Communities and ecosystems at the forefront of the climate crisis in Pakistan
Pakistan is a microcosm of how climate change is impacting the world. From rising sea levels and changing rainfall patterns to droughts and melting glaciers, Pakistan is witness to the impacts of the climate crisis. The heatwaves and floods of 2022 were a stark reminder that vulnerable communities and ecosystems in Pakistan remain at the forefront of the climate crisis.
This is particularly apparent in the Indus Delta, where communities are affected by the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events. These communities lack adequate access to safe drinking water, housing, education and healthcare facilities, making them more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. These effects are further exacerbated by prevalent governance issues.
Recent research by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan) revealed that the Phirth community in Keti Bunder’s creek areas said that their homes were affected by sea level rise over a decade back, which resulted in their migration. They have noticed 40-50 feet of sea water intrusion per year. The Tippin community also reports changes, particularly in terms of the intensity of hot and cold weather. This has impacted their livelihoods with a reduction in fish catch. Moreover, sea water inundation has resulted in significant loss of freshwater access for these people.
In 2022, heavy monsoon rains and flooding caused damage to villages such as Saleh Dhandal (Kharo Chan), which remained under water for nearly three months. The flooding caused damage to hundreds of homes and spiked an increase in the incidence of malaria, diarrhea, stomach problems and skin problems. An elderly respondent said that while flooding was a regular feature of the local landscape, recent floods such as those of 2010, 2015 and 2022 were by far the most catastrophic for the people. In Gul-Muhammad Oplano (Shah Bunder), another person similarly noted that back in his forefathers’ time, there were fewer disasters of this scale. If the water rose, it drained away rather quickly. Now, the community has to deal with disasters much more frequently.
Faced with these challenges, the villagers of Tippin and Bhori have been forced to leave their homes and migrate in search of stability. They have found refuge in Kharo Chan, where they now engage in supplementary agriculture. Interestingly, it’s not the extreme heat that troubles these communities but the unpredictable rainfall which results in either too little water or too much water, both being catastrophic for communities in the deltaic region.
Amidst these changing weather patterns, there has been a worrying increase in the frequency of cyclones. Once rare occurrences, these destructive storms now strike the vulnerable Indus Delta more frequently. For example, Cyclone 2A hit Keti Bunder in 1999, causing widespread devastation. In 2010, Cyclone Phet battered the resilient delta.
In 2019, the wrath of Cyclone Kyarr descended upon Keti Bunder once again. And most recently, Cyclone Biparjoy struck the southern fringes of the Indus Delta. Communities across the Delta were evacuated, leaving their belongings and livestock behind. These communities have endured great hardship with each cyclone, with villages eroded and water sources contaminated by saltwater intrusion.
The scars left by these cyclones run deep, and communities continue to struggle in their aftermath. Recovery has been painfully slow, particularly from the devastation caused by Cyclone 2A in 1999. Estuarine lakes have been permanently transformed into brackish water bodies.
In the face of these extraordinary challenges, the communities of the Indus Delta hold onto hope. They adapt to the ever-changing climate and seek ways to mitigate the devastating impact of these weather phenomena. Their story is a testament to the indomitable human spirit, reminding us that the will to survive and thrive remains unyielding even in the face of nature’s fury.
They need help and assistance, from the government first and foremost; but also, from civil society and the NGOs that could bring resilience to these communities. It is in this regard that the WWF-Pakistan is working with communities to address the increased risk from hazards due to climate change. The organisation is actively collaborating with communities to tackle the heightened threats of climate change-induced hazards. This includes efforts to equip fishermen with radios, enabling them to receive timely and crucial early warnings when hazardous conditions are on the horizon. This helps ensure the safety of fishermen as well as their valuable vessels, a means for livelihood.
The WWF-Pakistan also aims to boost community resilience to climate change by providing early warning systems and robust shelters. It has constructed and strategically positioned elevated platforms within vulnerable areas. These platforms serve as resilient shelters during cyclones and other extreme weather events. They offer a safe haven for community members, providing protection from the destructive forces unleashed by extreme weather events.
The organisation’s focus on mangrove plantation is a key effort in Pakistan as mangrove forests are a buffer against floods and sea water inundation. Through rehabilitation and restoration projects, WWF-Pakistan has significantly increased mangrove cover by 17,966 hectares in Thatta, Sindh. Over the years, the conservation organisation has undertaken numerous initiatives to restore and rehabilitate mangroves in Sindh and Balochistan. Specifically, the areas include Son Miani, Mianihoor, Kalmat Khoor, Oakar in Jiwni, Shabi in Gawadar, as well as the Indus Delta and Karachi.
As it looks to develop local adaptation plans, the government of Pakistan could build on the work of organisations such as the WWF-Pakistan that have been working in the field and contributing to adaptation through nature-based solutions. Ecosystems and communities are intrinsically tied together by geography, topography, ecology and culture. The resilience of one depends on the other. The climate crisis will worsen with rising global temperatures. As such, the need of the hour is to ensure that development planning accounts for both.
The writer is the governance and policy director at WWF-Pakistan