The South Asia Channel

Pakistan’s climate change challenge

Last month, an avalanche on the Siachen glacier in Kashmir killed 124 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians. The tragedy has intensified debate about the logic of stationing Pakistani and Indian troops on such inhospitable terrain. And it has also brought attention to Pakistan’s environmental insecurity. Siachen is rife with glacial melt; one study concludes the ...


Last month, an avalanche on the Siachen glacier in Kashmir killed 124 Pakistani soldiers and 11 civilians. The tragedy has intensified debate about the logic of stationing Pakistani and Indian troops on such inhospitable terrain. And it has also brought attention to Pakistan’s environmental insecurity.

Siachen is rife with glacial melt; one study concludes the icy peak has retreated nearly two kilometers in less than 20 years. It has also been described as "the world’s highest waste dump." Much of this waste-generated from soldiers’ food, fuel, and equipment-eventually finds its way to the Indus River Basin, Pakistan’s chief water source.

Siachen, in fact, serves as a microcosm of Pakistan’s environmental troubles. The nation experiences record-breaking temperatures, torrential rains (nearly 60 percent of Pakistan’s annual rainfall comes from monsoons), drought, and glacial melt (Pakistan’s United Nations representative, Hussain Haroon, contends that glacial recession on Pakistani mountains has increased by 23 percent over the past decade). Experts estimate that about a quarter of Pakistan’s land area and half of its population are vulnerable to climate change-related disasters, and several weeks ago Sindh’s environment minister said that millions of people across the province face "acute environmental threats."

The last two years have provided ample proof of Pakistan’s climate-change vulnerability. According to climatologists, the devastating floods of 2010-which submerged a fifth of the country and displaced millions-constituted "the worst natural disaster to date attributable to climate change" (a judgment rendered in 2010). They argued that a combination of high temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean and lower ones in the Pacific "created the perfect conditions" for the deluge.

The floods’ destructiveness was exacerbated by Pakistan’s rampant deforestation.  UN data and Pakistani media reports paint an alarming picture of this emissions-releasing scourge: Pakistan suffers from the highest annual rate of deforestation in Asia (the nation lost 33 percent of its forest cover between 1990 and 2010), with barely 2 percent of the country’s total area remaining forested today.  One of the prime perpetrators is the Pakistani Taliban, which has long recognized the revenue-generating potential of logging. During its rule over Swat in northern Pakistan, the Taliban’s timber sales eliminated up to 15 percent of the picturesque region’s forest cover. Separately, back in the 1990s, wealthy landowners in Sindh ordered laborers to clear forestland for crop cultivation; one small village alone lost 10,000 acres of forest. In both Swat and Sindh, the loss of forestland has facilitated riverbank erosion and deprived the country of a natural bulwark against raging floodwaters.

The next year brought another climate-related disaster: record-setting monsoon rains. Though they produced less destruction and garnered less media attention than the preceding year’s floods, nearly nine million people were affected and more than a million homes damaged or destroyed. September 2011 witnessed the most rain ever recorded in southern Pakistan, with monsoon amounts 1,170 percent above normal. Deforestation once again made matters worse. Torrential rains swept away illegally cut logs, with the timber eventually coming to rest under small bridges, blocking the flow of rainwater and diverting it toward populated areas.

Pakistan’s environmental insecurity is not merely a matter of nasty weather. In three specific ways, it also threatens the country’s fragile stability.

First, climate change vulnerability risks inflaming relations with India. Some Pakistani hardliners accuse their upper riparian neighbor of contributing to the flooding that has ravaged their country in recent years. India, they allege, manipulates Indus Basin river flows so that water gushes downstream into lower riparian Pakistan. "Liberating" India-held Jammu and Kashmir, they argue, is the only way to stop India’s hydro machinations. Given the warming trend in Pakistan-India ties over the last year, such rhetoric-produced by an admittedly small minority-is not presently a major concern. However, with flood-exacerbating glacial melt well underway, and with anti-India sentiment becoming more vociferous thanks to the emergence of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council, or DPC (a new political movement of militant organizations and conservative religious parties), the relationship could in time be put to the test.

