IT is heartbreaking to see over 30 million people affected by the floods. As both a scientist and a development professional working on climate and environment for the last 30 years, unfortunately it is too familiar watching Pakistanis go through the range of emotions from despair to frustration to anger as they try to grapple with climate change. It’s the usual story about producing less than one per cent of the emissions and yet being disproportionately affected by the consequences.
Yes, life is unfair, but it is also time to stop complaining about being dealt a bad hand and do something about it. Not just firefighting every time, but to put in place a long-term plan to minimise the impact of these disasters.
Just over five years ago, Shahid Javed Burki asked me to contribute a chapter on climate and environment to a book he was writing on Pakistan at Seventy. My chapter was titled ‘The downward spiral of the quality of life in Pakistan: Is control possible, or even desired?’ In it, I discussed the situation of poor air and water quality and its consequences on quality of life. At that time, I did not have the data on stunting that is currently reported by Pakistan’s Demographic Health Survey, and on which I wrote in July. I also presented what the climate models were saying about increased heat and humidity, as well as flooding and drought, noting that for many observers “the two catastrophic floods in Pakistan in 2010 and 2012, where more than 20 per cent of the country’s land area was covered by water, were a harbinger of things to come”.
The government of Pakistan had repeatedly been given the same message by development agencies since 2010, and even earlier, warning of these once-in-a-century events happening much more frequently. My chapter also prompted the head of the Planning Commission at the time to invite me to speak to the entire commission’s staff in February 2018 about what the government (then led by the PML-N) could do to be better prepared next time.
For me, as a development professional, it was a matter of choices that were entirely in Pakistan’s own hands. I argued that Pakistan needed to act for three reasons. Primarily, I saw it as a moral issue, given that the poor were disproportionately affected. Today, on some fronts, such as air quality and stunting, all income levels are now suffering. Second, the world was moving to a new set of norms (namely on the Sustainable Development Goals and climate), and Pakistan could be left far behind. Today, Pakistan is ranked 125th (out of 163 countries) in terms of its progress on the SDGs. Third, the country’s future growth depended on it, as reducing climate risk exposure and being an early mover in climate-smart technologies and products positioned Pakistan better to be a player in future markets. This still holds true.
The country still has choices, that, if made, could halt the current path and take it in a different direction.
The current floods really bother me. I attended a presentation over 20 years ago by Robert Watson, then chief scientist of the World Bank, in which he discussed the impacts of climate change. He explained there were a few tipping points on climate, which could take us to a much worse scenario, where all hell would break loose and all bets were off in terms of what could happen. It makes me wonder whether the high-pressure areas over Central Asia (as well as US, Europe, China), and the consequently low-pressure area over Pakistan held in place for so many months is a consequence of the jet stream being affected by climate change. If that is the case, this is really only the beginning.
So what can we do about it? I still stand by my conclusions to that chapter: thinking about Pakistan’s future is both sobering and exhilarating. Sobering because Pakistan is on a downward spiral that could lead to much worse devastation. Exhilarating because the country still has choices, that, if made, could halt the current path and take it in a different direction. What are those choices?
The first choice is simply prioritising the improvement in quality of life of its own citizens, including addressing stunting, so that Pakistan’s children are given a better opportunity at life. Healthier, more informed, economically stable citizens are far better equipped to deal with adversity. The second is to take a Pakistan-wide look at the problem, and to formulate a long-term strategy and action plan. This is akin to the NCOC in Covid-19 times, in that there needs to be universal agreement on what needs to be done. Then each of the parties, be it the provinces or the federal government, or the private sector or NGOs, can move forward with their part of the comprehensive nationwide strategy. It is crucial that this climate NCOC also include technical experts on climate, so a more informed plan can be formulated.
Why is a Pakistan-wide approach important? Ironically, Pakistan’s provincial diversity, which is often the cause of conflict, is a great strength that can help us better handle the challenges of energy, water and food security, all linked with climate change. Taken together, the very different conditions in each province allow for the creation of a more resilient system, one to which each province can contribute, but also benefit from. For example, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s ability to protect watersheds upstream through managing deforestation and better land use planning, coupled with constructing rainwater storage capacity in Sindh, could lead to better flood management of agricultural areas in Punjab, ensuring adequate food production nationally.
Hence Pakistanis thinking and acting as one country, and prioritising improvements in the quality of life of citizens could put us on a very different path. It could lead us ultimately to a country that is more resilient, because it is more united. Isn’t it high time we prioritised Pakistan?
The writer is the director of Integrated Learning Means and a former World Bank sector manager.
Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2022