A regular Pakistani’s Guide to Climate Change

Picture: A fruit tree stands tall in an apple orchard in the winters of Quetta at Urak Valley (December 2017)

A rise in number of floods and droughts and a recent dip in temperatures this winter has made climate change a major contributor to most elevator small-talks and drawing room conversations in Pakistan. It is a buzzword that most people are familiar with, but don’t quite understand its depth and breadth and the scale at which it affects our cities and farms every day.

Because the impacts of climate change are already affecting our lives every day, it is important for a common person in Pakistan to understand climate change, its impacts and how we can adapt and mitigate it. Here’s an attempt to make this silent, yet turbulent, phenomenon more understandable for a common Pakistani, starting with some basic facts:

  • Climate change is caused by a rise in temperatures due to the damaging impacts of  human activity (mostly through burning of carbon via fossil fuels due to industrialization) occurring on the planet. This shift in temperature has led to increase in melting of glaciers and an increase in sea water levels.
  • One of the dangerous impacts of climate change is a change in weather patterns such as increased precipitation, increased drought, more number of floods, and/or shorter time span between extreme weather events such as a 100 year flood.
  • Pakistan’s economy depends mostly on its agricultural sector, which includes production of wheat, rice and cotton. Hence, any change in weather patterns directly affects our economy and the livelihoods of the millions of farmers that depend on yearly yield of crops. It is also important to recognize that these farmers live in rural Pakistan which does not have access to most basic needs, such as electricity, flowing water, and sanitation. In some places, farmers have limited access to built roads, hospitals and schools.
  • Pakistan has already suffered 141 extreme weather events between 1997 and 2016, just less than 20 years in total.
  • Just in 2010, a superflood killed 2,000 people and affected 20 million people all provinces of Pakistan – totaling the economic bill to $43 billion.
  • Between 1997 and 2016, Pakistan has lost an average of 523.1 lives per year to climate change effects and this number is rising at a fast rate.
  • Pakistan is the 7th most vulnerable country to climate change, based on Germanwatch.
  • In the last 50 years, Pakistan’s annual temperature has increased by 0.5 degrees Celsius.
  • The number of heatwave days have increased by five times in the last 30 years – and has led to hundreds of deaths in Karachi alone in 2015 and 2016.
  • Pakistan has a Ministry of Climate Change, which only gets 0.8% of funding from the federal budget.
  • Pakistan’s population has increased by more than 6.5 times since partition and has now led to an increased pressure on natural resources, such as water and land.
  • Rural to urban migration is increasing rapidly, adding more pressure on cities like Karachi and Lahore where water supply is rapidly depleting and urban slums are increasing. Pakistan does not have a National Water Policy, as yet.
  • Karachi, being a coastal city, is a climate vulnerable city. When farmers from rural Pakistan give up on their agricultural livelihoods after being affected by floods and droughts and move to Karachi, they are moving from one climate vulnerable place to another.
  • Women are the most vulnerable of all groups to climate change.
  • Pakistan is a signatory for theUN Sustainable Development Goalsand has 17 goals and 169 targets to meet by 2030. Goal 13 of the SDGs is Climate Action (Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts).
  • The Government of Pakistan will apply to the Green Climate Fund to receive funding to assist in the adaptation and mitigation for climate change.

So, now what? Fortunately, climate change relates to the processes of nature, which works in a negative feedback loop and can be altered by human action in both positive and negative ways. As societies if we work together to reduce our impact on the environment, we can reduce and mitigate the effects of climate change – in turn reduce the number of lives and money lost to extreme weather events and this is possible.

Growing up, ozone layer depletion was the talk of the town, as climate change is today. Worldwide, policies were put in place to reduce the use of aerosols that released CFC’s which caused ozone depletion. We can do the same for climate change, but to do this, as citizens, we need to understand our impacts and mobilize in many ways to achieve the desired target. Most often, we as common Pakistanis fail to realize how critical our actions are to our environment and the communities that we are part of. We can pressure and support our government, businesses and NGOs/civil society organisations to work together and reduce the impacts climate change will have on lives every day.

