‘Everyone should take responsibility to minimise their impact on environment’

An interview with Canadian High Commissioner Wendy Gilmour

The News on Sunday: What do you think are some of the most pressing environmental issues in Pakistan?

Wendy Gilmour: Pakistan is among the top 10 countries impacted by climate change. The country has a diverse landscape, so the problem is different in every region. Population pressures and waste management are some of the most critical issues, along with other developmental challenges, all exacerbated by climate change-related extreme weather events.

TNS: The northern areas are hardest hit by climate change in the shape of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), flash floods and landslides. How can the Government of Canada assist the Government of Pakistan reduce its vulnerability to climate change?

WG: Our job as a donor is to assist with regard to priorities determined by local governments and people. Canada is contributing to global climate action funds like the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility, which support climate change programmes in Pakistan. We also support local level programs such as the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP). We have partnered with the World Food Programme (WFP) and the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) to support humanitarian response facilities throughout Pakistan, particularly in the north.

TNS: Gilgit Baltistan and Chitral are suffering from environmental deterioration from the tourist influx that has increased with better road infrastructure. How can eco-tourism be promoted that benefits the environment and people at the same time?

WG: On one hand, the rise in number of domestic tourists is a good development: it demonstrates consumer confidence and a real excitement for Pakistanis to learn about their own country. It also helps boost the local economy. That’s all positive.

However, when you have a large number of people visiting environmentally fragile areas like in the north, we have to be cautious of our impact on the environment and local communities. For instance, there needs to be solid waste management systems in place to accommodate the influx of large numbers of tourists, whether they are domestic or international.

So we start by encouraging personal responsibility for the environment: for instance, I try my very best not to use single-use bottles, cups and utensils. All of the tourists going to the north or other sensitive sites should be conscious of their impact on environment.

Canada will be supporting a small project in Hunza to encourage the local community in establishing solid waste collection, including segregating waste where it can be recycled. To my knowledge, there is no plastic recycling facility north of Abbottabad. To me that’s a huge commercial opportunity for somebody to develop a business case around it.

TNS: What do you think of the ban on plastic bags in Islamabad that is likely to be introduced in other parts of the country as well? Will it help address the plastic problem?

WG: From my perspective it is very encouraging that Islamabad has taken this initiative. A similar ban is being implemented in Hunza. The Canadian government has announced plans to phase out single-use plastic by 2023 as a federal government policy.

Any effort to reduce the use of single-use plastic is worthwhile. Archaeologists say that 500 years from now will mark our moment in time by plastic residue. Plastic is a convenience: 50 years ago, we didn’t use plastic the same way we are using it now. Certainly, retail and food plastic packaging is far in excess of what is actually required.

TNS: Pakistan has announced a 10 billion tree plantation drive to improve its dwindling forest cover and combat the effect of climate change. What are your thoughts on the project?

WG: All reforestation programmes are beneficial. Particularly in high-use areas, there needs to be conscious replanting if the harvesting rate is greater than the growth rate.

I think it was a tremendous initiative on part of the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to establish the Billion Trees Tsunami Afforestation Project (BTTAP), now extended to other parts of the country. It was heartening to hear that nurseries were managed partly by women’s organizations, and people with patches of land were encouraged to plant seedlings and later they were able to sell those seedlings. This helps the project be sustainable and provides a useful opportunity to earn livelihoods for marginalised households. It is also crucial to stop illegal logging, and ensure the forestry industry also takes part. In Canada, government land is leased to the timber industry, and they become responsible for reforestation.

TNS: Pakistan is among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change despite contributing least to the phenomenon. How should the developed world assist Pakistan to reduce its vulnerability to climatic change?

WG: There are major international funding organizations i.e. Green Climate Fund (GCF), Global Environment Facility (GEF) and Adaptation Fund (AF) and Canada has significantly contributed to these funds. At the Paris Accord in 2015, Canada pledged $2.65 billion to international climate finance to support a wide range of programmes and initiatives. For example, Canada has committed $300 million to the Green Climate Fund, the primary global fund aimed at addressing climate challenges among developing countries. Canada sits on the board of the Green Climate Fund that approved UNDP’s scaled-up project on GLOF for the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Canada also pledged $229 million to the seventh replenishment of the Global Environment Facility (GEF) in June 2018. Integrating environmental and climate considerations in every project is the key.

If we are looking at major infrastructure projects, such as those being done under China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, environmental factors have to be taken into consideration. They should be part of the decision-making process before a project gets started. A balance can always be maintained in ensuring best environmental practices, while at the same time continuing to develop the infrastructure that is necessary for economic development.

Wendy Gilmour, Canada’s High Commissioner to Pakistan, shares her interest in and perspective on the environmental challenges affecting Pakistan. Gilmour is an advocate for environmental causes. She has visited the Northern Areas of Pakistan three times since she assumed office in 2018 and has been actively engaged in empowering women organisations and promoting sustainable development in the region. Recently, The News on Sunday sat with Gilmour to discuss some of the critical issues, including plastic ban, afforestation, illegal wildlife hunting, population pressures and waste management. 

