Pakistan enjoys a considerable measure of variety in both physiography and climate. The country has high mountain ranges in the north and north-west, vast Indus Plain in the south and south-east, arid plateau in the south-west, coastal strip in the south, and deserts in the south-east. Depending on the region, the climate also varies from extremely cold in winter to pleasant and very hot in summer. Rainfall in most parts of the country occurs in the monsoon months of July to September with scanty rains during the rest of the year. The coastal strip in the south has a temperate climate with a general deficiency in rainfall.
Pakistan’s climate change concerns are many and include increased variability of monsoons, receding northern glaciers, increased frequency and severity of floods and droughts. The impacts of climate change include: severe water and food insecurity due to decreasing agricultural and livestock production; more prevalent pests and weeds; degradation of ecosystems; loss of biodiversity; and changing ecology. There are risks associated with the composition, distribution and productivity of mangroves, while lower precipitation could contribute to salt stress. In this article an effort has been made to discuss how we can respond to the potential challenges of climate change.
The Divergent Philosophies about Climate Change
Climate related challenges are not new to Pakistan and the nation has suffered in the form of extreme floods and prolonged droughts for many decades, which supports the philosophy that these challenges are native to Pakistan’s arid climate and is based on simple logic, rationality and past historical data. A divergent philosophy is that the challenges are due to the growing impacts of climate change and is based on numerous scientific studies resulting in a general popularity of belief.
The main question to be answered is: “Is climate change really happening in the country? If yes, how to respond to it?”
A Look at Global Efforts to Meet Climate Change Challenges
Pakistan is signatory to international commitments on climate change, such as the 1998 Kyoto Protocol and the 2015 Paris Agreement. There is no single report available, both nationally and internationally, that can establish Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate change on the basis of scientific methods that determine climate change, as recommended by the IPCC.1
The Kyoto Protocol and Paris Agreement were promoted by the United Nations General Assembly to gauge the carbon emission share of the most developed and industrialized nations of the world including Japan, China, USA, Canada and the European nations. The adaptation aspect of these conventions was to extend developmental assistance for the less developed countries, to increase their resilience towards climate change impacts. Since the Paris Agreement (2015), a number of COPs (Conference of Parties) have been held, mostly chaired by global leaders, to enhance high level ownership aimed at addressing the issues of global climate change.
On the face of climate variability challenge, two distinct groups of people are identified – ones who are at the vulnerability frontline and the others who are outside of this circle of effect. However, while disasters due to climate variability may ruin the livelihood of people at the frontline, the ripple effect may impact the lives of those outside the frontline.
The countries under this agreement have pledged to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. The Agreement makes it binding on countries to report their Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) 2 and set their own targets while adapting to the impacts of climate change. Simultaneously, under UN Agenda 2030 for Development, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were also agreed upon. Mitigating the climate change and adapting to its impact remained at the heart of these goals. Pakistan is among the early states that embraced the SDGs.
Climate Change and Pakistan
There is no denying the fact that climate change is impacting many nations particularly those living in the Pacific Islands and scenic atolls and those who are already vulnerable to climate induced disasters. However, there is a need to see the stature of Pakistan on the basis of the concept of scientific rationality. Climate Risk Index ranks Pakistan among the top 20 countries most vulnerable to climate change. The index drives its estimation on the basis of dollar value of infrastructure damage and loss to human life caused by climate related disasters during 1999-2018. An interesting factor in the estimation is the human resource development index and purchase power parity. The study period of 20 years is critical towards us as the nation was fighting “war on terror” and most of the development budget intended for disaster preparedness was diverted to national security. The period also saw an increase in Temporarily Displaced Persons due to terrorism, shrinking job market, and increased burden of international loans. In such a scenario, a flood event of the likes of 2010 and 2014 and consequent damage to standing agricultural crops (mostly cash crops including rice, cotton, and sugarcane etc.) highlighted Pakistan’s vulnerability to climate related disasters.
Now the question arises what a geographically diverse country like Pakistan has to face with respect to the issues attributed to climate change? Balochistan province which represents 44% of the country’s landmass suffers from recurring droughts. Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir region, respectively face issues of GLOFs (Glacial Lake Outburst Floods) and landslides. The desert areas are also experiencing anomalous weather patterns over consecutive years. Heatwaves and urban flooding are becoming frequent in large cities; the coastal belt is threatened by unregulated flows in the delta and cyclones; the threat from North-Western hill torrents flowing across the provinces is a continuous phenomenon since ages. Green belts and forest cover of watersheds are continuously shrinking; and pollution in rivers and fresh water lakes is threatening the ecosystem and human health.
