In the wake of the current floods that are devastating Punjab and now heading towards Sindh, nearly two million people have been displaced in 10 districts and more than 270 people are dead, with around 400,000 acres of crops destroyed. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who recently visited the severely flood-affected areas of Sialkot and Narowal districts, termed the situation ‘unexpected’. Why would he describe it as ‘unexpected’ when top climate experts in the country have been warning the government that “climate change will increase the variability of the monsoon rains and enhance the frequency and severity of extreme events such as floods and droughts” since 2009? That was the year that the Task Force on Climate Change was set up by the Planning Commission, which presented their final report to the Government of Pakistan.
In their report, they described climate change as “likely to impact almost every sector of Pakistan’s economy … it stands not only as a major environmental issue but also as a multi-dimensional developmental issue”. Amongst their recommendations was the “addition of sufficient reservoir capacity on the IRS (Indus River System) rivers” and the “development of capacity to deal with natural disasters such as cyclones, floods, etc”. The report was completed before the super floods of 2010 hit the country and killed around 1,800 people. The floods of 2010, considered one of the worst in Pakistan’s history, gave further impetus to the government to address the challenge of climate change. Climate scientists warned that flooding would become an annual occurrence as the monsoons became “more chaotic and erratic” with average global temperature on the rise and that is exactly what happened in 2011 and 2012, earning Pakistan a top three ranking in the Global Climate Index which lists countries most affected by extreme weather events.
The Task Force’s report formed the basis of the National Climate Change Policy (NCCP) that took three years to formulate since all the provinces and territories had to be consulted after devolution. The focus of the NCCP was on adaptation to climate change in the water sector, agriculture, mountainous areas and disaster reduction and while it was a framework document and not an action plan, it was hoped that implementation would follow soon. The NCCP was finally launched by the Zardari-led PPP government a few months before the elections of 2013. The PML-N government, shortly after coming to power, decided to put it aside.
Sure, they had other priorities to deal with — the war on terror, the load-shedding that had brought industry almost to a standstill, but then in August 2013 during the monsoon season, heavy rains triggered flash floods and nearly 1.5 million people, almost 80,000 houses and 1.5 million acres of crops were affected. Two hundred and thirty-four people were killed across Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. During the first week of the 2013 floods, PM Nawaz Sharif was relaxing with his family up in Doonga Gali over the Eid holidays. I had written then, “the country cannot run away from the effects of a changing climate … sadly, that is exactly what the current Nawaz Sharif led government is doing, hoping the floods will eventually go away. But what about next year, and the year after that?”
Earlier this year, the UN’s voice on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comprising more than 2,500 scientists from all over the world, launched their Fifth Assessment Report. It states clearly that: “Climate change will impact settlements and infrastructure through flooding, human health, and contribute to food and water shortages in South Asia”. This government has to accept that climate change is going to affect us more and more in the future, and start preparing to adapt to climate change as soon as possible. Adaptation is fundamentally about risk management and Pakistan can learn from Bangladesh, which is ‘climate-proofing’ itself by integrating climate change into development policy and supporting disaster risk reduction right down to the district level.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2014.