By Lieutenant Colonel Khalid Taimur Akram (Retd), Executive Director, Center for Global & Strategic Studies (CGSS), Islamabad
Pakistan is among the countries which are highly vulnerable to the catastrophic impacts of environmental degradation and climate changes. Unfortunately, our security insight is limited to the traditional security threats only and the dangers lurking in the shape of non -traditional security challenges like climate change are causing irrevocable environmental challenges for Pakistan. The challenges caused by the climate change are posing serious threats to the health, agriculture, and overall economy of the country. Pakistan has been declared among the top ten countries most affected by climate change.
Environmental Challenges to Pakistan
Pakistan is among the countries who are worst affected by the climate change and unfortunately, due to lack of resources to mitigate these issues the country is exposed to bear the brunt of natural calamities and many environmental challenges and vulnerabilities. Some major factors to cause these environmental catastrophes are carbon emission, deforestation, population explosion, encroachments, floods, earthquakes, droughts, and cyclones, etc.
- Natural Resource Degradation
Pakistan’s population is rapidly increasing resulting in the depletion of natural resources. The industrial sector in Pakistan which provides more than one-fourth of the country’s economic output and two-fifth of its job opportunities is highly dependent on the natural resources of the country. Therefore, to achieve sustainable economic growth, there is a high demand for already scarce natural resources. According to the World Bank, 70% of Pakistan’s population lives in rural areas and are already stricken by high poverty levels. These people depend on natural resources to provide income and tend to overuse these resources. This leads to further degradation of the environment.
- Depletion and Pollution of Renewable Fresh Water Resources
The growing population of Pakistan together with the scarce renewable freshwater resources practices has put immense pressure on the national water reservoirs, thus leading Pakistan into the category of water-scarce countries. The availability of water for a single person in Pakistan has drastically decreased and is projected to level out at an annual water supply of 1000-1500 cubic meters per person by the year 2025. Many factors involved which hinder the accessibility of freshwater including unstable environment, ineffective policies to manage/ maintain water reservoirs, contamination of water, climate change, and deforestation etc. Water terrorism by India is also an important factor causing water scarcity in Pakistan. India is violating the Indus Water Treaty by developing several dams and reservoirs to enhance its capabilities and water potential. A sudden release of an excessive amount of water with no prior warning causes floods in Pakistan.
Pollution is one of the major environmental concerns for Pakistan and the lack of management has caused the problem to elevate further. It includes water, air, and soil pollution. The contamination of water (both surface and groundwater) and soil due to deposition of the industrial wastes into water reservoirs and on the agrarian soil together with an improper sewerage system in many areas of the country are some important aspects which are putting pressure on natural resource management in Pakistan. Dumping of solid waste on low-lying land and burning of the plastic waste and garbage in open-air results in carbon emission that generates dust and carcinogenic pollutants having adverse health implications. The release of toxic gases from factories, brick kilns, and carbon emission from transport vehicles are the main reasons for mounting air pollution. Another reason for air pollution is increasing deforestation in the country. The inadequate air emission treatments and lack of regulatory control over industrial activity have contributed to the deterioration of ambient air quality in major cities. Besides, the common practice of burning massive amounts of solid waste, including plastic and rubber, on street corners by the public, releases toxic gases, which are extremely harmful to residents in the area. Smog is another form of intense air pollution which is a combination of smoke and fog. it is mainly caused by smoke emitting from industries, vehicles, and brick kilns and is a mixture of smoke and sulfur dioxide. When inhaled, smog irritates our airways, increasing our risk of serious heart and lung diseases.
- Improper Discharge of Industrial Waste
Improper discharge of industrial waste is one of the major causal factors behind the contamination of air, water, and land. Many industries in Pakistan do not follow the proper way to dispose of their industrial waste and instead dump them in to clean and fresh drinkable water or agrarian lands. These industrial wastes contain a huge amount of toxicants that are extremely harmful to human health and the ecological system.
Pakistan faces immense problems of deforestation. at the time of its inception, Pakistan had approximately 33% of its land covered in forests which have now shriveled to less than five percent. The rate of annual deforestation in Pakistan is 1.5% which is alarming for the ecosystem of the country. Along with other forests, riverine forests of Pakistan have also been chopped down at an approximate rate of 5683 acres of forest per year. forests stabilize river banks, prevent soil erosion, and break the flow of floodwater. Deforestation caused by locals and timber mafia has exposed important wildlife species to serious protection and has increased the existential threats to these species. It has augmented the rage of floodwaters in Pakistan and elevated the ecological degradation in Pakistan. Pakistan could not achieve the UN’s set target of 25percentof forest cover on its total area, besides two plantations drives annually. The reason behind deforestation is energy crises, commercial benefits, and domestic use. Though certain plans have been launched to increase forest cover, which includes Green Pakistan Program, Billion Tree Tsunami, and REDD Plus, it will take some years for these plants to grow and replace already cut big trees.
