Echoes of environmental resilience

By Wallia Khairi
Tue, 06, 24

Pakistan’s changing environment has a significant impact on millions of people and poses tremendous challenges. Climate change is no longer a distant threat; it is a current reality. You! takes a look…

Echoes of environmental resilience

Under the relentless sun, symbolic of the advancing spectre of climate change, distant echoes echoed across the globe. These echoes in Pakistan reflected a country dealing with the consequences of nature’s fury. Amidst the scorching heat worldwide, World Environment Day will be observed on the 5th of June. The theme of ‘Land Restoration, Desertification, and Drought Resilience’ for this year resounds with the urgent call of a planet in crisis.

Pakistan is a country with some of the world’s most diversified landscapes, ranging from the towering peaks of the Karakoram to the parched deserts of Balochistan. However, this natural beauty is being threatened by a wide range of environmental concerns, such as climate change, urban pollution, water shortages, and human-wildlife conflict, all of which have a significant impact on millions of people and pose tremendous challenges. Climate change is no longer a distant threat to Pakistan; it is a current reality.

Climate change: a current reality

In Pakistan, the environment is both a source of sustenance and a battleground for survival. Sindh province’s once-predictable monsoon rains have become irregular, resulting in catastrophic floods that displace thousands each year. Farmers like Ahmed Ali describe how their fields, which formerly produced abundant harvests, are now immersed in water or parched as a result of severe droughts. “We used to know when the rain would come, but now it’s a gamble every season,” Ahmed complains. The devastating floods submerged entire communities, leaving behind a trail of destruction and despair.

As the waters receded, the urgency to address the looming environmental crisis became undeniable. During this turmoil the Green Climate Fund (GCF), a delegation determined to lend a helping hand to Pakistan’s embattled environment, support the country’s efforts to combat the ravages of climate change. Venturing into the heart of the nation, the GCF delegates met with Pakistan’s senior environmental officials, seeking to ignite a spark of change where conservation efforts had long been overlooked. Together, they embarked on a journey to equip local stakeholders with the knowledge and skills needed to develop climate mitigation projects, aiming to turn the tide against environmental degradation. But the challenges were daunting. Despite sustaining losses worth billions due to environmental disasters, Pakistan’s portfolio with the GCF remained underfunded, a stark reminder of the uphill battle ahead. The government’s misplaced priorities, favouring real estate ventures over conservation, only exacerbated the situation, leaving citizens vulnerable to the whims of nature.

Echoes of environmental resilience

The northern areas have their own set of issues. The spectacular glaciers of the Karakoram and Himalayas are receding, endangering the lives of populations that rely on glacial meltwater. In Gilgit-Baltistan, locals talk of rivers that used to run freely but are now trickling. The implications for agriculture, drinking water, and hydropower are profound.

Despite these problems, there are encouraging stories of conservation and resilience. The account of the snow leopard in the Karakoram Range sticks out. The snow leopard, once on the verge of extinction owing to poaching and habitat destruction, is making a slow recovery thanks to coordinated efforts by NGOs and local people. The Snow Leopard Trust, in collaboration with communities, has implemented programmes like predator-proof livestock pens and eco-tourism to create alternative livelihoods while reducing human-wildlife conflict. “We need to coexist with these animals,” elucidates conservationist Zainab Ahmed. “We used to see leopards as threats, but now we understand their role in the ecosystem. They are part of our natural heritage, and protecting them is crucial for our ecosystem’s balance.”

In the coastal zones, community-led reforestation programmes are restoring the Indus Delta mangroves. These mangroves serve as important storm surge barriers while also supporting a diverse ecosystem. Fisherman Ali Hassan, whose livelihood was formerly endangered by depleted fish populations and crumbling coasts, is now involved in mangrove planting. “These trees are our protectors,” he says. “They bring back the fish and shield us from the storms.”

Pakistan’s major regions, notably Lahore and Karachi, are experiencing significant air and water pollution. As of the latest update on May 24, 2024 by IQAir, Pakistan’s air quality index (AQI) reveals varying levels of pollution across its cities. Rawalpindi, Punjab, tops the list as the most polluted with an AQI of 171. In 2023, Pakistan’s average AQI was deemed unhealthy at 160, with a PM2.5 concentrations of 14.7 times higher than the WHO annual air quality guideline value. A good AQI typically falls within the range of 0 to 50, indicating satisfactory air quality with little to no risk to health. In 2023, Abbottabad, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, held the title of the cleanest city with an AQI of 97, which still falls below the good AQI range, while Lahore, Punjab, was the most polluted with an AQI of 182. Lahore’s air quality is frequently considered among the worst in the world, posing serious health hazards. Residents such as Fatima Khan spoke of youngsters suffering from respiratory problems and the persistent haze that obscures the horizon. “You can’t escape it,” she adds. “Every breath feels heavy.”

Echoes of environmental resilience

According to investigative studies, vehicle emissions, industrial discharges, and unrestrained buildings all contribute to pollution. However, there is hope. Euro-5 fuel requirements, as well as attempts to encourage electric cars, are positive moves forward. Urban planners are calling for more green spaces, recognising their importance in improving air quality and offering recreational opportunities for the general population.

