Pakistan’s black swan
At the recently held Lahore Literary Festival, at which it was appalling to see a sole session on climate change, the CEO of World Wildlife Fund (WWF) started his talk by exclaiming that Pakistan is the seventh most vulnerable country to climate change, but added the caveat that most of the blame for this crisis did not fall on her shoulders.
While the unfettered fossil fuel driven growth of most developed countries being the leading cause of climate change is undeniable, it is egregious and dangerously appeasing to ignore the unsustainable, consumption driven model of development Pakistan has been following for decades. Within this neoliberal model, conspicuous consumption and relentless self-interest are promoted as engines of growth, without any regard or costing of the environmental damage being done, and its potential implications.
An ideal embodiment of this phenomenon is Pakistan’s agricultural sector. Despite contributing approximately 20 per cent to the GDP and employing more than 40 per cent of the labour force, a report by the Pakistan Business Council identified Pakistan as having one of the world’s lowest yield per hectare. By excessively using fertilizers and pesticides for higher yields in the short run — Pakistan’s is higher than the global average of fertilizer used per hectare — among many other practices, the historically fertile soils of Pakistan have been reduced to their current, and worsening, state of semi-arid and arid land. Compound this with the increasingly erratic rainfall patterns, and higher frequency of droughts and floods, and we have a tremendous crisis underway.
According to a report by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, Pakistan is already witnessing a trend of poor farmers being forced to migrate to urban areas due to the heightening uncertainty and risks attached to agriculture. Lest we forget, following the Syrian Uprising in 2011, a group of scientists claimed that climate change had contributed to the revolt because severe droughts in preceding years had forced poor farmers to move to already densely populated and poorly served urban peripheries. While the political situation is much different in Pakistan, the evident inability of urban centres to house, employ, and cater to large swathes of migrants will only fuel discontent and lead to unpredictable changes in the social dynamics.
Borrowing Rina Saeed Khan’s book title, these events are occurring from the mountains to the mangroves. Chitral has had thousands of trees cut, most recently with WAPDA cutting down approximately 1,300 walnut trees, many of which were on private property, and a source of great pride and income for the locals. In Thar, CPEC driven excavations and projects are destroying the ecology of the region, forcing the natives to give up their farming practices and migrate to urban areas in search for alternative sources of livelihood. Along the southern coast, the deforestation of mangroves has harmed the fishing community, led to soil erosion, and made the coastal areas, including Karachi, more susceptible to cyclones. All these events are causing communities to move away from their traditional ways of livelihood, forcing them to gravitate towards urban areas.
The situation for urban residents is seemingly dire as well. For example, Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar, and Karachi had less than five days each of good air quality by World Health Organization (WHO) standards, according to the Pakistan Air Quality Initiative (PAQI). At a talk hosted by Hast-o-Neest last month, PAQI founder Abid Omar presented alarming data about air quality in Pakistan, pointing out that even on days when the smog was not visible, PM 2.5 levels were three to four times more than the WHO limit. A woman complained of the terrible bout of asthma that plagued her daughter for months and forced her to stay indoors; another noted the hundreds of young people she saw playing cricket by the roadside as the smog hung over them, perilously unaware of the permanent damage being caused to their health.
Those in power argue that this is merely the cost of growth, the only path towards progress. But in the current paradigm, the real cost of climate change is grossly overlooked. According to a World Bank report, over 150,000 people in Pakistan lost their lives due to air pollution related issues in 2013. The economic cost of air pollution alone was $47billion (5.8 per cent of the GDP), a staggering amount considering that other forms of pollution and climate change losses are not accounted for in this figure. A recently published paper found that climate change was responsible for 2000 suicides annually of farmers over the past 30 years in India. While these headlines figures are easily cast aside, let’s look at some of the micro level impacts.
Research published last year provides evidence that excessive heat, air pollution, and other related factors have adverse effects on maternal and foetal health. Especially in a country like Pakistan, already ranked first in terms of child mortality, where 44 per cent of children under five are stunted, climate change induced prenatal health effects will increase the likelihood of diminished cognitive development, leading to poorer health and educational outcomes — a biological poverty trap. While stark material disparities have ensured that traditionally the underprivileged disproportionately face the burden of these social issues, the threat of climate change cuts across socioeconomic divides and is a potent threat to all segments of society, albeit not equally.
Nassim Taleb, renowned Lebanese-American author, describes a black swan as an unpredictable but catastrophic event that can undo decades of progress. Climate change, although not so unpredictable anymore, is Pakistan’s black swan. It is disheartening that while our textbooks and official narratives revel in the fact that we have tremendous diversity in terms of ecosystems, our economic system has ruthlessly extracted from the environment, permanently damaging it to satiate our greed. The only way to mitigate the damage is to first readily acknowledge our complicity in the process, and recognise our role as citizens and society in fuelling this system. Only then can we muster a genuine green movement that promotes ecologically friendly, inclusive, and sustainable growth. Climate change is not an impending crisis, it is one that has already arrived.
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The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.