Can Pakistan survive climate change?

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- Inside Syed Mujtaba Hussain's office, the future of Pakistan's ability to withstand climate change seems bright.

The lighting is dingy, the walls are faded and the desk is well-worn. But the proud green sign outside the building reads "Ministry of Climate Change." Few developing countries -- and few developed countries, for that matter -- have an such an agency devoted to addressing the impacts of rising global temperatures. This one recently launched a national climate change policy and pumped new funding into a state institution that researches the impacts of global warming.

But Pakistani climate change advocates say they fear for the future. In interviews in Islamabad and Lahore recently, activists and government officials alike said there is not enough money to pay for the country's $13 billion to $32 billion in annual climate change needs. Moreover, many questioned whether a state grappling with extremism and sectarian violence, and still struggling to provide its citizens clean drinking water and reliable electricity, is truly capable of tackling long-term environmental threats.

"If I be honest enough on this point, climate change is somewhere down the priority list. The biggest priorities are military, terrorism, the energy crisis," said Hussain, deputy secretary in the Ministry of Climate Change. But, he said, "We have a good road map in front of us and now we need to make people aware. Not just the common people, but the policymakers."

Few countries are as vulnerable to climate change as Pakistan. Sandwiched between Iran, India and Afghanistan and bordered by both the Himalaya and Hindu Kush mountain ranges, Pakistan already is seeing troubling changes in its two main sources of water: monsoons and glaciers.

Along the Indus Delta, unpredictable torrential rains are damaging the wheat harvest. Melting glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Karakoram Himalaya mountain range, which provides water for 90 percent of the country's crops, are causing devastating flash floods and disrupting water supplies.

Scientists say that in the past two decades, the average temperature in Pakistan has risen by 0.57 degree Celsius and the country has faced 141 extreme weather events -- including a 2010 deluge that displaced 20 million people. Recently, a former Pakistani environment minister projected that climate change could cost the economy up to $14 billion per year.

"The whole climatalogical system is being disrupted," said Shafqat Kakakhel, former deputy executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme and a leading voice on climate change in Pakistan. As temperatures continue to rise, he said, "you will either have monsoons too early or too much. It's happening in India, and it's happening in Pakistan."


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Meanwhile, Pakistan also is facing an alarmingly high population growth rate, the highest in the world, at around 2.03 percent. Poverty is widespread, predominantly in rural areas, and migration to urban areas is at an all-time high.

"Our numbers are huge -- 180 million people, and before you go back to Washington, we will be 182 million," said Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, CEO of LEAD Pakistan, a leading environmental organization in Islamabad.

"We don't have enough storage of grain. We don't have varieties that can withstand increased carbon and moisture because of the monsoon, so we are on the verge of food insecurity. The challenge for us in the next half-century is to feed twice as many people with half of the water, and as a government, we are not taking this on," Sheikh said.

And therein lies the fundamental problem. Experts credit the country with taking a huge institutional step in creating an agency focused on climate change. But with little in the way of plans to finance or carry out adaptation plans, they worry that the blossoming bureaucracy is being built on straw.

Across the country, a small but committed cadre of people devoted to protecting Pakistan from climate change are trying to change that.

Shahid Kamal, Pakistan's former ambassador to Germany, is developing Pakistan's first climate change study center. Funded by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in Germany, the Centre on Climate Research and Development will work on things like weather data monitoring, cloud physics, hydrological modeling and studying the impacts of aerosols on climate.

Kamal said that range of scientific analysis and data -- critical if government bodies want to design proposals that will draw international financing -- has been missing for too long from Pakistan's body of climate knowledge.

"In the past, environment has not been a top item. We have a very few experts in climate, so we are trying to develop that," Kamal said.

Preparing for outside help

He said the violence and instability rocking Pakistan also put the country at a disadvantage when it comes to developing connections with researchers and policymakers in other countries.

"One of the challenges we face in Pakistan today is that we've become very marginalized," Kamal said. "People don't come here for business or tourism, so our young people are growing up pretty much on their own." He said that in addition to enhancing the status of climate change within Pakistan, the center's goal will be establishing partnerships abroad.

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government recently announced a boost in funding to the Global Change Impact Studies Centre, a research entity to help the water, agriculture and forestry sectors become more resilient to climate change.

Jawad Ali Khan, director-general of the Ministry of Climate Change, said he hopes to see the center lead research for South Asia. He also outlined a plan to reduce Islamabad's carbon footprint 50 percent by 2050 and develop a domestic fund so that Pakistan is not entirely reliant on global efforts like the still-developing Green Climate Fund, which is supposed to deliver about $100 billion in climate aid by 2020 but for now remains empty.

"It's not that we will wait for the world to help us, but the world also has its obligations to meet. Until that happens, though, we are not sitting quietly," Khan said. "We are so much threatened, and we have to survive. We have to confront the challenges, and if we are not doing it, our economic development will be much more impaired."

Sheikh said it is no small accomplishment to see a national climate change policy emerge from the government, a document that took two years and 40 scientists to produce. But, he said, while the concerns of the environmental community are getting reflected in policy documents, the country's institutions still have a long way to go -- including establishing the technical details of a fund so that Pakistan can be ready to accept international financial flows.

"Even if Pakistan has the money, the country is not ready," Sheikh said. "If Mr. Obama would come here and write a check, we would be happy to receive it. But we wouldn't know what to do with it." He added: "We are behind the curve right now, but we will have to make progress. There is no choice for us."

Reporting in Pakistan was paid for by a journalism fellowship from the East-West Center.

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