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Saturday April 20, 2024

Climate change an afterthought in Pakistan election

Apart from flooding, Pakistan has been scorched by deadly heat waves, and its smog levels rank among the worst in the world

By AFP
February 07, 2024
Commuters wade through a flooded road after heavy rainfall at Main Qasimabad road in the city.— Online/File
Commuters wade through a flooded road after heavy rainfall at Main Qasimabad road in the city.— Online/File

KARACHI: As waves from the Arabian Sea crash into the shores of Karachi, election candidate Ahmad Shabbar tells voters a list of growing but often ignored climate threats.

Pakistan was ravaged by monsoon floods two years ago that left a third of the country submerged, turning climate change into an international rallying cry for the government. But surging inflation and a massive political crackdown on the opposition have pushed the issue down the priority list ahead of polls on Thursday.

“One of the main reasons for me to contest right now is to highlight that climate change is not a priority for these political parties,” said scientist and engineer Shabbar, an independent with little chance of being elected.

Despite the climate conversation gaining mainstream traction after the floods -- and billions pledged by donors for the recovery effort -- he says the government is doing little to connect with communities most vulnerable to extreme weather events. “Before the funds started flowing in, politicians weren’t really interested in having this conversation,” he said. “It used to be that all the natural disasters are because of God. Now all of a sudden they’re all because of climate change.”

A small crowd gathered to hear Shabbar explains other environmental issues, such as water scarcity and poor air quality in Karachi, Pakistan’s economic capital with a population of more than 20 million.

“Climate change is evident around the world,” attendee Amna Jamil, 60, said. “I know what impact non-seasonal rains can have and how they can affect crops. So many seasonal fruits and crops are being destroyed by climate change.”

The floods -- which scientists said were linked to climate change -- hit hardest in Sindh province, where the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) was running the provincial government. PPP senator and former climate minister Sherry Rehman insists her party has “put green development and climate resilience at the centre of (its) economic agenda” while others pay “lip service”. They say they have started with the construction of climate-resilient housing in vulnerable areas and would prioritise a developing early-warning infrastructure and a transition to clean energy. “Pakistan is going through a climate polycrisis, so pretty much everything has to be addressed with speed and action,” Rehman told AFP.

Apart from flooding, Pakistan has been scorched by deadly heat waves, and its smog levels rank among the worst in the world. Professor Nausheen H. Anwar, who works on urban planning and climate hazards, said “the level of intervention required to make things work at a major scale is not happening”. The impact of climate change has collided with Pakistan’s lack of infrastructure and poor governance to produce an ecological catastrophe, she explained.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF estimates that around 70 percent of households drink contaminated water and more than 50,000 children under five die from sanitation-related diseases annually, an issue that is being magnified by extreme heat and drought. “It’s a question of time and the worry is that maybe we are now out of time,” Anwar told AFP.

In Islamabad, Hamza Haroon hosts a corner meeting to rally for youth-led governance in the capital, bordered by a national park, where he says climate-change awareness is growing. “Because of the smog, people stopped seeing the Margalla hills, so then they started asking questions, ‘what´s going on’?” said the 33-year-old, who previously worked as a government adviser on science and technology. “We pretend that nothing has happened, we’re still doing the policy of planting trees,” he added, referring to a campaign launched by former prime minister Imran Khan.

Haroon described the policy as flawed while Shabbar termed it “greenwashing”, saying Khan’s party was simultaneously pursuing development projects that would upend vital ecosystems such as mangroves.

Voter Hasnain Shah said climate does not appear on the radar of the major parties. Haroon believes climate politics can address Pakistan’s economic woes, with clean transport solutions reducing fuel imports and protecting crop yields, subduing surging food prices. “We are facing the wrath of climate that all these global north countries will face in the next few years, they need to come see what’s coming.”