Inaction is not an option

Pakistan hard-hit by climate change despite country’s minuscule ecological footprint.

Having been hit by two mega-floods within a dozen years and being amongst the most vulnerable countries in terms of climate induced disasters, Pakistan has not yet gotten its act sufficiently together to deal with impending climate threats.

It is unfortunate that Pakistan is being so hard-hit by climate change despite the country’s minuscule ecological footprint. However, Pakistan’s modest emissions are not the result of environmental consciousness but instead due to its meager economic output. The country has in fact been exploiting and polluting natural resources, including the air, land and water, with reckless abandon.

Pakistan’s country climate and development report released this past year noted major problems with the country’s outdated river management system. Existing drainage networks are ineffective, and many areas have no drainage system at all. As a result, massive damage to infrastructure occurs, and floodwaters take a long time to recede, which further degrades land quality and breeds diseases.

The proximity of people, infrastructure and farmland to flood plains remains a major risk. Alongside the lack of disaster preparedness, inadequate early-warning systems and ineffective local rescue and relief systems, climate disasters take a heavy human toll.

There is a long list of issues which the country needs to grapple with to become more resilient. Yet, a dismal economic outlook poses serious constraints to being better prepared to mitigate against climate-induced disasters, which is much wiser than dealing with post-disaster damage. Pakistan will probably continue facing constrained fiscal resources for the foreseeable future. So, it is vital to optimise available resources or a significant portion of the country’s GDP will likely be lost due to flooding, droughts and heatwaves, which will invariably push more households into poverty.

Pakistan urgently needs a comprehensive rethink of its rural and urban development policies. Besides diversification into more climate-resilient crops and agricultural practices, Pakistan must build denser and more resilient cities, and contain the ongoing wasteful urban sprawl. Public transport needs much closer attention to contend with air pollution, which is also wreaking havoc on the health of ordinary citizens across densely populated areas, especially Lahore.

According to Pakistan’s Climate and Development Report published by the World Bank this past year, the total investment needs for a comprehensive response to such challenges, over the next seven or so years, amounts to nearly $350 billion. The World Bank itself wants to see half this amount set aside for deep decarbonisation, while the rest of it is supposed to be spent on adaptation and resilience building. Such recommendations are in line with the prevalent donor focus on curbing future emissions more urgently than contending with the damage being caused in poorer countries due to centuries of emission by rich and industrialised countries.

Yet, whether Pakistan decides to invest in decarbonisation or in climate mitigation and adaptation is a secondary question, as it clearly lacks the funds needed to make such investments. Pakistan thus invariably needs international financing, and it is also being encouraged to secure private sector investments to address climate challenges. Whether profit-maximising tendencies of the private sector can be harnessed to make Pakistan’s agri-food system more sustainable, to invest in adequate flood risk management, and to create improved shock-response mechanisms remains to be seen.

However, instead of only relying on the private sector and external donors to determine what needs to be done, the government itself can repurpose significant elite-captured subsidies and improve tax and tariff collection to fund climate resilience and adaptation efforts.

Pakistan can no longer afford the consequences of inaction, as climate threats will not go away if we ignore them. Instead, their ability to wreak havoc on those already struggling to survive will amplify, and the scant public infrastructure available to ordinary citizens will continue being damaged, in turn diminishing the nation’s chances of securing prosperity.

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