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The climate threat

“We are close to the tipping point – where global warming becomes irreversible”

— Stephen Hawking

Pakistan is perilously caught in the eye of a perfect climate storm. It is a crisis which had been brewing since the past few months with events closely mirroring the early warning predictions given by our meteorological department.

A spate of climate-triggered natural disasters fired up with an unprecedented early heatwave which sent temperatures prematurely soaring to scorching levels in very early summers. In May, parts of the country recorded the highest temperatures on the globe. The resultant heat stress hit an unprepared agriculture sector causing productivity drops especially for fruit orchids. It also created the dry flammable conditions for ravaging forest fires across the country, destroying a large part of the valued Chilgoza forests on the borders of the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

The next domino fell in the northern mountainous parts of the country with heat-enhanced glacial melting which has, subsequently, caused bursting flash floods destroying critical roads and encroaching infrastructure. This situation had hardly settled when a freak monsoon season, which again had been ominously predicted, came true and hit Pakistan from the south overcoming an unprepared and exposed urban infrastructure, especially in Karachi. The enhanced glacial melting coupled with almost way above normal monsoon rains have now collectively generated the slow onset flooding which inundates almost half the country and has wiped off many rural villages which stood in harm’s way. Almost a 1000 people have died with thousands now homeless – hapless climate refugees in their own country.

Although the above crisis was clearly predicted by the PMD weeks, if not months, in advance of the heatwaves, glacial melts and freak monsoon patterns it again caught us totally unprepared. The ensuing human catastrophe which is painfully unfolding has more to do with a crisis of governance which has accentuated this climate crisis. The lethargic and mostly absent relief and response measures to this predicted disaster have laid bare the apathetic state of governance systems in Pakistan. Instead of climate compatible infrastructure, we see infrastructure greedily encroaching in flood plains being engulfed as nature mercilessly regains its pathway. All leading to human misery at an unprecedented scale.

The Ministry of Climate Change needed to be at the forefront coordinating and directing adaptive response measures across provinces. Instead, while climate change has forcefully gate crashed into Pakistan and is clearly not affording us the luxury of time, we have unfortunately chosen to callously dampen, delay or altogether shelve a spate of clearly thought out, and globally acclaimed, response measures to this ensuing crisis.

The climate response vision built up by the previous government was based on two solid pillars – one being to become a part of the solution to climate change by shifting towards cleaner energy and electric mobility and driven by clear time-bound targets. Unfortunately, this process now stands derailed with coal power making a comeback, the construction of zero carbon hydro projects put on the back burner and the momentum for the electric mobility transition totally broken.

The other pillar, and the more important one in Pakistan’s current situation, was to build up resilience based on nature-based solutions to climate change. This shift to invest and trust in nature was driven by four targeted initiatives, which were not just pies in the sky but translated into actual projects on the ground. All of them were collectively designed to build up the country’s climate adaptation backbone and do so by strengthening nature-based systems.

These four initiatives included the globally acknowledged ‘10 billion tree tsunami’ initiative which was not just about planting trees but about creating sinks to sequester carbon, create green jobs and create a natural defense against the ravages of climate change from strengthening the mangroves to fight sea level rise to expanding alpine forests to combat mountainous land sliding. The funding for this ongoing initiative has been slashed by almost 40 per cent and an aimless witch-hunt initiated to dig out menial dirt for political point scoring – all just aimlessly diffusing the momentum of this excellent initiative just when Pakistan needed it the most. While this nature-based remedy has motivated similar billion tree initiatives in New Zealand, USA, UK and Saudi Arabia we seem to be looking for ways to tear it down.

The ‘protected areas initiative’ was the second nature-based initiative which was designed to not only expand the national parks, protect its flora and fauna and conserve the country’s unique and valued biodiversity but most importantly create huge wetland and wilderness reserves of nature to act as shock absorbers for climate impacts. The number of national parks was increased by 50 per cent in just over a year and funds allocated for creating properly managed protected areas. However, this initiative has also dampened in its implementation and all at the cost of enhancing Pakistan’s exposure and vulnerability to climate change while losing out on a chance to build up its adaptive capacity.

Similarly, the ‘Recharge Pakistan’ initiative was designed to turn the floods crisis into an opportunity by diverting this yearly deluge towards degraded wetlands along the Indus, enact urban rainwater harvesting and capturing the mountainous hill torrents which pillage through some northern districts in Pakistan. This would not only soften the impact of the floods but also capture and direct the flood waters to restore degraded wetlands while recharging the sinking groundwater aquifers in the country. The funds for immediately initiating two pilot projects were allocated through World Bank financing while the larger initiative was approved for possible funding through grant GCF financing. Again, the present regime has failed to carry forwards the momentum on this and we now risk losing the allocated and approved financing owing to lethargic utilization.

Finally, the ‘Living River Indus’ initiative was conceptualized and put in motion with the aim of reviving the dying ecology of the river Indus basin which is really a non-negotiable lifeline for Pakistan. An international consortium led by the UN was hired and tasked to bring forward a clear action-based implementation strategy. The excellent draft report has been produced and includes 25 time-based actions which need to be taken to restore the ecology of the Indus as it flows from the glaciers to the mangroves. If Pakistan is to adapt to inescapable climate impacts this ecological backbone of the country needs to be the foundation of its resilience. Unfortunately, this report is also gathering dust while it should have been urgently launched and globally pitched for attracting adaptation financing for Pakistan.

The above nature-based framework for climate adaptation in Pakistan has been globally acclaimed, by the UNEP and WEF, and collectively the four initiatives define the core of the country’s adaptive response to climate change. The sooner they are put in motion the better it is going to be for the country as the climate crisis is neither going to go away nor will allow us to escape from it. This is not just an ecological challenge but an issue of human survival and national security for Pakistan. We can just not afford to play political games with it or else we risk being engulfed by this existential threat to the country.

Email: amin.attock@gmail.com

Malik Amin Aslam Khan, "The climate threat," The News. 2022-08-28.
Keywords: Environmental sciences , Climate change , Global warming , Climate crisis , Natural disasters , Pakistan , New Zealand , Saudi Arabia , GCF , WEF , UNEP