TNS: As migration of birds on the Indus delta has begun, the illegal hunting of all species of birds goes on unabated. The provincial wildlife departments aren’t fully equipped to deal with poachers who are frequently supported by political and other groups. How should the government go about this problem?

WG: This is complicated as with many developmental challenges, there is no single solution. My family lives in rural Canada in Ontario, where there is hunting of different species (ducks, geese, deer and bears), with some licences issued based on a lottery system. Yet illegal hunting still goes on in Canada.

A solution employed in Canada, which has also been successful in Gilgit Baltistan, is for the local communities themselves to be invested in protecting wildlife by sharing the benefit of hunting tourism, which then incentivise the communities to protect these animal populations. Empowering communities to take ownership of the issue, and supporting their development, can help promote conservation.

TNS: Smog has come up as the fifth season of Pakistan and the government doesn’t even have enough air quality monitors to assess the situation. There is no baseline data and the issue is affecting the health of millions in Pakistan. How should this issue be dealt with?

WG: As Advisor to Prime Minister on Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam has pointed out: poor vehicle standards, crop burning, cooking fires, trash burning, cement and brick factories, power generation and other elements are all contributing factors. It is a myriad problem, with a need for multi-faceted solutions. Accurate baseline data is key, and a number of agencies and donors are working to address this.

TNS: NASA imagery has confirmed that crop burning in India is much higher as compared to Pakistan, which affects the later as well. Can Pakistan use international forums to pressurise India to reduce crop burning that is affecting it as well?

WG: It is easy to lay blame on your neighbors. I grew up in Canada in 1970-80s where acid rain was a huge issue, which everyone in Canada blamed on the United States. What was most helpful in this situation was that both countries were able to work together to recognize a problem, and put in place measures to address it. As air pollution is a huge issue right now for the Punjab on both sides of the border, here’s a perfect opportunity for India and Pakistan to work together to address a technical problem, and see how to make it possible to work together for both countries’ interests.

The question is not to lay blame but to find a solution, as air pollution respects no boundaries. The main question in this debate is how best to address the problem. Marginal farmers do not have many options, so it should be explored how to educate them on options, and perhaps incentivise different agricultural practices so that crop burning does not happen.

TNS: Pakistan is among the most water insecure countries of the world. The problem is being felt in many parts of the country. How should Pakistan responsibly utilize its water resources?

WG: There is no single solution to these challenges, as there are different issues regarding water use and conservation in urban areas than in agricultural and rural areas.

The rapid growth of Pakistani cities is causing multiple challenges because the infrastructure that was built in Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi did not take into account that these cities would house tens of millions of people.

It is collective responsibility to support better use of the water available through conservation and good practices. This applies on a large scale (industrial and agricultural use) as well as on a local scale. One of my objectives is to promote better water usage at the Canadian High Commission, making use of brown water run-off for our gardens and promoting rainwater harvesting. In Pakistan, the agriculture sector is one of the biggest consumers of water – and its use must be factored into the cost of doing business. Efficient agriculture practices, including choosing the crops suitable for particular zones, are essential to promote water conservation in the sector.

Another opportunity is for cities and districts to establish the necessary infrastructure for water meters. For instance, in my hometown Ottawa, smart water meters were introduced for every household so that water consumption is tracked. As soon as you monetize a commodity, conservation becomes automatic. However, we must ensure that vulnerable populations are not unduly penalized. It is critical that we do not treat our natural resources as if they have no value.

TNS: Diplomatically how should Pakistan highlight its climate vulnerability at the international platforms?

WG: Pakistan is very effectively represented at international climate fora, including having recently been elected as the co-chair of the Green Climate Fund (GCF) to represent developing countries.

Developing countries have an important voice in highlighting the human cost of climate change, as well as in taking steps to ensure their own economic diversification takes place in an environmentally sustainable manner. Canada is pleased to work with Pakistan on these issues. I am very encouraged by the Pakistan government’s approach to climate change, and the amount of time the PM and his ministers and advisors give to these issues. As a developing country, Pakistan has limited resources to address climate change, while also taking the necessary steps to protect the country’s future development

TNS: BBC’s 2013 Climate Asia report revealed that 65 percent of people in Pakistan do not know what the term ‘climate change’ means. This calls for more awareness on the issue of climate change. How can the government achieve this objective?

WG: Environmental awareness has grown over the course of my lifetime. Canada had a littering problem and other environmental issues in 1970s, and I remember campaigns from school – that led me, and my cohort to press their parents and other adults to take action. Pakistan’s leaders are also engaging the population at an individual level – including the recent Clean Green Champions and an inter-city competition. Nevertheless, on a larger systemic level, the problem with climate change can still be something that is difficult to grasp. However, the science is clear: human-generated climate impact is measureable and notable. There are very difficult choices for all governments in deciding how best to respond to the challenges of climate change, but we are past the point where not responding was an option.

Syed Muhammad Abubakar is a 2018 Chevening Scholar with a master’s in international journalism from Cardiff University. He is the recipient of 2019 Environmental Journalist award and 2015 Young Environmental Journalist award by Singapore Environment Council (SEC).


He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached at [email protected]

Wendy Gilmour on Pakistan's battle against climate change