Monday May 20, 2024

Pakistan’s climate journey in 16 months: Part - I

By Sherry Rehman
August 14, 2023

A small anecdote sums up the cognitive confusion and lack of social or political investment about the environment and climate change in high places in Pakistan. When I took over the Federal Ministry of Climate Change and Environmental Coordination in April 2022, it was called just the Federal Ministry of Climate Change.

The environment addendum was included later at my request to the cabinet, because the ministry was the notified entity for all international environmental, biodiversity and climate change treaties and conventions, as well as the lead department for the Wildlife Board managing the Margalla Hills National Park. When I walked into its lobby I noticed that the insignia at the door said mosamiat, which actually translates as ‘weather’ in English. After weeks of intensive consultations, it was agreed that in Urdu it would now say mahauliat which was more appropriate.

From then onwards it was 16 months of crisis management, while we built on new layers of institutional roadmaps. Quite apart from changing its name to a more befitting one that matched the scope of its work, in April we found ourselves confronted with a cascading heatwave all over the country. Climate stress had become the new normal. By June, Pakistan had recorded for the third year running temperatures at 53.6 C in parts of Sindh. We were, for yet another year, the hottest place on the planet. Along with that, our forests in three provinces had ignited into a smoky patchwork of stubborn forest wildfires, while glacial lake outburst floods had erupted in the north of the country. We had gone straight into summer from winter, which for a city like Islamabad is simply not the norm. Climate change has started swallowing entire seasons. Much more was amiss at the global warming levels than we had been given to understand.

In the entire 16 months of government, this small ministry redefined both itself and the nature of the climate challenge the country was coping with. It still has a long way to go.

Given that our scope was limited to the federal government, designed to deal with international treaties and covenants which require national frameworks and focal points, the challenges were onerous. The implementers were the provinces, except in ICT, yet we were needed to create international instruments and respond to multilateral conventions, partners and climate governance systems that recognized only national frameworks. We organised a Task Force on Heatwaves with all the provinces on board, as well as a similar one on forest fires. The first two were convened at PM House under my chairmanship, and we found that all provinces responded really well to our guidance and capacity-building. We shared guidelines issued by both task forces on how to cope with both challenges in different terrain. To this day, these guidelines are used to save lives.

The rapid desertification of the delta region was another crucial challenge facing a country with looming water scarcity by 2025. The Ministry of Water Resources was engaged to start a national conversation on water conservation, while we accelerated our work with WWF on the stagnating Recharge Pakistan project for restoring the health of our wetlands in each province. By July 2023, the Green Climate Fund (GCF) had agreed to convert our loan for this project to a grant of $77 million, with the support of donors. Much more needed to be done.

At the same time, we completed and launched the 25-part Living Indus Initiative along with the support of the UNEP and other UN agencies, at both the international and national levels, completing in record time all consultations with the provinces. Going forward, the Living Indus is now ready to turn into a functional organic, programmatic template for a multi-level intervention to save the great river on which 80 per cent of Pakistan is dependent. As it stands, the Indus is now the fourth most polluted river in the world. It is also Pakistan’s lifeline, which is why it needs attention. I hope the next government can spur the provinces to projectize the priorities we identified for financing and development.

In the north of Pakistan the summer of 2022 proved to be equally harsh, particularly in Gilgit-Baltistan, where the glacial lake outburst floods afflicted vulnerable communities in more than 75 crises. We managed to save lives with our early warning systems via the GLOF programmes we were running there with UNDP. This programme was upscaled to its second stage as one of the most successful low-cost community-based programmes in a terrain which hosted the highest number of glaciers outside the polar region. We were not able to slow down the heating that caused glacial melt, nor decelerate the outburst floods that increased by 300 per cent, but we were able to build resilience for it.

The real challenge proved to be coping with the great mega-flood of 2022, that put Pakistan on the map for impacting 33 million people, breaking all records for rain as it inundated one-third of the country, most particularly in the south. Sindh and Balochistan became the hub of the NDMA’s disaster relief efforts, with rescue itself running into weeks. The country’s entire public and private philanthropic infrastructure was on maximum overstretch on the ground, and simultaneous crises soaked up coordinated efforts of many ministries including this one, the PM, the FM, the military and all international agencies. There were just too many people to manage, yet we pulled together in a prolonged and remarkable effort of rescue, relief, rehabilitation and rebuilding.

Shortly after, we had to gear up for COP 27. For the first time in the history of Pakistan the National Council on Climate Change was convened under the leadership of the PM. There, we presented and articulated Pakistan’s case for climate justice as a fractional emitter of greenhouse gases, while being clearly in the frontline of climate hotspots globally. We fought hard for the creation of a Loss and Damage Fund, which we succeeded in creating at Sharm el Shaikh, with the FM making sure Loss & Damage was put on the agenda of the conference as chair of G77 plus China. For 18 days, we tirelessly pushed the case for Loss and Damage both at our pavilion and at UNFCCC forums, for the entire Global South. The UN SG spoke at Pakistan’s pavilion for the first time, where the PM capped off his visit with a big push for climate justice, just as he had done at the UN in September. Pakistan’s country pavilion and climate branding as a leader became the place to campaign for climate justice, with the slogan, “what goes on in Pakistan will not stay in Pakistan”, resonating worldwide as a case for revamped multilateralism as a real solution.

While we were trying to work on building back better, assessments told us that rehabilitating millions would cost $16 billion. All available funds had been repurposed for relief and for immediate cash transfers to those in the frontline of the human tragedy. Climate and early warning funds were the first to go. For a country drowning in both debt and floods, the 4RF plan was developed by the Planning Ministry, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and three other ministries putting in late nights, including Climate Change as we planned and pushed for it at Geneva, where the UN hosted a Climate Resilient Pakistan conference. As we reminded international audiences via powerful videos that captured a slice of the devastation, 33 million people impacted was the size of three medium-sized European countries. Around $9 billion plus were pledged, double the estimate of what we had expected, but experience told us pledges are slow to materialize. The World Bank had already launched its Country and Climate Development Report at COP 27 with us, targeting $348 billion as the financing needed for Pakistan to keep its head above water until 2030.

Climate finance and technical capacity became a real chokehold on rebuilding with resilience, but we also learnt that systemic vulnerability needed to be the lens we looked at all sustainable development from now on. Women and children, and the indigent were impacted disproportionately during the crisis, and all plans to adapt or build resilience needed to absorb that field lesson learnt from the flood of 2022. The Climate Ministry launched and drew on the Climate Gender Policy we had completed with the support of IUCN, and pushed hard to mainstream women and vulnerability in all planning at the department.

To be continued

The writer is the former federal minister for climate change.