Driven by activists like Fatima Gul and more informed politicians, the country is beginning to deal with climate change
Pakistan faces some of the world’s toughest environmental and climate disruption challenges, including extreme weather, air pollution, coastal erosion, species loss, deforestation, and the impact of melting glaciers.
Over the past few years the country has indeed taken steps to confront these issues with government-sponsored “green” programs and increased involvement in United Nations-led international initiatives. But these are yet to blunt the impact of these huge problems.
Death by Monsoon
The freak snow storms that recently pelted Texas have nothing on the potentially deadly situation in the southern province of Sindh in Pakistan.
“Sindh has witnessed extreme weather in the last few decades: extreme heat waves, droughts, heavy rainfall and floods,” Fatima Gul of the Sindhi Foundation told SEEMA. “People in rural areas are most vulnerable. They die because of extreme weather, drinking toxic water, and of food scarcity. The majority of Sindhis in rural areas don’t have access to health facilities.”
While enduring droughts at some times, at others much of Sindh is inundated during the monsoons. More than 2 million people across the province were affected by the rains in 2020, with 68,000 residents being displaced in relief camps. In August, 68 people died in monsoon-related incidents in Sindh, according to official tallies. More havoc was caused by flooding sewage water, road collapses, three-day power outages, and ravaged fields of cotton, vegetables, onions, tomatoes, and sugarcane.
According to Gul, a serious threat to the environment in Sindh is the Thar Block-1 Integrated Coal Mine Power Project. Located in southeastern Sindh, it covers 3,500 square miles, and is working towards 7.8 million tons in annual coal production, and has two 660-megawatt coal-fired power plants to provide electricity to 4 million households.
“The project is proving hazardous to the people and the environment,” Gul said. “Sindhi people are deprived of pastures and fresh water through diversion of about 200 cusecs [1,500 gallons of water per second] from Farsh Makhi Canal.”
Meanwhile, in the northern province of Punjab, in the past two decades, hordes of people have been drawn to the bright lights of Lahore by the promise of jobs and a better lifestyle. Until the start of the pandemic, many people who could afford the high housing costs found Lahore a good place to be.
Yet residents of Lahore are also unpleasantly aware of the city’s increasing air pollution problems. Other residents have cited a constellation of reasons for the smog, including the rise in the number of vehicles, the felling of trees to make way for roads and shopping plazas, and the emissions from industrial areas in and around the city.
These problems drew widespread attention in November 2016 when the Lahore Bachao Tehreek organized a protest against smog and other forms of pollution in Punjab. The protesters in Lahore held banners and placards with lines such as “Say no to air pollution,” and “Go Green – Breathe Clean.” Participants chanted slogans such as “Stop cutting trees” and “Complete development projects at the earliest.”
Tree-Planting and More
Two years earlier, in 2014, the neighboring province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa had launched a reforesting program known as The Billion Tree Tsunami. Led by Imran Khan, who went on to become the country’s prime minister, the project was limited to that province.
Then, in September of 2018, when he was elected prime minister, Khan instituted a nationwide program, “The 10-Billion Tree Tsunami,” sometimes referred to as Plant Pakistan. Initial funding included $180 million from the UN-affiliated World Bank, plus some financial assistance from the German KfW Bank and the Pakistani government.
In December 2019, the federal government announced the Ecosystem Restoration Fund (ESRF), a funding plan with the World Bank for “The 10-Billion Tree Tsunami.
It included new initiatives for biodiversity and marine conservation, and the promotion of ecotourism and electric vehicles.
Besides restoring forests and mangroves, “The 10-Billion Year Tsunami” aims to plant trees in urban settings, including in schools and colleges, public parks, and along green belts. Pakistani officials maintain that reviving natural carbon sinks, such as forests and peatlands, can help close the climate emissions gap. They say replanting with native tree species can help to reduce the risk of forest fires and the other side effects of a warming planet.
In May 2020, during the pandemic, the World Bank partnered with Pakistan on the Pakistan Hydromet and Ecosystem Restoration Services (PHERS), which adds improved weather and disaster recovery risk management services to the eco programs already in progress. The joint programs with the World Bank are also seen as a “green stimulus package,” since it has created 5,500 new jobs for young people in Pakistan’s first national parks system.
The Long Road Ahead
Environmental crises can require multi-pronged remediation, and some critics argue that there still are substantial gaps in Pakistan’s response.
In the international Sustainable Development Report 2020, released in August of 2020, the UN announced that Pakistan had met its sustainable development goal 13, which is about “taking urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” The UN describes the goals as “the blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.”
Still, Guillaume Lafortune, the coordinator of the report, maintained that Pakistan lags behind in achieving goal 7, which calls on countries to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all.” He also urged the Pakistani government to stop investing in coal-fired power plants and to discontinue subsidies for fossil fuel companies.
Gul agrees, highlighting her concern about the air pollution she expects from the Thar Block-1 Integrated Coal Mine Power Project in Sindh.
“Another development against the people of Sindh is the federal government’s announcement of the construction of Diamer Bhasha Dam,” she told SEEMA. Last May, the Pakistani government inked a contract to have China Power and Frontier Works Organization build the concrete dam on the Indus river between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan provinces.
Envisaged in 1998 and still at the preliminary stages of construction, the dam, which is to rise 892 feet, is expected to produce 4,800 megawatts of electricity through hydropower, while also storing 2.77 trillion liquid gallons for drinking and irrigation.
While conservationists prefer sustainable sources of power, such as solar and wind, to dams, which disrupt natural habitats,.hydroelectric power is cleaner than oil or gas.
Still, Gul pointed out that downstream in Sindh, the Diamer Bhasha Dam will “further reduce freshwater discharge, allowing the sea to further invade the land.”
Another planned dam, the Kalabagh, was set aside in 2008 due to opposition from people in both Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.
World Environment Day 2021
Pakistan is taking environmental issues seriously, even if various factions do not always agree on solutions. In recognition of the country’s efforts, the UN has chosen Pakistan to be the host nation for the its annual World Environment Day on June 5, 2021. At least 150 other countries are expected to participate.
This year’s theme is ecosystem restoration, with special emphasis on relationships with nature. Pakistan plans to highlight major environmental issues while showcasing its own initiatives and its role in the UN’s efforts.
For more environment related stories check out The Climate Guardian.