Danger to the vulnerable

Areas with more poverty, poor governance and lack of access to basic services are disproportionately affected by climate change

Danger to the  vulnerable

Vulnerability to climate change varies substantially among ecosystems and people and within regions. It is driven by patterns of intersecting socio-economic development, unsustainable ocean and land use, marginalisation, historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism and governance. Between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people live in contexts that are highly vulnerable to climate change. A high proportion of species is vulnerable to climate change. Human and ecosystem vulnerability are interdependent. Current unsustainable development patterns are increasing exposure of ecosystems and people to climate hazards,” states the sixth assessment report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change titled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability.

South Asia is among the global hotspots of high human vulnerability to climate change. Areas with more poverty, poor governance and lack of access to basic services are particularly at high risk. Vulnerability is further exacerbated by inequity and marginalisation linked to gender, low income and livelihood sources. Farmers with small land holdings, fishing communities and pastoralists are more vulnerable than others.

Pakistan is among the ten countries most vulnerable to climate change despite contributing little to the harmful emissions. Increasing heatwaves (duration and intensity), droughts, flooding, water scarcity, increasing sea level rise, glacial melting, poor air quality and forest fires are some of the acute impacts that Pakistan is facing due to global emissions.

Several communities across Pakistan are particularly vulnerable to extreme weather changes. People are disproportionately affected by glacial lake outbursts floods in Gilgit Baltistan, heatwaves in Sindh and southern Punjab, floods in the Punjab and droughts in Sindh. In some instances, homes, crops, infrastructure and schools are destroyed every time, making the poor poorer. Health issues and deaths are among other burdens. Slums in Karachi are particularly at risk due to heatwaves and a rising sea level. Heavy precipitation too affects them as many live on drains.

Climate change is putting extra burden on healthcare systems. Increased heatwaves, poor air quality, floods and droughts have increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food- and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health. In 2015 alone, around 1,200 people died due to extreme heatwaves. Many other people visited hospitals due to dehydration. Most of these people were labourers, women working in the fields and pastoralists. The 2010 floods destroyed many hospitals, clinics, drugs and medicines in parts of the Punjab.

People are disproportionately affected by glacial lake outbursts floods in Gilgit Baltistan, heatwaves in Sindh and southern Punjab, floods in the Punjab and droughts in Sindh.

Climate change also affects the livelihoods of the poor and farmers with small land holding. It is causing food insecurity not only in Pakistan but also globally. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation, crop losses in Pakistan in the 2010 floods amounted to $4.5 billion. Extreme weather patterns are also affecting sowing and yielding timings. Heatwaves have reduced the yield of wheat and rice crops in many areas. A combination of heat and droughts has reduced average yields of maize, soybeans and wheat.

Following the loss of their homes, small businesses, health and education facilities and livelihoods more and more people are moving away from villages to urban areas. These people are referred to as “climate refugees” or “environmental refugees”. Most of them are unskilled and end up in minimum-wage labour. The burden on women increases as they not only take care of household chores but also work for low wages. Disasters put them in traumas and depression. Young girls drop out of schools and end up marrying at a very young age leading to health issues due to pregnancies at early age. During disasters, women face harassment and issues of privacy.

There is no short cut to climate extremes. However, some relief can be provided to the vulnerable communities in terms of mitigation, adaptation and capacity building.

Pakistan needs to improve its early warning systems. Issuing alerts on website or SMS is not enough. Emergency alert on telephones should be sent like a call so that communities can take immediate measures. The US has a similar early warning system that helps reduce loss of life.

Capacity building among local communities is very important to help them prepare and adapt to climate extremes and variability. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) should work on capacity building of vulnerable communities. A bottom-up approach should be followed in this regard. Empowering communities is key in this regard so that they can participate and provide knowledge in local context. Climate finance should be used for this purpose. Pakistan should push developed countries to fulfil the promise of providing funds to developing countries under the Paris Agreement.

Pakistan needs to shift to renewable energy so that greenhouse gas emissions can be minimised. Although, Pakistan contributes very little to global emissions efforts at local and national levels can contribute to mitigation efforts.

Compensation/ relief should be provided to those affected. For this, good governance is key. Sometimes, governments and relevant agencies make allocations for relief but due to corruption and poor governance at local levels it never reaches those who deserve it the most.

Farmers’ capacity to adapt to climate change is highly important so that crop yields are not affected substantially. Agriculture extension can play a vital role in this regard.

When disasters occur, transportation, food, water and safe temporary camps should be provided immediately. Schools should be built back quickly so that drop-out can be avoided. The civil society and the media should play their role in generating awareness of the issues and highlighting stories of vulnerable communities.

The writer is an environmental expert at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI). She tweets @S_Maryam8

Danger to the vulnerable