Karachi is fighting its own war with garbage management. The city’s growing population creates massive volumes of solid garbage, most of which ends up in landfills or, worse, the Arabian Sea. Innovative recycling programmes and waste-to-energy initiatives are being tested to alleviate the challenge. Rehan Shah, an environmental activist, is optimistic: “If we can change our waste mind-set, Karachi can become a model of sustainable urban living.”

On the other hand, water shortages are one of Pakistan’s most important concerns. The Indus River, a lifeline for millions, is under tremendous strain from over-extraction, pollution, and decreasing flow due to glacier melt. Farmers in Punjab and Sindh areas are especially susceptible. “Our crops depend on the Indus, but it’s drying up. We need better water management, or we’ll have nothing left,” explains farmer Imran Ali.

Echoes of environmental resilience

Time for action is now

Innovative solutions are under development. The use of drip irrigation in Punjab has resulted in substantial water savings. The government’s attempts to develop smaller dams and reservoirs contribute to the objective of increasing water storage capacity. Furthermore, rural inhabitants are becoming aware of the significance of water conservation.

Pakistan has enormous renewable energy potential, which has yet to be realised. With about 300 light days each year, the solar energy potential is quite tempting. In Punjab, the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park showcases what is possible. This 6,500-acre project intends to generate 1,000 megawatts of power while lowering reliance on fossil fuels and minimising environmental impact.

Wind energy is also on the rise, particularly in Sindh’s coastal districts. Projects such as the Jhimpir Wind Corridor use wind power to offer renewable energy to the national grid. These renewable energy efforts are not only ecologically benign, but they also generate jobs and stimulate local economies.

Traditional knowledge in Balochistan is being resurrected in response to environmental issues. The ancient Karez irrigation system, a network of underground pipes that connect to groundwater, is being rebuilt. This approach, which reduces evaporation and maintains a consistent water supply, is proving beneficial for supporting crops in dry areas.

Local farmer Abdul Rehman adds, “Our forefathers learned how to coexist with this tough soil. By resurrecting their skills, we are not only conserving our legacy but also ensuring our future.”

Pakistan has made progress on environmental legislation, but execution remains a concern. The National Climate Change Policy seeks to address climate impacts via mitigation and adaptation techniques. However, enforcement is frequently impeded by bureaucratic inefficiency and a scarcity of resources.

Environmental lawyer Maria Khan emphasises the necessity of strong legal frameworks and their implementation. “Laws alone are not enough,” she argues. “To put these policies into action, we must work together. Only then can we expect to see significant change.”

In the city, urban gardening projects revitalise concrete jungles by transforming rooftops and abandoned lots into lush green places. Green infrastructure initiatives transform cityscapes by seamlessly incorporating nature into the fabric of urban life. Sustainable mobility solutions disentangle the many layers of traffic congestion, paving the way for cleaner, more liveable communities for everybody. Ali Habib, co-founder of the Karachi Beach Cleanup initiative, emphasises the importance of collective action in preserving Pakistan’s coastal areas, stating, “Our beaches are more than just sand; they are thriving ecosystems.” His leadership in organising clean-up efforts inspires people to take charge of local coastal habitats and strive towards a more sustainable future.

Echoes of environmental resilience

Women’s voices, in particular, are driving a grassroots environmental conservation revolution. Behind every success story is the frequently hidden hand of women, whose efforts to protect the environment are as significant as they are underappreciated. Across the country, women are leading the effort to care for the land and safeguard its resources, from the Rural Women’s Leadership Programme, which prepares women to be stewards of their natural heritage, to initiatives like the Chitral Women’s Handicrafts Centre and Khwendo Kor, which combine traditional knowledge with modern innovation. Their ingenuity and unrelenting passion portend a brighter future for coming generations.

Throughout these endeavours, the inherent link between culture and environment is evident. Pakistan’s past is inextricably tied to its natural ecosystems, and keeping one means protecting the other.

Guardians of Green

Numerous environmental advocacy organisations in Pakistan serve as custodians of the country’s natural resources. The Pakistan Environment Trust (PET) is at the forefront, spearheading revolutionary change via initiatives like Net Zero Pakistan and Re-wild Pakistan. WWF Pakistan works closely with PET, and its relentless efforts in biodiversity protection are shown in initiatives ranging from habitat restoration to community-based natural resource management. The Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), a research and policy advocacy organisation, contributes to these efforts by amplifying the sustainability voice across all sectors. Meanwhile, Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan is spearheading projects on climate change and renewable energy, opening the road for shared prosperity.

The Pakistan Green Building Council (PGBC) supports sustainable urban development, whereas the HEC National Centre of Excellence in Water Resources (NCEWR) addresses water scarcity with innovative solutions. The Indus Earth Trust (IET) empowers rural communities by restoring watersheds and encouraging sustainable agriculture. The Urban Resource Centre (URC) oversees green infrastructure initiatives in cities to encourage environmental stewardship. The Pakistan Wetlands Programme (PWP) is a collaborative initiative that brings together important stakeholders to protect critical wetlands.

These organisations and mediums collaborate to develop a conservation narrative that will define Pakistan’s sustainable future. Samar Khan, an environmentalist, concurs that nature offers significant insight and inspiration: “Nature is our greatest teacher. Let us tread lightly, leave no mark, and keep these wonderful surroundings for others to enjoy.”

The writer is a subeditor at You! magazine. She can be reached at wallia_khairi