While unprecedented political and economic chaos is exposing deep crack lines in Pakistan, accelerated climate change remains one of the biggest threats left completely unaddressed, out of the limelight.
No other challenge poses a greater threat than the fast-changing climate. Recurring glacial floods, rising sea levels, chronic heatwaves and torrential rains cause losses worth around $3.8 billion to the national exchequer on an annual basis. But what will add more fuel to fire is Pakistan’s climate refugee crisis, already in the making. Vulnerable people residing in climate hotspots are forcibly displaced due to severe impacts generated by accelerated climate change. Pakistan’s climate refugee crisis isn’t something that will happen in the future; this is something which has already gained momentum.
In northern Pakistan, millions are now reallocating to safer locations to flee from glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) based in mountainous regions. With fast-melting glaciers, meltwater accumulates and forms lakes. When such lakes become too full, they overflow, inevitably releasing huge volumes of water and causing catastrophic flooding.
Since 1990, the number of glacial lakes has increased by a whopping 50 per cent globally. While alarming, the Hindukush Assessment report of 2018 already warns that 36 per cent of Pakistan’s glaciers are expected to shrink in the coming decades, leading to climate-induced displacement on a massive scale.
In southern Pakistan, with rising sea levels, not only coastal communities fear for their existence, but small islands are already disappearing. Near the Indus Delta, in the area of Keti Bunder, the locals have been forced to switch professions from farmers to fishers as their land has been taken over by the sea. With sea water taking over the land, the availability of fresh water has also become a distant dream for people.
Residents of such coastal belts travel approximately six to eight hours on average in a day to find just one single gallon of water, sometimes they come back empty-handed. With a crisis of such magnitude, people would inevitably be forced to relocate to areas with habitable conditions. This is a dilemma being faced by not only Pakistan but also its regional neighbours such as Bangladesh and the Maldives.
Bangladesh, a rising economic power in the region, remains one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change. According to World Bank data, more than 19 million people are expected to become internal climate refugees by 2050. The country has always been prone to natural disasters in the shape of droughts, tropical storms, and massive-scale flooding. A population boom remains the biggest conundrum for the next Asian tiger as it caters a whopping 165 million people in an area smaller than the state of Illinois in the US. In June 2020, more than seven million people in Bangladesh were in desperate need of shelter and emergency relief after destruction caused by climate-induced torrential rains and flooding. According to ‘Save the Children’, floods had “washed away homes, schools and livelihoods”.
The international community has been advocating for tackling ecological disruption with a powerful global discourse, but so far little has been done in practice to give legal protection to climate refugees. Under the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951, the definition of refugee does not cover those people who will be forced to flee their homes due to climate induced migration.
As of now, the Refugee Convention of 1951 protects only those fleeing war and conflict, facing persecution along grounds of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Therefore, the inclusion of climate refugees in the Convention not only remains a matter of protecting displaced people but is now a matter of justice and equality.
The UNHRC’s Refugee Environmental Protection Fund (REP Fund) aims to create a sustainable financing mechanism for refugees living in climate hotspots, with special emphasis placed on impactful reforestation and clean cooking programmes. While the PTI’s 10 billion tsunami project has been marred by controversy and corruption, this UNHRC-backed transparent initiative is needed in Pakistan. The fund’s environmental programmes would generate green jobs for refugees and host communities. Around 20-25 million trees are cut down in and around refugee settlements each year globally. Last year, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government had approved Rs525 million for the transportation of illegally harvested timber in the Lower Chitral region. Many news reports of illegal deforestation simply do not see the light of the day.
The climate crisis disproportionately impacts the most impoverished, marginalized, discriminated and disenfranchised people in our world. The people who contribute the least to the climate crisis suffer the most. Because this vulnerable, voiceless community does not have any support; politicians, leaders and policymakers in South Asia must advocate for protecting climate refugees at the regional and global levels. However, most South Asian countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and the Maldives are not even signatories of the current Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees 1951. Advocating being part of such a crucial convention, in the light of the climate crisis, will be a positive start.
Since the South Asian Association Regional Cooperation (Saarc) has been on a ventilator for so long, this is indeed a golden opportunity for the region to get united to tackle the climate refugee crisis. Climate trauma sees no borders. Through Saarc, South Asian countries can share legal advice and support each other to develop an enhanced protection plan for refugees and other people displaced in the context of disasters and accelerated climate change.
In Pakistan, with economic uncertainty making all the headlines, the climate crisis doesn’t get the spotlight it deserves. We need a powerful countrywide climate awareness programme, an engaging national narrative that it is not just about CO2 levels anymore, but a matter of human survival now.
Pakistan must invest in preparedness to mitigate future protection needs and prevent further climate-induced displacement. Waiting for the climate disaster to strike is not an option.
The writer is a lecturer in foreign policy.