It is by now clear that the earth’s climate is changing. The common perception is that the earth is getting warmer. Dr. Najam politely reminds one that the operative word is “change.” So while many parts of the earth are indeed warming up, other parts are become colder. But there is nothing, explains Dr. Najam, in temperature change per se. Temperatures change around us every day, between morning and mid-day, for instance. The problem is not with climate change, it is with uncertainty of the change.
The development of the human race has been because of our species’ remarkable skill at adapting to our climate and environment. For millennia now, man has adapted his lifestyle with the knowledge of how and when seasons will change. And if man knew how seasons would change because of climate change, he would probably adapt again. But the problem with climate change is that, although science is clear that it is happening, it is unclear how it will happen.
Last year, I heard from the head of Pakistan’s Met Office that last year’s first monsoon rain was recorded on 5 June. Usually, the monsoons begin about the last week of June, give or take a week or ten days. But 5 June was the earliest recorded monsoon ever since the British colonialist began to keep record. But not only might the rains come sooner, they will also fall with unpredictable force. What’s the good in preparing crops for an early monsoon when it barely rains an inch. Or if torrential rain wipes out the crop. Meanwhile, think of the disruption to the life patterns of flora, fauna and the species that depend on them.
But a disruption in the timing of the monsoon is the least of Pakistan’s worries. Dr. Najam quotes the work of LEAD Pakistan, the NGO that has pioneered climate change research and awareness in Pakistan, when he points out that the first and one of the most important challenges Pakistan will face as a result of climate change is a shortage of water. Now while the folks in Islamabad, Lahore and elsewhere enjoy 24 hour running water and an unlimited supply of Nestle – and it’s tragic that they do because they have no idea of what the rest of the 170 million Pakistanis have to face – the fact is that Pakistan is an arid country. And while we inherited the masterful colonial contribution of a canal irrigation system, the truth is that ours is an extremely water-stressed country. And we have done nothing but take this precious resource for granted. At Partition, Pakistan’s water availability was over 5,500 cubic meters per capita. Now, water availability is less than 1,200 cubic meters per capita. And it is falling. The UN says anything below 1,000 cubic meters per capita is cause for serious concern.
Far before the water runs out – and when it does, our food production will falter, leading to a food security crises – it’s the rural poor who are most vulnerable. Dr. Najam points out that most rural livestock feed on outlying commons land. With no water, the first casualty will be this grass. The next, the productivity and utility of livestock. With rural livelihoods affected, who can guess, but there might be a trend towards urban migration.
As things stand, 35 percent of Pakistan’s population of 170 million is urbanized, the highest in South Asia. The UN-Habitat estimates that, within the next decade or so, more than half of Pakistan will live in its cities. And by 2030, this percentage is set to rise to as high as 65%. Keep in mind that, because of the totally scandalous failure of population stabilization policies, by that time there may be as many as 300 million Pakistanis. With our urban infrastructure already bursting at the seams, the question is how our urban planners will provide housing, sanitation, employment, education, healthcare and recreational facilities to the millions streaming into our cities. Dr. Najam’s claim that load shedding and climate change were linked was once thought of as a far-fetched connection. But how difficult is it to find a link between climate change and poverty-induced violence in our megacities?
Population migration has already started. In Sindh, because of negligent water-management practices upstream (about 40 percent of water is lost to inefficiency) the River Indus doesn’t flow strong enough to keep the salty water of the Arabian Sea from coming inland. The result has been the destruction of parts of the Indus Delta’s eco-system. Over 1.2 million acres of arable land have been lost to the sea and salinization. And because whatever water Sindh gets is so heavily contaminated (the city of Lahore, for instance, pipes all its sewage and industrial effluent into the Ravi, which later flows into the Chenab before heading to the Indus), the irrigation water, let alone the canal drinking water rural Pakistanis depend on, is toxic. Hundreds of thousands of Pakistani have already been displaced because of this environmental degradation.
Every climate change challenge explained by Dr. Najam is harrowing. Not only are there water shortage, food security crises and population migration issues, but there is also the prospect of disease spreading because of climate change. But behind each challenge, Dr. Najam sees hope. This is not some patriotic optimism. Even though it is estimated Pakistanis will suffer, there are strategies and tactics available today that will combat these challenges.
We have to begin using water sensibly. We cannot allow the wasteful irrigation practices exacerbate already frayed provincial relations. We must invest in sewage and water treatment plants in our cities. We must conserve energy. Dr. Najam points out that Pakistanis, despite nearly 40 percent being in the throes of poverty, pay some of the highest electricity tariffs. And yet, at the same time, we are so wasteful and inefficient in consuming electricity. Can anyone name a single energy efficient structure in existence in Pakistan? Dr. Najam points out that the single largest source of electricity in Pakistan is conservation. Yet has anyone thought twice about building energy efficiency when setting up a new high-rise for the rich?
Dr. Najam’s articulate and extremely thought provoking thesis is this: that we cannot ignore the link between development and the environment. We cannot have development that does not consider the environment. Research he conducted some time ago revealed that the total number of Pakistanis killed in all the wars, battles and skirmishes between India and Pakistan is less than the number of children who will die because of contaminated water in Karachi this year alone. For a mother whose child dies, it does not matter whether the death came at the end of a gun or an end of a tap. We have to change our priorities. There can be no development in Pakistan without considering the environment.
The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: ralam@nexlinx. net.pk