Development sins and climate change
While the death toll has risen to 358, millions homeless, standing crops destroyed covering millions of acres of land, the floods continue to cause more losses. Though bad, the situation is not worse than that of the 2010 super flood when 20 million people were affected. When asked about flood warnings and preparedness measures, we hear that the rainfall had been unprecedented and the government was taken by surprise.
However, many may not be ready to buy this excuse. The German Watch Climate Change Index, 2014, declared Pakistan the third most affected country due to climate change events after Haiti and Philippines. We have battled floods in 2010, 2011, 2013 and now in 2014. A National Climate Change Policy was adopted in 2012 that emphasised how climate change poses a survival threat to the nation while endangering food and water security. However, paradoxically, the 2013-2014 budget saw a 44 percent cut in the money allocated to climate change. This was partially due to the 18th Amendment where the issue of environment had been devolved to the provinces. Resultantly, the current government dissolved the ministry of climate change and reduced it to a climate change division in 2013. Therefore, the federal government cannot be blamed for the losses from these extreme events. However, the provinces do not have the capacity or conviction to commit resources for framing detailed climate change adaptation policies and strategies in order to mitigate losses from extreme events. This policy and action vacuum calls for the federal government to engage with provinces to help them design climate change adaptation measures.
Can we expect the general masses and flood-affected people to rise and hold our government accountable for this mismanagement, these development sins for which the poor are to pay and suffer? A majority of the people tend to believe in the narrative popularised by every government about how this is the will of God. According to a survey conducted by Gilani Research Foundation and Gallup Pakistan in January 2011 about the 2010 flooding, 54 percent of Pakistanis from rural and urban areas opined that they were a punishment from God. All of us, in particular those having the means to influence public opinion, need to correct this version that camouflages the negligence of the government. Expert knowledge of disaster management and climate needs to be simplified so that ordinary citizens can make sense of it and question the government for failing to act. For example, the first chapter of the 2011 flooding ‘Preliminary damage and need assessment report’, prepared by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, clearly showed the pattern of the 2010 and 2011 flooding: both flood events demonstrated rapidly changing weather patterns and their recurrence potential. Similarly, many people are aware of the places where illegal encroachments, built with the collusion of local authorities, have occupied floodplains and waterways. This illegal occupation blocks the natural flow of water and it is forced to make its way into towns. We need not attribute undue share of the development sins of our government’s inaction to God.
From another angle of diplomacy, reciprocal help offers in flood relief operations in Pakistan and India are certainly a positive development. What needs to be done more intensely is coordination and exchange of rainfall data between the two countries. This increased coordination will help disaster management related organisations improve the flood forecast and thus better prepare the people to mitigate expected losses of lives and properties. On another level, mutual sharing of experiences through scholarly exchanges of disaster management experts can also be useful in improving disaster governance on both sides.
It is happening now and it will happen again. The Fifth Assessment Report, 2013, by an intergovernmental panel on climate change clearly shows that different regions, their economies and people will experience climate change differently. However, climate change is a difficult challenge for societies and governments to deal with. The effects of climate change are strongly felt and we are sure more effects will occur in future. But it is difficult to estimate the exact timing, intensity and scale of possible events. In the coming years and during the course of this century, climate change adaptation options will certainly influence our decisions of allocation of resources through economic policy.
However, in a democratic dispensation of having five years period in its current form in Pakistan, it will be difficult to convince legislators to invest in climate change adaptation that may or may not show its positive effects during their tenure. Therefore, just like the continuity of unity of different regimes towards building nuclear capability in the 1970s and 1980s, and now fighting terrorism, the nation needs to unite for climate change adaptation.
Although climate change is occurring due to a larger share of development sins of the developed world, we happen to be at the paying end. Developing countries like Pakistan cannot influence the actions of developed countries to reduce carbon emissions. Our main option is actually the only option and that is adaptation to prevent or mitigate the negative effects of rising temperature and resulting extreme events. Climate smart developments such as developing extreme weather tolerant varieties of crops, land use planning, adopting climate resilient housing (energy efficient and having ability to withstand adverse weather conditions) and effectively building disaster risk management in our planning process to keep us out of harm’s way are some of the policy options we need to follow.
Most of the houses affected by the current and previous floods in rural areas are not flood resistant. On paper, Pakistan has a dynamic climate change policy that links poverty, food and water security. What we need to do is implement. Implementation is easier said than done since it requires coordination and collaboration among various government departments. In addition, private sector, civil society and communities, using a holistic approach, need to be involved to avoid or reduce loss of lives and assets from future extreme events. The federal government needs to play a lead role in this. This is matter of our survival.
Dr Abdur Rehman Cheema is assistant professor at COMSATS. He tweets @ARehmanCheema. Dr Ejaz Hussain is a political scientist and woks as assistant professor at Iqra University, Islamabad. He tweets @ejazbhatty