Why there's a need to step up the worry in Pakistan

by Farahnaz Zahidi | @FarahnazZahidi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 18 June 2014 12:30 GMT

Women wearing dresses and high heels ride bicycles down a street in Mexico City on March 9, 2013REUTERS/Bernardo Montoya

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Pakistan is among the most climate-vulnerable nations, but the government is spending less to deal with the problem. What's at risk is the country's economy - and people

Stepping outside the hotel on my first day in Mexico for the recent World Summit of Legislators in Mexico City, I noticed rows of rental bicycles parked in a designated area. Lots of bikers could be seen along the Paseo de la Reforma, casually picking up bicycles to borrow and then park at another public cycle stand in the city.

A trailblazer project, Ecobici was launched in Mexico in 2010. Such initiatives aim to fight emission pollution in big cities.

But in Pakistan, where I come from, carbon emissions are still not a big enough problem for most people to worry about. We continue to marvel at clear skies when we travel abroad and complain about the musty pollution looming above Karachi when we land back home. Yet, we refuse to car pool. In a quest for personal space in our private cars, we often forget that we are negatively impacting the collective space, the environment we have a responsibility towards.

Mexico was teeming with parliamentarians from all over the world during the three-day summit organised by GLOBE International this month, the largest gathering to date of lawmakers on sustainable development issues. Altogether, 290 legislators from 70 countries showed up to try to find ways to address the dangers of climate change.

Not all of them stayed the whole time. “India's legislators just came for one-and-a-half days because oath-takings are going on in India. But they came because India must be represented. It’s too important an issue,” said Narayani Ganesh, a journalist from India.

As the only Pakistani journalist at the gathering, I kept searching for the few Pakistani legislators that were supposed to come. But I found out they had canceled their plans at the last minute. The much-needed sense of urgency somehow seemed to be missing.


A recent drastic cut in Pakistan´s budget for environmental issues is worrisome. The amount allocated in the recent budget for the Climate Change Division was reduced to Rs. 25 million ($254,000) in the 2014-15 fiscal year, from Rs. 58 million ($590,000) last year.

This is despite the Global Climate Risk Index 2014 stating that Pakistan was the third most vulnerable country to direct and indirect impacts of climate change in 2012.

A Standard and Poor’s report on financial risks associated with climate change, released last month, also warned that climate change could have a big impact on the creditworthiness, economic growth and external and public finances of many countries.

Weather patterns in Pakistan are becoming more and more erratic. Frequent droughts or floods end up undermining the export base, and the adequacy of foreign reserves may become threatened as trade imbalances rise, the Standard and Poor’s report says.

This can cut the value of national currency, and could result in rising inflation, among other problems.

 “Should episodes of bad harvests increase, emergency food imports may be required, once again putting pressure on the country's external accounts,” the report warned. It classifies Pakistan as “vulnerable” – but that forgets Tharparkar, a southern desert district of Pakistan which this spring has suffered a worst-in-a-decade drought and deaths from hunger.

According to the United Nations, global temperatures are likely to warm by another 0.3 to 4.8 degrees Celsius by 2100. Hollywood flicks about an impending climate change induced apocalypse might not be as far-fetched as we think. And experts are worried.

“There are countries disappearing beneath the sea. There is no time left,” said John Gummer, a member of the UK House of Lords and president of Globe International.

He praised the Vatican for highlighting the impact of climate change on the poor in particular. Perhaps it is now time for Muslim religious leaders to promote that message, because their voice is heard loud and clear by the masses.

The threats are big ones. As a summary for policymakers from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change this year notes, “People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally, or otherwise marginalised are especially vulnerable to climate change.” Discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity, age, and disability also can increase vulnerability.

This is where women and children come in. “Bangladesh has made special plans to insulate women against the impacts of climate change,” said Mahbub Ara Begum, a member of parliament from Bangladesh. “Have you heard of our Ekti Bari Ekti Khamar (One house one farm) programme?” The programme helps safeguard some of Bangladesh’s most vulnerable, such as poor women-headed households in rural areas and landless people.

During disastrous floods in 2010, many in Pakistan were driven from their homes and some have become landless. Urban populations initially donated whole-heartedly for those hit by flooding, but now complain about how “they” are crowding the cities.

Small initiatives are promised each year, few are implemented. This month, Pakistan’s government said it will introduce legislation to help remove embankments alongside the River Indus, to help ease pressure on areas that are flooded each year. What will come of it remains to be seen.

Climate change affects lives, livelihoods, health, ecosystems, economies, societies, cultures and services. And “the more we wait, the more difficult it will be” to address it, said Jean-Paul van Ypersele, the IPCC’s vice chair, at the Mexico gathering.

It's time everyone took it seriously – even if only out of concern for how it can impact Pakistan’s economy. The risk is if it is considered only a “development issue”, climate change won’t get the attention it deserves.

Farahnaz Zahidi is a journalist and writer based in Karachi, Pakistan, for The Express Tribune newspaper. She writes on a range of issues including human rights, women, peacebuilding and Islam.

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