“We have to learn to respect the laws of nature”

“We have to learn  to respect the laws  of nature”


he News on Sunday (TNS): The devastation due to the recent floods is said to have exceeded in scale and magnitude to that caused by the floods in 2010. We are seeing natural calamities of such magnitude in greater frequency. How do you read the situation?In the aftermath of the recent floods following unprecedented rains this year, the scale of devastation has left many wondering about the level of preparedness to counter natural calamities and the priority ranking of issues like climate change. The News on Sunday speaks to Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, the principal author of Pakistan’s Updated Nationally Determined Contributions submitted to the Climate Change Secretariat of the United Nations last year. Sheikh has served on several national commissions and international committees including the Advisory Group on Learning and Evaluation and the Transformational Change and Learning Partnership (TCLP), both set-up by the Climate Investment Fund (CIF), on behalf of the World Bank and other multilateral development banks. Excerpt follows:

The News on Sunday (TNS): The devastation due to the recent floods is said to have exceeded in scale and magnitude to that caused by the floods in 2010. We are seeing natural calamities of such magnitude in greater frequency. How do you read the situation?

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh (ATS): The differences between the 2010 and 2022 floods need to be understood. The 2010 floods were riverine; we knew their magnitude, spread and range. The rivers overflew and breaches were made that caused floods. Besides, we had enough warning time to respond to the emergency as the water in rivers flow with a speed that can be calculated.

The current floods, on the other hand, are not riverine. They have been caused by torrential rains. This time the monsoon rains have taken the southern route and entered Sindh and Balochistan directly from Rajasthan. Normally, a monsoon system enters Pakistan from Kashmir and loses intensity by the time it reaches Balochistan and Sindh. There were six to seven monsoon spells this time whereas in the past there were one or two spells. The flash floods in Sulaiman Range wreaked havoc in southern Punjab. In addition, there was cloud-outburst in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Urban flooding in major cities like Karachi has compounded the problem. I would say the 2010 floods were primarily a governance issue whereas the current floods are mostly the impact of climate change.

TNS: In the aftermath of natural disasters and calamities there is always talk of lessons. Have we learned anything over the past two decades?

ATS: Unfortunately, we have not learned much over time. Vulnerability to climate change is always local. We have to find local solutions through local government and local governance institutions. When there are no local governments, things become difficult to manage. We have not strengthened local institutions despite their importance. Secondly, we have not learnt to respect water’s right of way. Building structures in the way of rivers is common. It’s a violation of environment laws. If we look at cities, we find that the drains built to carry storm water have disappeared. It is a pity that encroachments on these channels have affected their functionality.

TNS: To what do you attribute the lack of sufficient action towards breaking this cycle of natural disasters?

ATS: The absence of local governance structures is one of the major reasons why natural disasters are hard to handle and keep recurring. In this situation, one wonders with who lies the ownership: is it the residents or the land mafias and interest groups who have control over shamlaats and riverine nullahs? In view of the current situation, I would say that the government should put local governments in place before the next monsoon.

Furthermore, there is ambiguity and absence of clarity in local environmental laws that need to be removed. For example, it is not clear who can allow exemptions to environmental laws? There is a law that there should be no construction within 120 feet from water bodies but it is widely violated. We will have to learn to respect the laws of the nature and stay away from their passage.

In the current scenario, easy solutions like dams will not work. We will have to revisit the specifications for construction of houses, roads, bridges, dams and other infrastructure.

TNS: How does the common man contribute in mitigating the threat of climate change?

ATS: The negative environmental impact of common man is mostly caused by government actions or inactions. The government allows things to happen and it is on the steering wheel. I will try to explain this with examples. If the state does not provide environment-friendly public transport, the common man will have to rely on vehicles that burn fossil fuels. The choice of using fossil fuel or charging vehicles at charging stations also depends on government steps in this context. Yet another example is the theft of fuelwood by timber mafia and, sometimes, the poor people, who are otherwise law-abiding. When there is no provision of safe energy for cooking or heating, people will have no choice than to go for these options.

In this context, raising awareness is of extreme importance. In coastal areas of Bangladesh, they have raised the levels of schools by a few feet to save the structures from flood waters. They are used as community centres in time of need. It is a fact that flood victims ultimately return to their houses once the floods are over. We see villagers camping on Indus Highway after every major flood. Obviously, they do not wish to go very far from their homes and lands. So why cannot we have designated camping sites near villages?

TNS: We often talk about policy-level initiatives and their sustainability through successive governments. How does Pakistan fare on that front?

ATS: At the policy level there are many flaws. Climate change is not embedded in PC-1s and policy making and budgetary documents. There is hardly any mention of climate change in special support packages announced by successive prime ministers and chief ministers for various cities and regions like Balochistan, southern Punjab and Sindh.

I have read manifestos of political parties and found the mention of municipal services – that are also environmental – missing. Unfortunately, climate change is not mainstreamed and we have no national adaptation plan, or provincial action plans. It is unfortunate that no provincial agenda and climate change policies exist even a decade after the 18th Amendment.

TNS: What are some of the solutions that can help the country at the policy level?

ATS: There is no magic wand and things cannot happen overnight. Most solutions are long term but we can start early to get results early. In the short term, measures like prohibiting reconstruction of anything that falls in the way of floods can be taken. Cash grants for reconstruction should be on build back better (BBB) basis only. District Disaster Management Authorities (DDMAs) need to be notified. Besides, the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) can provide loans for the reconstruction of climate smart houses and solar energy on roof-tops for people who move from flood zones to safer areas. The establishment of strong and effective local governments is perhaps the most important measure that can go a long way in improving the situation.

The interviewer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at shahzada.irfan@gmail.com

“We have to learn to respect the laws of nature”