“People know that something is wrong”

July 9, 2023

“People know that something is wrong”

With unfamiliar weather patterns posing increased challenges to the environment and local communities, addressing Pakistan’s urgent climate governance needs has become critical. Ahmad Rafay Alam, a Lahore-based environmental lawyer, recently spoke with The News on Sunday about Pakistan’s prevailing climate change scenario and the crucial measures to protect vulnerable communities. Excerpts:


he News on Sunday (TNS): How would you describe the current weather patterns in Pakistan? What specific impacts do you see on the environment and local communities?

Ahmad Rafay Alam (ARA): Climate impacts different places differently. So Pakistan doesn’t suffer the impacts of the climate crisis the same. Different provinces have different impacts and challenges, and different districts within provinces have different challenges and impacts. But broadly speaking, changing weather patterns include increased heat and a more severe and erratic monsoon. With increased heat, if you’re up north, you will suffer floods. If you’re in the Punjab, crops are going to get destroyed. The same is true of the monsoon, depending on where you are, the intensity of the monsoon impacts; it may bring rain or flood urban areas.

TNS: What role do you see the governments playing in addressing the impacts on vulnerable communities in Pakistan, and what additional measures would you recommend?

ARA: The government of Pakistan has had a climate policy since 2012. It played a significant role at the United Nations under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and its annual Conference of Parties meetings to report back on its obligations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That’s one thing Pakistan has been doing. But as I said earlier, the impacts of climate change are very local, and the federal government while reporting to the United Nations and being an active participant at the Conference of Party meetings, does not translate to provincial or local government-level climate governance.

What I would like to see – even though Pakistan has a policy and is engaged in the UN – is subnational governance: looking at how climate change is impacting people and communities. We already have a National Disaster Management Authority and a Provincial Disaster Management Authority, which should be our first go-to whenever a climate challenge or impact occurs. But beyond that, how to improve crop productivity, be more resilient in the face of flooding or monsoon bursts and have heat-resilient cities so that the people in our urban areas don’t bake as if they were in ovens. These are all aspects of governance that still need to be addressed at the provincial and local levels.

TNS: In your experience, what key factors contribute to changing weather patterns in Pakistan? How are these factors connected?

ARA: The key factors contributing to weather patterns in Pakistan are greenhouse gases. The Earth has, or rather economies and the people have, produced greenhouse gases on a large scale over the last two and a half centuries. And these greenhouse gases absorb the sun’s heat in the atmosphere and cause global warming. This global warming is disrupting the ecological balance of the Earth; since the last ice age and for the last several hundred thousand years, this stability has allowed human civilisation to flourish through the expansion of agriculture. What climate change threatens to do – what these greenhouse gases threaten to do – is to throw off balance the stability of the Earth’s ecosystem, making an agriculture-supporting civilisation nearly impossible. That is what the impacts will be in Pakistan and any other country on the face of the Earth.

TNS: Can you highlight specific cases where communities in Pakistan have been adversely affected by this? How have they sought legal remedies?

ARA: A very specific example of communities in Pakistan being adversely affected is last year’s unprecedented monsoon flooding in parts of Balochistan and Sindh that rarely see monsoon rainfall. A study last year from Imperial College, London, attributes about 75 percent of the intensity of the monsoon that we experienced last year to the one-degree centigrade global warming that the Earth has experienced since the Industrial Revolution. It is pretty safe to say that the flooding and the displacement of nearly 30 million people last year was a man-made crisis and that greenhouse gases expended by industries and nations on other parts of the Earth over time contributed to the suffering of tens of millions of Pakistanis – many of whom are still displaced; for many livelihoods are still out of reach; and many have still to recover from the impacts of last year.

TNS: How do you assess the level of public awareness and understanding of climate change among the general population in Pakistan?

ARA: I think people, especially people in farming communities and people up north who are otherwise very connected to the environment they have grown up in, have a sense that something isn’t right. They have a sense of rising temperatures causing crops to fall; rising temperatures causing glacier-lake-outburst floods. I think you’ll find many people aware that something is going wrong.

Last year’s monsoon flooding, the immense amount of attention given to it, and the rescue and rehabilitation and some of the narratives developed by the government of Pakistan have brought a large amount of climate awareness and discourse. This is different from when the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government was in power and used the climate crisis to project its “10 billion tree tsunami” drive. That effort to educate people on climate change was limited to planting trees.

TNS: How important is it for the public to engage with environmental issues and changing weather patterns? What benefits can be derived from increased public involvement?

ARA: The debate has moved a little bit further. People now recognise that their lives are impacted by something that is not within their control. This has not translated yet into direct governance responses, though. We should be seeing emergency levels of response being given to vulnerable communities. But we’ve been very busy during the last year and a half trying to get into this IMF programme to stabilise our economy. Our economy was also impacted by last year’s floods, which blew a $30 billion window on our economy. Getting the economy back on its feet after a devastating impact like that is very difficult and a challenge the present government has faced.

TNS: What are some of the major obstacles you have faced in your efforts to advocate for environmental protection in Pakistan?

ARA: A major problem or challenge I’ve encountered in my efforts to advocate for environmental protection is that our political system keeps getting disrupted. Our constitution promises a democratically elected government in Pakistan through a parliamentary system. If our politicians weren’t continually harassed, picked up or arrested on false charges, they would have at least their sights set on short-term and long-term goals instead of fighting for survival. So, in many ways, I think the interference in Pakistan’s politics has been a major obstacle to having better climate governance in Pakistan.

TNS: How do you see the judiciary’s role in addressing environmental concerns?

ARA: The Lahore High Court in 2018 became one of the few courts worldwide to recognise climate justice as a priority. The Asghar Leghari vs Federation of Pakistan case recognised climate justice as one of the promises envisaged, seen and recognised in Pakistan’s constitution.

TNS: How can local communities in Pakistan play a more active role in adapting to and mitigating the impacts of climate change?

ARA: The people of Pakistan have legal remedies against various crises they feel impacted by. They have a right to ask their government to respond to these challenges properly.

TNS: What role can international cooperation and collaboration play in addressing the cross-border impacts of changing weather patterns? What efforts are being made in Pakistan?

ARA: Pakistan, nationally, is a very small greenhouse gas emitter. So it has to leverage its role internationally to convince the large emitters, the large nations, and the large economies that have the majority of greenhouse gas emissions, which are impacting countries like Pakistan, to implement the promises that they’ve made at international forums of reducing greenhouse gases. That’s one thing that I think Pakistan could be doing. Secondly, it needs to get its economic house in order to provide climate awareness and ensure preparedness.

This week in Sindh, humidity levels will become so high that even in the late 30 degrees centigrade, we’ll have what’s known as wet bulb temperatures that become lethal to human life. Thankfully, Karachi has a heatwave management plan. But other urban areas must develop them quickly. And not just heatwave management plans, we need to have management plans for the long-term impacts of heat in our urban areas. We’re not doing that. For example, we’re focusing on building roads next to rivers in Karachi. This sort of bad planning and unsustainable development has to be completely stopped so that we can better prepare for the impacts of climate change by making sure the communities most impacted are better prepared.

The writer is a freelance contributor

“People know that something is wrong”