Planet’s warning

Aug 29 2017

By Huma Yusuf – Dawn, Pakistan

Aug 28 2017 – – QUESTION: what’s the best way to ensure that an issue gets state attention? Answer: make it a matter of national security. So here goes.

The world last week focused on a Russian tanker floating through the Arctic without an icebreaker, the latest sign of the rapid pace of climate change. Unfortunately, Pakistanis have problems to worry about closer to home.

A recent paper in Science Advances argues that by the end of the century — when my grandchildren will be in the prime of their lives — South Asia, particularly parts of southern Pakistan, northern India and Bangladesh, will experience levels of heat and humidity higher than what a human can survive without protection. Ours will not be the hottest part of the world in a few decades but it will be the hardest hit because climate change will affect food supplies in the Indus and Ganges river basins, and because our agrarian societies have a high number of poor workers who must toil the fields without any protection from the sun. We have already had a glimpse into this bleak future. Remember the 2015 heatwave that killed more than 3,500 people in Pakistan and India? Now imagine that to be the norm.

The paper should not come as a surprise. Thanks to its location, Pakistan is vulnerable to flooding and drought, monsoons and heatwaves, glacial melt and rising seawater. The alarm bells have been ringing with growing stridency in recent years. The country is forecast to face water scarcity by 2025 — that’s in eight years, the predictions no longer a distant threat for another generation. Karachi is already the sixth most water-stressed city in the world.

And yet, we remain silent on the impact of climate change. The issue is not raised at dharnas or tackled during prime-time talk shows. There are no fatwas or khutbas on the topic. No one takes to the Grand Trunk Road to make a point about environmental degradation. And so here’s a bid at securitising the issue in the hopes of increasing its relevance for a nation obsessed with national security and particularly amenable to existential crises.

When the climate changes, people are deprived of food and shelter. They lose their sources of income and migrate from the countryside to cities. They become poorer. They must resort to desperate measures.

Ours is a weaponised society that is fragmenting along ethnic, linguistic, tribal, sectarian and class lines. It is populated by bigots and ideologues who will use any opportunity to co-opt vulnerable people and deploy them in a violent way to serve an agenda. Growing resource scarcity in Pakistan will no doubt translate into growing levels of violence between groups that seem always to find new ways to emphasise schisms. Consider the example of Karachi, where ethno-political violence has for decades been driven by the underlying issues of land, water and energy shortages. Imagine the levels of violence witnessed in Karachi replicated in all our major cities. If today we hesitate to use the phrase ‘civil war’ to describe the violence within Pakistan, in a few decades we may have no choice.

It is tragic that the issue of climate change needs to be securitised to demand attention. The trend began with former army chief Ashfaq Kayani arguing that Pakistan’s water shortages were the driver for the country’s India-centric security policies. While there is some merit in having the most powerful person in the country stop to think about resource scarcity, securitising the issue risks dialogue around climate change being limited to concerns about water disputes with India, and a deepening of the current security paradigm, when in fact the problem is much bigger than that and demands a holistic solution. For example, will we have the courage to revisit coal-based CPEC projects?

The government will point to the passage of the Climate Change Act in March and the introduction in 2013 of the National Climate Change Policy. Various incentives for homeowners to instal solar panels have also generated much buzz. But these efforts are limping at best.

We need more, much more. Media awareness campaigns. Funding for climate science research. Capacity building to implement environmental policies at the provincial level, and greater centre-province coordination. Less cynicism from politicians regarding commitments to redress climate change (Nawaz Sharif’s trick of reducing the climate change ministry to a division and slashing its budget on coming to power, only to re-elevate it to the status of a federal ministry ahead of the Paris conference in 2015 is the kind of antic that demonstrates our state’s non-serious approach). Most importantly, we need to generate momentum around climate change without securitising the issue because this is one battle a military can never win.

This story was originally published by Dawn, Pakistan


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