Construction and services sector have a big share in the national economy, that may cause a threatening rise in global temperature leading to climate change over a long period of time. There is a possibility that while pursuing climate change blindly, we may miss much graver issues faced by the nation. Climate variability is a far more complex and disastrous but ignored issue posing new and extensive challenges every year.
Climate – Change vs. Variability
A deep drive into past history reveals that Pakistan has been facing a diversity of climate related disaster issues well before the Paris Agreement. What was missing then and now is the issue of preparedness of people to meet the disasters. On the face of climate variability challenge, two distinct groups of people are identified – ones who are at the vulnerability frontline and the others who are outside of this circle of effect. However, while disasters due to climate variability may ruin the livelihood of people at the frontline, the ripple effect may impact the lives of those outside the frontline.
One such example is the reduction in the agricultural production due to sudden rains and hailstorm on mature wheat crop in 2019-20, which created food crisis for the entire nation. Likewise, heatwaves in the business hub of the nation, Karachi, caused loss of livelihoods in the services sector. Such impact on cotton crop may be responsible for inflationary prices of clothes and garments, reducing the buying power of the consumers. Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) studied the climate variability scenarios in the irrigated crop zones of Punjab and Sindh provinces, and identified that the extreme events have become prominent whereas the average climate scenarios continue to prevail.3
Development and Environment
Natural environment is the major source of livelihoods for the majority of people living under the poverty line in developing countries including Pakistan, which often gives rise to debates on the relationship between environment and economy.
Promoting tourism industry, the prime target of the government, by constructing/improving the road networks, particularly in the mountainous areas in the north, has no doubt provided livelihood to the local people but at the cost of local climate. Movement of heavy machinery for trade through the Karakoram Himalayan Road has not only impacted the temperature regime but is also increasing the number of landslide events. The increasing trend of growing vegetables and wheat under flood irrigation is also contributing to soil erosion and landslides in the mountainous region. The construction industry and urban sprawl has brought many other issues for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) and Balochistan provinces. These include issues such as groundwater mining due to over consumption, rapid decline in forest cover and rangeland. Continued pervasive policies of government like giving tree cutting allowance prevailing from the colonial period have also had their contribution in the rise of such issues. As a result, natural buffers against pollution have been compromised and the rivers’ health is declining. Another issue which is becoming quite pronounced is encroachment into river water course and harvesting of crush from the riverbeds for construction purpose. These activities are continuing despite the enactment of River Protection Act 2002 of KP province. Such operations have distorted the natural river course in a way that they offer room to disasters in the monsoon season.
The next and most difficult step is to develop action plans to improve the health of rivers, enhance forest cover, adopt sustainable cities concept and invest in wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse to recharge depleting aquifers to improve local ecology. There is a need to change the concept that only mega and expensive projects are needed to help resolve the issues. It must be recognized that small and community led interventions have higher sustainability.
Disruption of natural waterways is not limited to KP alone; there are other examples in Pakistan. In Balochistan, expansion of agricultural land has reduced sustainable and eco-friendly Karez water systems due to indiscriminate installation of tube wells. Less care towards the effectiveness of these systems has compromised the livelihood of many poor communities who are beyond the access of electricity and resources available in urban areas. In the case of flash floods, natural to the hydrogeology and climate of Balochistan, communities are at the forefront of floods. Construction planning and development without taking care of the natural system has only brought profits for a few construction groups but has severe consequences for people living in the urban and rural areas.
Disasters and Management in Pakistan
Construction and expansion activities in mega cities like Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi have transformed them into concrete jungles. Globally, construction industry alone is contributing 25% to 40% of carbon emissions through its elements and ways of execution. With reference to Pakistan, the activity in big cities is resulting in shrinking green belts and natural system of storm water drainage and groundwater recharge. In Islamabad, natural channels originating from Margalla hills, once considered beauty of the city and used to contribute pristine water into Soan River, are now polluted due to encroachment and disposal of contaminant load from the city. Memories of the collateral damage resulting from carefree construction in natural waterways in Karachi during the 2020 monsoon are still fresh.