Pakistan is subject to periodic flooding of rivers. Glacier-melting, monsoon rains, deforestation in the watershed, and siltation are among the principal divers of riverine floods in Pakistan. In the last few decades, climate change has emerged as an important driving force behind floods in Pakistan, primarily by affecting glacier-melting, and by interfering in summer monsoon patterns. Floods cause significant damage to the crops and agricultural fields which impact the economic growth of the country. According to the World Resources Institute, Pakistan is among the top 15 countries exposed to the risk of river floods; climate change is expected to further expand flood-prone areas. Around 715,000 people are affected by floods in Pakistan every year and the number is expected to rise to 2.7 million people by 2030. The realization of the challenge is the first step towards mitigation. It should be accepted that flooding is a regular feature of Pakistan’s hydrology and it holds important ecological and socio-economic roles. However, it is becoming more intense due to natural and man-made factors. Therefore, we should learn to adapt ourselves to the changing dynamics of riverine flooding. According to the World Resources Institute, on average, inland floods cost an estimated loss of 1% of total GDP per year in Pakistan. Disaster management and rescue operations that are carried out, pose an additional economic burden on the government.
The government has expressed concern about environmental threats to economic growth and social development and since the early 1990s has addressed environmental concerns with new legislation and institutions such as the Pakistan Environment Protection Council. Government of Pakistan has started new initiative like Clean and Green Pakistan to deal with environmental issues.
- National Conservation Strategy
To deal with its environmental challenges, Pakistan has adopted a National Conservation Strategy. The main objective of this strategy is to preserve natural resources, promote sustainable development and improve the efficiency of resource usage and management in the areas like; soil management in cropland, irrigation, forestry, and plantation, protecting water bodies and sustaining fisheries, conserving biodiversity, developing and deploying renewable resources, preventing or decreasing pollution, etc.
- Construction of Dams
Dams serve an important purpose to save and store water and supply this water for irrigation and agricultural activities. According to experts, a dam is like a keystone in the development as well as the management of water storage. However, for developing countries like Pakistan, the existence of multipurpose dams is extremely crucial since they lead to added economic benefits and the welfare of citizens. Currently, Pakistan has 150 dams and reservoirs. The increase in demand for freshwater supply has put pressure on the existing water reservoirs to meet the need. There is a need for the construction of more dams and water reservoirs to deal with situations like flood control and create more opportunities for irrigation in the country. Pakistan is currently working on the construction of Mohmand dam and Diamer-Bhasha dam, Naulong Dam, Kurram Tangi Dam, Nai Gaj Dam, and Dawarat Dam which are in the initial stages of development. These five dams combined have a storage capacity of around 7.747 million acre-feet. Similarly, the Government is also planning to build seven more dam projects in Pakistan including the Hingol dam, Akhori dam, Shyok dam, Munda dam (Mohmand Dam), Tank Zam dam, and Chiniot dam. These seven dams combined will add 13.948 million acres of storage capacity to the already-existing water reservoirs in the country. Upon completion, the under-construction dams in Pakistan will collectively increase the water storage capacity of Pakistan by 21.837 million acre-feet.
- Clean Green Pakistan Initiative
The government of Pakistan has launched the Clean Green Pakistan Initiative (CGPI) in October 2018 as part of the government’s commitment to fight environmental degradation and make all cities of the country clean and green. The Initiative is envisaged to underpin behavioral change and enhancement of institutional strength by addressing key issues including plantation, solid waste management, liquid waste management/ hygiene, total sanitation, and safe drinking water. The CGPI is specifically focusing on empowering the citizens of Pakistan to seek access to basic services but also making them equally accountable and responsible in overcoming the environmental challenges.
- Tree Plantation
Plant for Pakistan (Plant4Pakistan), also known as the Ten Billion Tree Tsunami, is a five-year project to plant 10 billion trees across Pakistan from 2018 to 2023. Prime Minister Imran Khan kicked off the drive on 2 September 2018 with approximately 1.5 million trees planted on the first day. The campaign was based on the successful Billion Tree Tsunami campaign of the former Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government, also led by Imran Khan, in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2014. In 2020, the program tripled its number of workers to 63,600 after being momentarily halted following the coronavirus pandemic, aiming to enlist those left unemployed by its economic consequences. Most of the work, which pays between 500-800 rupees (US$3-5) a day, takes place in rural areas, with people setting up nurseries, planting saplings, and serving as forest protection guards. The plan was awarded 7.5 billion rupees ($46m) in funding. • The project aimed at improving the ecosystems of classified forests, as well as privately owned waste and farmlands, and therefore entails working in close collaboration with concerned communities and stakeholders to ensure their meaningful participation through effectuating project promotion and extension services.
