelihood of conflict by 10 to 20pc as climate change drives resource competition. Balochistan’s already explosive political dynamics — rooted in valid historical grievances over resource extraction and state excesses, particularly disappearances — will further ignite due to climate change-driven resource scarcity. Unless, of course, someone does something about this spiralling conflict.

However, climate disasters can also create opportunities to demonstrate that a state is capable of effective, inclusive service delivery, thereby building trust. District administrations, disaster management authorities, the army and navy quickly commenced relief and rescue operations in Balochistan. The founder of the Haq Do Tehreek, which has campaigned for fisherfolk and broader Baloch rights, in his new position as MPA also did the rounds.

Can this responsiveness be sustained? Plans to address climate change and natural disaster-related food insecurity, resource competition and political fragility have to be nuanced, localised and adaptive. Resource-sharing arrangements between stressed communities have to be carefully negotiated to prevent conflict from flaring. Such grassroots interventions are the work of local governments and civil society, not security forces or law-enforcement agencies. And so it comes full circle: the need for meaningful democracy to enable climate responsiveness.

This is where the Lahore protests connect with the Balochistan floods. Both the PML-N and PPP made ambitious climate-related promises in their poll manifestos. Now with a governance mandate, however problematically delivered, the parties have a chance to show that they can deliver for the people.

The writer is a political and integrity risk analyst.

X: @humayusuf

Published in Dawn, March 4th, 2024

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