RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A sharp cut in government funds for Pakistan’s main climate change agency may mean little to thousands of people in homes perched along a flood-prone river in the city of Rawalpindi. But it could tip them into crisis during the monsoon season that has just begun.
The natural river - known as Leh Nullah - doubles as a drain, and is now contaminated with rubbish and sewage. It has burst its banks several times in the past, severely damaging houses. The last time this happened was in July 2001, when flooding cost 35 lives and swept away several slum areas.
The Leh Nullah winds 30 km east from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, down to low-lying Rawalpindi. It has six major tributaries, three originating in the foothills of Islamabad’s scenic Margallah Hills.
Amid economic woes and a fiscal squeeze, Ishaq Dar, the finance minister of Pakistan’s new government, announced in last month’s budget speech a massive cut of over 62 percent in annual spending for Pakistan’s government department charged with tackling climate change.
A few days earlier the country’s climate change ministry – which had only existed since April 2012 – was downgraded to a division. The Climate Change Division is part of the Federal Cabinet Secretariat which functions under the oversight of the prime minister.
The moves have drawn strong criticism from climate scientists, as well as local and international organisations working to boost the country’s resilience to climate impacts.
They warn that the spending cuts may be felt on the ground as early as this year’s monsoon season, which runs from July to September.
In Rawalpindi, the Leh Nullah brims over during monsoon, posing a risk to thousands of families in the settlements it snakes through. Weeks before, government authorities usually remove debris and garbage dumped in the channel so floodwater can flow through unimpeded.
But no such activity has happened this year, according to Joseph Jacob, a local fruit vendor who lives with his family on the drain’s right bank. “We are in a state of fear, and will be compelled to fend for ourselves during the forthcoming monsoon season,” he said.
Thousands of natural flood drains in urban areas are vulnerable to surging waters during the monsoon. But local newspapers report that most have not been cleared as the government has not provided the necessary financial support.
“We have written so many letters to the government for the release of funds and apprised them of the looming threats if the Leh Nullah is not cleared of debris before monsoon season. But such pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears, because there has been no response as yet,” said Saqib Zaffar, Rawalpindi’s district coordination officer.
‘CAR WITHOUT FUEL’
The finance minister has earmarked just 59 million Pakistani rupees (around $590,000) for the Climate Change Division for the 2013-14 financial year that began on July 1, compared with Rs135 million in 2012-13.
Nearly two thirds of this year’s spending is for four ongoing projects. Only two new initiatives – the development of an information system to manage water and sanitation and the establishment of a high-tech climate monitoring centre - were granted funds, according to budget documents.
Pakistan’s total outlay for the new financial year is Rs3.6 trillion, while it faces a fiscal deficit of Rs1.6 trillion.
As a part of government austerity measures, the finance minister announced a 30 percent cut in non-salary expenditures for all federal ministries and divisions.
The government also slashed the number of federal ministries from 40 to 28 last month, including converting the climate change ministry into a division.
Dar told parliament these “unavoidable” budgetary measures would save about 40 billion rupees.
"It is like you are given a car but there is no fuel to drive it,” said a senior official at the Climate Change Division who did not want to be named. “This will scuttle our mitigation and adaptation initiatives launched last year,” he added with disappointment.
The official told Thomson Reuters Foundation the division had requested a budget of around Rs100 million. The Planning Commission of Pakistan, which approves development programmes weeks before the new budget is unveiled, had principally agreed to it before the budget announcement on June 12, he added.
“But to our sheer surprise, no such (amount) was granted,” he said, adding that the commission had also dropped four new climate schemes relating to water, agriculture and renewable energy.
Jawaid Ali, a former director-general at the climate change agency, slammed the “abysmally low” budget allocation, saying it reflects how climate change mitigation and adaptation remain at the bottom of the new government’s priority list.
Even the division’s day-to-day functioning will be severely hampered, he said, not to mention its joint ventures with U.N. agencies.
INTERNATIONAL CASE UNDERMINED
Officials at the Climate Change Division who look after partnerships with international organisations fear the cut in spending could affect Pakistan’s efforts to highlight its climate change vulnerability at the global level.
Tauqeer Ali Sheikh, Asia director for the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and head of LEAD Pakistan, an environment and development organisation, said Pakistan is among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, but the meagre budget allocation reflects the government’s poor understanding of this.
“Because of official apathy, Pakistan is also losing its representation at international forums for highlighting its vulnerability to harsh weather patterns,” he said.
Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, a lead author of the National Climate Change Policy, said Pakistan may face international isolation if it does not take far-reaching measures to cope with climate stresses.
Azeem Khoso, deputy director for regional planning, echoed his concern. “If the country does not participate in international activities for want of funds, the global community will think Pakistan is not serious in coping with the vagaries of climate change and improving national resilience,” he cautioned.
Pervaiz Amir, a member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that officials from India and Bangladesh effectively fought their case for receiving international funding at climate talks in Bonn this year. But there was no representative from Pakistan to argue the same - which he described as "unfortunate".
Still experts say Pakistan can still improve its resilience to climate impacts even with a lower level of government spending.
Sheikh said Pakistan should continue to draft workable mitigation and adaptation plans across a range of social and economic sectors.
“Such plans can help win foreign funding for the country and substantiate its urgency and seriousness in tackling climate change - particularly in the water, agriculture, health and energy sectors,” he said.
“But all government ministries, divisions and departments have to work collaboratively with the Climate Change Division to achieve this,” he emphasised.
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Islamabad.
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