- Ban on Plastic Bags
Pakistan has taken an important step by banning the use, sale, and manufacturing of plastic bags which are important pollutants behind clogged city drains and sewers. The problem with these polythene bags is that they cannot be burned, reused, or recycled and take them hundreds of years to decompose, thus leaving Pakistan with only one choice and that is to ban their use. To curb this environmental hazard the government of Pakistan has declared a heavy fine against non-complying citizens including a fine of $31 for using a single bag, $63 for selling one, and up to $31,000 for manufacturing them. This indeed will be a great initiative because the environmental hazards caused by the polythene bag usage are putting the health of 200 million citizens of Pakistan at stake. To deal with the antagonism of the plastic bag manufacturers the government has introduced cloth tote bags to encourage customers to obey the law. the government is also considering to convert their types of machinery to produce other goods so that half a million population of the country associated with the plastic bag manufacturing industry may not be suffered.
- Carbon Emission Control / Carbon Emission Bank
Pakistan is currently considering a goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from 2008 levels by 2025. Viable carbon-cutting policies identified for Pakistan include boosting renewable energy, reducing electric power loss during transmission, more efficient water use in agriculture to reduce diesel-powered pumping, minimizing farm tillage to keep carbon in the soil, and using manure to generate biogas. At present, the country’s emissions are increasing at an annual rate of 6 percent, or 18.5 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent. Emissions were 147.8 million tons of CO2 equivalent in 2008. Pakistan’s carbon emissions will reach 400 million tons of CO2 equivalent (per year) by 2030 if the business-as-usual scenario remains intact. Uncurbed emissions would speed up the melting process of glaciers in the north, triggering severe floods and harm the country’s economic growth, he warned.
- Clean Technology
Pakistan is making efforts to introduce eco-friendly renewable energy and clean-tech to deal with climate change and other associated environmental issues. Efforts are being undertaken to mitigate the problem including generation of energy from hydropower and other renewable energy sources. Clean-tech is not limited to clean energy, however. It extends to agriculture and food production through innovative processes such as precision farming and smart irrigation. Moreover, clean-tech innovations are playing a critical role by recycling plastics, municipal solid waste, or industrial waste, including e-waste, and in spreading awareness around the consumption of plastics. Clean-tech has also impacted the transportation and logistics industry with the invention of autonomous and connected vehicles, electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, logistics services, new mobility business models, and sharing infrastructure.
- Paperless Environment
Pakistan is making efforts to adopt the international practice of a paperless environment. since the production of papers is directly associated with the deforestation therefore, the country must introduce a paperless corporate environment. Environmentalists believe that the main reasons for global warming are the emission of carbon from the combustion of fossil fuels and the release of carbon due to deforestation. It will help Pakistan in two ways. First cutting of forests to meet paper production demand will be decreased because everything will turn to be electronic. second, the amount of air and land pollution will also be decreased.
It is very important to adopt ecologically viable methods based on the principle of working with nature otherwise dealing with these environmental issues will not be an easy thing to do. For coping and devising an effective strategy for upcoming environmental challenges Apart from the already adopted course of actions, Pakistan can avail other options like;
- To curb mounting soil erosion, Pakistan must deem at restoring the forests in the catchment and riverine areas. It will also be substantially beneficial for avoiding siltation and reducing the costs associated with the canal de-siltation.
- There is a need to restore the flood plains – an area adjacent to the stream or river which serves as a support to the riparian zone and are essential for the agricultural purposes. Since Pakistan is a semi- agrarian economy and bulk of its revenue came from its agricultural sector, therefore, developing such plains will be very essential for Pakistan’s economy as well as social progress and development particularly in the food sector. The area is extremely valuable because it is rich in nutrients gathered due to floods at various points in time and are vital for the growth of crops in that area.
- The hydrological system in Pakistan oscillates between droughts and floods, which is only getting worse, therefore, Pakistan is in need to evolve its capabilities to cope with both extremes before it is too late. Pakistan must focus on the construction of small as well as large dams to manage flood water and must also build water reservoirs which will help reduce the intensity and magnitude of the floods in the future. The construction of dams will also be helpful during droughts because the country will have stored water to deal with the issue of water scarcity.
- There is a need to adopt ecologically viable management policies both at provincial and national levels to protect natural forests and avoid deforestation. Pakistan must promote re-forestation following the allowed limits for the augmentation of forest harvesting.
- To avoid continuing water stress in the country, Pakistan must promote rainwater harvesting techniques and discourage the utilization of groundwater for irrigation and harvesting.
- Pakistan has all the environmental laws, but the government and citizens lack the will to implement and follow those laws completely. This also undermines the superiority of laws. The Pakistani nation needs to adopt the trend of using public transport in daily life.