In the 2014 monsoon, River Ravi and Chenab catchments received record rainfall for over 24 hours, which resulted in the inundation of most of the areas beyond marginal bunds of these rivers, damaging properties and mass evacuation efforts. Encroachment on the active flood plains for agriculture or settlement is very common in Pakistan.
The above scenarios pose a grave challenge to the disaster management system in the country. Obviously, urban expansions are made without consensus from Federal Flood Commission, Pakistan Meteorological Department and Disaster Management Authorities. It is clear from the above arguments that climate challenges in Pakistan are worsened by the lack of integrated resource management and are mostly man-made.
Addressing the Challenge
To begin with, there is a need to generate ownership among the people regarding the issues of climate change, irrespective of the vulnerability zone they live in. The only way is through conveying the information to the people on the basis of scientific evidence. Unfortunately, we lack sufficient climate data source and on top of it, sharing data openly with other institutions is not a norm. Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai of Kenya once said, “You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own that they must protect them”. In this regard, there is a need to transfer the responsibility of preparedness to the people, which will only come though awareness.
Pakistan has made some very good progress in developing its national water, climate change and food security policies. These policies, having many common nexuses, need to be implemented in true letter and spirt. The only way to implement them is to create awareness among the stakeholders. Construction and tourism industries must be made to realize the impact on climate resulting from their activities.
The next and most difficult step is to develop action plans to improve the health of rivers, enhance forest cover, adopt sustainable cities concept and invest in wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse to recharge depleting aquifers to improve local ecology. There is a need to change the concept that only mega and expensive projects are needed to help resolve the issues. It must be recognized that small and community led interventions have higher sustainability. A good example is the replantation of mangroves with local communities’ partnership in Thatta district that has brought beneficial results. Under the Billion Tree Tsunami Project and Clean and Green Pakistan initiatives, millions of trees have been planted to increase the national forest cover. Similarly, Recharge Pakistan Program could be a remarkable initiative that would not only help protect the natural resources at the source but would also help mitigate the impact of climate change and variability. Construction of large, medium and small dams at the appropriate sites would help regulate the variable annual and seasonal flows and would act as buffer against floods and droughts. However, such initiatives take time to bring positive impact on the ecosystem.
The agriculture sector is at the forefront in any climate adaptation strategy. There is a need to shift agriculture in the high-altitude mountains to permanent orchard crops instead of wheat and potatoes. Similarly, low delta high value crops, such as olives and other oilseed crops need to be promoted in dry climates such as Balochistan. Canola and sunflower offer a good and nutritious replacement to palm oil both for human and livestock and these can be grown on marginal lands. Certain salt tolerant crops are available that may serve as food and livelihood sources for the communities living in the coastal delta of Pakistan. Climate smart and genetically modified crop varieties need to be promoted as the existing varieties do not offer much resistance to insect/pest attacks and thus result in low productivity per unit input of water and fertilizers.
Pakistan is faced with climate variability phenomenon rather than climate change. This variability offers an opportunity to take action to overcome over-exploitation and irrational consumption of natural resources. Protection, assessment, regeneration and management of natural resources are the key factors to address the phenomenon of climate variability. The only way to realize this opportunity is through raising awareness among all stakeholders and integrating operations and efforts of the public sector institutions. Business community needs to be involved by offering incentives to promote climate smart actions leading to sustainable development. Availability of accurate data and its sharing is very important for proper planning, fulfilment of international commitments and empowerment of people through knowledge.
The writer is Chairman, Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources, Islamabad.
E-mail: [email protected]
1. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recommends to observe climate data of 3 consecutive decades to establish climate change in any country. The availability of true and error free observations are compulsory during that observation period. Mostly used data period is 1961 to 1990; it could be 1981 to 2011 for Pakistan but that requires national consensus.
2. NDCs are national climate plans highlighting climate actions, including climate related targets, policies and measures governments aim to implement in response to climate change and as a contribution to global climate action.
3. Faizan u H, Bareerah F, Ashraf M. Challenges to Irrigated Crop Zones of Punjab and Sindh Province in the Wake of Climate Variability. Int J Environ Sci Nat Res. 2021; 27(2): 556207. DOI: 10.19080/IJESNR.2021.27.556207
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