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Natural disaster, social catastrophe

Pakistan’s economy is vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. Pakistan, in 2016, stood at the fifth highest in the list of countries facing climate risk, according to the Global Climate Risk Index Report of Germanwatch.

It may be helpful to explore the principal factors that are contributing to this vulnerability and the policy actions that could be taken to mitigate the problem. The five key aspects of vulnerability will be briefly discussed in this article: (1) the increased variability of monsoon resulting from climate change and its impact on the instability of agricultural growth. (2) the effect of growth instability on rural inequality and marginalisation of the poor peasantry. (3) the economic consequences of climate shocks like floods. (4) the impact of rising temperatures on grain crop yields, the danger of serious food shortages and the policy imperatives for managing them. (5) building institutions as well as organisational capacity required to build resilience and dealing with the adverse effects of climate change.

Pakistan’s climate change vulnerability is primarily due to the fact that the country is critically dependent on agriculture. Over 50 percent of its labour force is either directly or indirectly employed in the agricultural sector that provides raw material for the textile industry which is Pakistan’s largest industry and the main source of its foreign exchange earnings. Overall, agriculture-based products constitute 76 percent of total exports. So, the performance of agriculture is not only important for livelihoods, but it also determines the overall GDP growth as well as the stability of balance of payments.

With agricultural growth in Pakistan critically dependent on monsoon rainfall, increased variability in its timing and magnitude, resulting from global warming, is adversely affecting the rate and stability of economic growth. This instability is accentuated by the fact that increasing irrigation water shortages are making farmers, even in the irrigated areas, more dependent on adequate and timely monsoon rains. (Water availability has declined to less than 1,100 cubic metres per person per year now compared with 5,000 cubic metres per person per year in 1951).

The observed increase in the amplitude and frequency of fluctuations in crop sector output has resulted in an increase in the number of bad harvests. Each time this happens, marginal farmers are pushed into a food-deficit situation and are obliged to buy grain in the market with borrowed money. The consequent indebtedness constrains such farmers from buying seed, fertiliser and tubewell water to reconstitute the production cycle the following year. Consequently, there is a risk of such small farmers being pushed out of crop production altogether. Thus, the increased instability of crop sector output within the existing agrarian structure has created a tendency to increase rural inequality and immiserisation of the poor peasantry.

Pakistan has also become more vulnerable to climate change-related shocks, resulting in large human and economic losses. For example, the 2010 floods of unprecedented magnitude resulted in 3,000 deaths, affected more than 20 million people and caused an estimated economic loss of $25.32 billion (dollars adjusted by the purchasing power parity index).

Climate change will cause an increase in the frequency and intensity of floods, combined with droughts, making increased water storage through construction of small, medium and large dams a vital necessity. Between 2010 and 2015, the average annual adaptation cost to climate change in Pakistan has been estimated to be $10.71 billion (at 2010 prices). Mobilising these funds is a considerable challenge and will require establishing cooperative international relationships in general, and with the UN Environmental Fund and multilateral donor agencies in particular.

Rising average temperatures in Pakistan are expected to reduce yields per acre of food grain crops, ceteris paribus, because the seed varieties being predominantly used currently are sensitive to heat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that an increase of 2.5 degrees centigrade in average temperatures could reduce grain crop yields in South Asia by as much as 30 percent. The UNDP’s Climate Change Country Profile for Pakistan shows that the average annual temperature in our country is projected to increase to 2.1 degrees Celsius by the 2030s and to 3.7 degrees Celsius by the 2060s.

It is clear that unless urgent measures are taken now, Pakistan can face food shortages in the decades ahead. Three sets of policy initiatives are of critical importance: (i) development of heat resistant varieties of food grains and an institutional environment for facilitating widespread adoption of these seeds. (ii) the creation of a food import emergency fund within the SBP foreign exchange reserves. (iii) develop the organisational capacity and design institutions to manage a food crisis — if and when it occurs. This includes constructing fiberglass silos in every tehsil for the storage of emergency food supplies that are released in case of a food crisis. Procedures should be put into place to entitle the local population to access these food supplies quickly.

Adaptation to the economic and social effects of climate change will require the development of new institutions (in terms of rules and procedures) as well as organisational capacity-building. Procedures will have to be put into place for early warning systems of climate-related disasters, quick provision of disaster relief and efficient reconstruction. The institutional structure of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) ought to include procedures for linking up NDMA operations with community organisations at the local, district and provincial levels.

The organisational basis for managing the adverse effects of climate change will require building the capacity for social mobilisation, communications and management skills at various levels and network these organisations for disaster management. At the same time, minimising the risk and impact of floods will require building not only storage dams, but also water reservoirs (large ponds) in the floodplains of rivers. These reservoirs could store water during floods and could be used for irrigation purposes during droughts.

Climate change is upon us and Pakistan is more vulnerable than most countries to its potentially disastrous consequences. These include increased instability of agricultural output due to greater variability in the monsoons; water scarcity; the direct effect of higher temperatures on crop yields; food shortages; and economic shocks from extreme climatic events. These phenomena can place intense stress on both the economy and society. They also present an unprecedented challenge of governance in terms of designing innovative policy and efficient implementation. Therefore, the organisational capacity-building of the government, and the development of institutional procedures to combine government efforts with community-based initiatives to face environmental challenges ahead, are an urgent necessity.

Dr Akmal Hussain, "Natural disaster, social catastrophe," The news. 2018-09-19.
Keywords: Geographical sciences , Climate changes , Growth instability , Agriculture growth , Environmental fund , Annual temperature , Foreign exchanges , Food crises , Disaster Relief , Provincial level , Economic shocks , Environmental challenges