Climate change deepens crisis in Pakistan

Since March 2022, Pakistan has been experiencing an unprecedented heatwave and a series of extreme climate events ranging from flash floods to forest fires. Experts have expressed concerns about the catastrophic impact on the health and livelihoods of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in the country

July 02, 2022 by Shriya Singh
Pakistan climate crisis
(Photo: via Daily Times)

An overnight change of regime and an erratic economy slowly approaching a balance of payments crisis characterized the first-half of 2022 in Pakistan. As the newly elected Shehbaz Sharif-led coalition government hopes to revive a suspended bailout program with the IMF this month, recent events point to another impending crisis brought about by climate change.

In recent years, the impact of climate change has accelerated in South Asia in the form of extreme heat and unpredictable weather patterns. Jacobabad, located in Sindh province, is also one of the hottest cities on earth. It recorded temperatures above 50 degree Celsius this year. The unexpected heatwave in the subcontinent which skipped the Spring season of March and April has been followed by a cascade of extreme climate events in Pakistan.

On May 8, a massive Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) occurred in the Hunza district of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). Although timely warning by disaster authorities prevented casualties, 22 families were displaced due to the flash floods in addition to the destruction of fruit orchards and crops which are a crucial source of livelihood in the mountains of the sensitive Hindukush ecosystem.

The month of May also saw major forest fires in Sherani, Balochistan and the destruction of almost 40% of the world’s largest pine nut and wild olive forests spread over thousands of hectares in the province. Besides Sherani forests, two other major fires erupted in May in the pine forests of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Climate devastation and the people

The Balochistan plateau in Pakistan where the fires took place, is a remote region that has suffered from economic underdevelopment and political instability for several decades. The forest fires in Sherani this year annihilated nearly half of the 1.4% forest cover in the entire province. These fires, and the threat of more to come, directly impacts the livelihoods of Baloch and Pashtun ethnic minorities who live in the region, and whose major economic activity is the pine nuts trade.

Others in the region rear livestock and wild animals that feed off small grass and other vegetation on the mountains which has also been impacted. Moreover, several animals and birds, some of which are endangered, are also under threat of extinction as fires destroy their habitat and leave them with no food.

Kamran Hussain, the World Wildlife Fund’s focal person for forests in Pakistan, told Dawn that the fire season in Pakistan, which typically starts in June and lasts till August, came earlier this year due to extreme temperatures and prevailing drought-like conditions. “This can be blamed on the rapidly evolving climate conditions,” he said.

Climate disasters like fires and floods are particularly dangerous to the mountain ecology and its people, who suffer physically, economically as well as mentally living in an increasingly precarious environment. Journalist Zofeen Ebrahim has documented how an increasing number of mental health issues and even suicides are being reported among members of mountain communities of provinces like Gilgit-Baltistan, triggered by the emotional and social costs of mass displacement.

Heatwaves have other multiple and cascading impacts on ecosystems, agriculture and water supply, which can have larger effects on economic production. In Pakistan, the spell of extremely hot and dry weather has affected the cultivation of key crops like wheat and rice due to less water availability.

According to a Reuters report, Pakistan, which is the fifth largest producer of mangoes and produces nearly 1.8 million tonnes of them each year, experienced a decline of around 50% this year in its mango production. The crop has been hit by the sudden change in temperatures and water shortages, according to the chief of a growers’ and exporters’ association.

On June 17, on the occasion of World Desertification and Droughts Day, the Ministry of Climate Change announced in a statement that Pakistan is one of the top 23 countries experiencing severe drought emergency. Researchers have predicted that Pakistan is on its way to becoming the most water-stressed country in the region as early as by 2025.

The issue of water scarcity and acute shortages has perennially marked the southern province of Sindh – from urban centers like Karachi to the Cholistan desert. Pir Koh village in Cholistan witnessed a massive cholera outbreak in mid-April which has continued to affect the lives of nearly 1,700 of its residents, according to the district health officer. Interestingly, Pir Koh is located above a field of natural gas and the epidemic outbreak was linked to the complete lack of any source of potable water.

Political apathy and top-down policies are a threat to vulnerable communities facing climate change

There are several factors that can explain Pakistan’s climate woes. First is the geographical and topographical diversity of the country, with predominantly dry terrain on the Western and Eastern borders. Water from the Indus River Basin, which has now been reduced to 40% of its flows, forms the most significant source of freshwater. Ravi, which flows through Punjab province, has been declared one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Besides surface water, groundwater resources have also been severely depleted for the purpose of irrigation.

Rapid urbanization that is marked by lack of planning and profit-oriented mega-projects of the government like the Margalla Hills stadium, construction of an expressway on the Malir green belt, and the coal-powered power plants in Thar desert point to a larger problem of political apathy towards the issue of climate change in the country. Consecutive governments have shown reluctance in recognizing the multifaceted impact of extreme climate events on vulnerable communities in these areas, who also face the threat of displacement and eviction due to the mega projects .

When much of the world has been shifting away from burning coal for energy, Pakistan is looking to a cheaper but more dangerous option to cut fuel prices, which is burning more coal by digging up the Thar desert. Experts have warned that this can increase Pakistan’s contribution to global carbon emissions, so far less than 1%, by many times.

Speaking to Peoples Dispatch, Ahmad Rafay Alam, environmental lawyer and activist, highlighted the discrepancies in the one of the largest coal power generation projects in Thar: “In Pakistan, the solar and wind energy offer much cheaper sources for power generation as opposed to burning the poor quality of lignite coal that Thar offers.” Alam also highlighted that the site of the project in Tharparkar district is one of the few places in the country with a Muslim minority and a Hindu majority population. Such mega-projects have aggravated the problems of migration, land speculation, encroachment of common grazing land and community conflicts over resource-sharing, the brunt of which is borne by marginalized communities in these areas.

Apart from geographical challenges and corporate-led mega projects that cater to capital more than the local population, lack of a strong institutional framework has also plagued the discussion on climate change in the country.

In 2017, the parliament passed the Climate Change Bill proposed by the Climate Change Ministry. The act provided for a National Climate Change Council (NCCC) headed by the Prime Minister and mandated to approve national climate-related policies and coordinate their follow-up. A National Climate Change Authority (NCCA) and a National Climate Change Fund were also established.

However, the federal as well as provincial governments have mostly relied on ad-hoc approaches and disaster management in the last four years. 

There are nonetheless newer avenues like community activism led by students, activists and people of working-class neighborhoods, which are beginning to draw attention to climate justice and demand accountability from the policies of the government-corporate nexus. One such instance is the annual Peoples Climate March organized in main urban centers like Lahore and Karachi. Through this initiative, Indigenous peoples collectives, feminist and left organizations, students groups, trade unions and grassroots organizations have been successful in drawing attention to the impact of the ill-planned development policies of the government. Karachi Bachao Tehreek, Sindh Indigenous Rights Alliance (SIRA), and Pakistan Maholiati (environment) Tahaffuz (protection) Movement are some of the groups that have been working towards organizing the masses towards environment protection and climate justice in the country.