As a society, here’s what we can do together:

  • As a part of the general public, we have the constitutional right to pressure our government and representatives to decouple growth from impact on the environment. Increased awareness will lead to environment being a topic of discussion for the next elections and an important decision maker for voters like you and I. Politicians that don’t care for the environment or those that have Trump-like sentiments towards climate change will (hopefully) be ousted out.
  • As consumers, we can push businesses to adopt sustainable, ethical practices and use resources efficiently. The price we pay for products acts as votes for the companies that we buy it from. If we recognize a company that pollutes the environment by emitting toxic fumes into the air and releasing poisonous waste into our rivers, we can choose a more environmentally responsible and ethical product instead. As awareness increases, more and more people will buy products that are good for the planet and for people and that is why sustainable brands will always have an advantage as compared to others.
  • As civil society, our contribution to NGOs and civil society organisations and support for civic movements to protect trees and keep our beaches and waterways clean will add additional pressure on the government and businesses to get their act together. Follow organisations such as the WWF, IUCN and Hisaar Foundation for the work they do every day on protecting our environment by reducing deforestation, protecting endangered species, liaising with the government on water issues, food security and generating livelihoods directly connected to our natural environment. There is a lot of good already taking place, but these need the support and recognition to keep moving forward. Organisations like SDPI and Lead are also conducting research and projects to understand impacts of climate change on vulnerable communities, our cities and our economy. These should also be followed to make sure that their work continues as research can allow further policy development and legislation to protect our environment and combat climate change.

While we need collaboration between the government, the public and the private business sector to combat climate change, there is no bigger change-maker than civil society itself. As a part of civil society, here are four habits that you can adopt to beat the negative impacts of climate change from your own end:

  1. Save water.
    Use water used for dish washing and distilled water from AC’s in gardens and for plant pots. Reduce the number of clothes washed and the number of times you run the machine. Install efficient flushing systems in toilets or just place a big brick in your flush tank to reduce the amount of water needed to flush your toilet. Turn the tap water off when brushing your teeth. Take quick baths, instead of longer ones. Use a pressure washer to wash cars and efficiently use less water. Talk to your neighbors, family and friends about using water less and why it is important for them to do so.
  2. Reduce the use of plastic.
    Pakistan does not have a formal waste management system. Pakistan also does not have a single scientifically managed dumpsite or landfill site. This has led to a lot of informal management ways that include simple burning of trash, dumping waste (including harmful, toxic waste) in water bodies, and lastly, informal diversion of waste by sequestering plastic, cardboard, wood and paper to sell them again to the market. The last is usually done by the poorest of cities that reside in slums near dumps. Children as young as 2 years old are trained to identify plastic bottles from trash to sell them at a rate as low as 20 rupees by kilogram. The increased consumption of our waste is not only impacting the air that we breathe and water we drink, but also pushing children to become laborers as toddlers. Further, most of the plastic we use every day includes high amounts of PBCs that are toxic and cause variety of airway defects in children that live closest to these dumpsites, so the next time you decide to buy a plastic water bottle, think twice about your impacts.
  3. Carpool.
    Cities, like Karachi and Lahore, don’t need more cars on the road and they definitely don’t need more fumes and emissions in the air. With little to no regulation on combustion of car, motorcycle and rickshaw engines in the city, it is up to working citizens like me to use more economical and sustainable ways to commuting in the city. Carpooling makes the most sense when many colleagues reside in similar areas, such as Jauhar, Malir Cantt and DHA/Clifton. It not only reduces the number of emissions on the road, but also makes sure that we reach home quicker in rush hours. Hopefully in a few years, we would be able to put a law in place that makes it illegal to have a single passenger (the driver) in a car on Shahrah-e-Faisal.
  4. Buy less and choose wisely.
    Like most of our actions, we don’t think twice of our impacts. Every time the seasons change, we revamp our wardrobes and buy more clothes, because it is what most Pakistanis do. We don’t realize that producing textiles is a very water-intensive process, starting from growing a cotton crop to the dying and bleaching. Similarly, producing leather for our bags and shoes is also a very rough process on our environment and people. Leather tanneries also use a lot of water and produce toxic by-products that are seldom managed responsibly – most often it is dumped in our waterways. And the list goes on. Every item we buy has had a life before we took it off the shelves – starting from its raw materials to its process of production and then its transport to the shop. If only we understand our impacts – before and after we use the product – the more we will think about what we buy and how we use it. The present mindset of ‘disposable’ use of items in a globalized world of wanting more is not only bad for our environment, but also on the people at the lowest end of the value chain.

Buy adopting sustainable practices in our lives every day, not only are we reducing negative impacts and pushing businesses and governments to act responsibly as well, but also reducing the burden on our pockets. Globally, it has been recognized that responsible actions are also the most economical ones. Hence, not only will we be able to save our natural resources for the future generations ahead, but also the little bit that we save can be used to focus on more important things for our society – such as education, arts and community development.

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