This scenario becomes even more likely if Pakistan’s next national election brings to power a more conservative governing coalition that is willing to trumpet the DPC’s aggressive views on water-which accuse India not only of flooding Pakistan with the resource, but also of withholding it. At a DPC rally in February, one of the movement’s most notorious spokespersons, Hafiz Saeed (leader of the extremist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba), thundered that India was preventing water from flowing into Pakistan.

Second, environmental stress could deepen Pakistan’s urban violence.  Karachi is often convulsed by such strife, and much of it arises from fierce competition over precious land. Yet Karachi-a coastal, low-lying metropolis-is vulnerable to flooding, cyclones, and other climate-related phenomena that could easily wipe out vast swaths of the city’s heavily contested real estate. This means the land that remains could become even more precious, thereby raising the stakes for the city’s fighting factions and likely increasing violence. Additionally, many impoverished farmers and fishermen, their livelihoods shattered by water shortages, have migrated to cities. Pakistan’s government is woefully unprepared to meet the soaring demand for basic services and natural resources sparked by this influx of migrants. Such privation, over time, could increase poverty and joblessness, breed anger, and spark more urban unrest.

Third, and perhaps most troubling, Pakistan’s environmental insecurity imperils nuclear security. The fear here is not of militants seizing nuclear weapons, but rather of the nation experiencing the type of disaster that befell Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant last year. The Karachi Nuclear Power Plant (KANUPP) sits not only in a flood- and storm-prone area, but also in one of the most densely populated parts of the country. In fact, a study released by the journal Nature and Columbia University this spring concludes that more than eight million people live within 30 kilometers of KANUPP-the largest such figure for any nuclear facility in the world. Nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy describes the 40-year-old KANUUP as a "chronically incontinent" reactor that frequently leaks heavy water. Given the combination of a dysfunctional plant, a large surrounding population, and Pakistan’s poor emergency-response capabilities, the consequences of a tsunami or cyclone strike on or near KANUUP could be truly catastrophic. Hoodbhoy predicts not only the release of deadly radioactivity, but also clogged roads, a collapse of vital services, and Karachi-Pakistan’s financial capital-taken over by "looters and criminals."

To its credit, Islamabad does not ignore the country’s environmental threats. Back in 2002, the Global Change Impact Study Center was formed to undertake climate change research and to advise policymakers and planners on climate issues. In 2005, the government established a Committee on Climate Change (overseen by the prime minister). And in 2010, a task force set up by the Planning Commission issued a report on climate change impacts in Pakistan, which prompted the Ministry of National Disaster Management to fashion a National Climate Change Policy and Action Plan. This strategy was approved in principle by Pakistan’s cabinet in March.

Pakistanis have also implemented adaptation and resource-conservation measures. For instance, a new Aga Khan University building in Karachi plans to use stormwater harvesting for plant-watering and wastewater re-use for fountains, fire control, and toilets. Meanwhile, to commemorate Earth Day last month, Karachi officials announced a project to plant 5,000 trees.

Pakistan must do much more to address its climate challenges, which are daunting. Still, while the country is powerless to stop glacial melt or fend off tsunamis, it can nonetheless blunt some of their effects. This can be done by passing more stringent laws on deforestation, repairing leaky and dilapidated dams and canals, and establishing more robust disaster risk reduction mechanisms.

A former Pakistani environment minister has projected that climate change effects could cost Pakistan’s economy up to $14 billion per year. Given the inevitability of global warming, Pakistan will undoubtedly be saddled with some of these debts. Yet by taking steps to manage, and reduce, the impacts of climate change, Pakistan can be spared some of these costs-not to mention some of the death and destruction visited on the country by an angry and abused environment.   

Michael Kugelman is the South Asia associate at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He can be reached by email at and on Twitter @michaelkugelman

Michael Kugelman is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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