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The South Asia Channel
Pakistan’s Big Threat Isn’t Terrorism—It’s Climate Change
To Pakistan, terrorists seem a more formidable enemy than rising temperatures and sea levels. But what happens when climate change upends Karachi, the country's economic backbone?
For decades, Pakistan has struggled to manage urgent crises, ranging from infrastructure woes to terrorism. While its policies focus on short-term conventional threats, a potentially devastating danger lurks in the shadows: climate change. As the impact of global warming continues to grow, the political and economic instability it brings will threaten Pakistan’s security. The Pakistani government must prioritize its response to climate change in order to mitigate environmental threats and prevent future calamities.
Much like the government, the Pakistani public finds it difficult to prioritize climate change when the average citizen is deprived of life’s most basic necessities. For the population, immediate and clear hazards to their livelihood trump long-term, still largely invisible threats. In 2007-2008, a Gallup poll found that only 34 percent of Pakistanis were aware of climate change, and only 24 percent considered it a serious threat.
However, this perception is changing as global warming starts to impact everyday life. Over the past several years, Pakistanis have witnessed, firsthand, the devastating effects of climate change. Catastrophic floods displaced millions, and severe droughts in Thar and Balochistan portend the damage global warming can cause. The frequency of those floods has increased over the last five years, due to melting glaciers and heavy rainfall. Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous metropolitan city, suffered a heat wave so severe it claimed the lives of almost 1,200 people. These recent disasters could account for the change in public opinion from the 2007-2008 Gallup poll to the situation in 2015, when Pakistan joined the list of 19 countries where the majority of the population now considers climate change a top global threat.
Perhaps the biggest security threat facing Pakistan today is the possibility of climate change and environmental factors destabilizing Karachi, which is regarded as the country’s economic backbone. With a population of approximately 17 million people, the city attracts almost a million migrants every year due to its vast pool of employment opportunities, per a report by Express Tribune. It is also Pakistan’s main port city, and accounts for 42 percent of its total GDP. It generates about half of Pakistan’s tax revenue, and houses its stock exchange, central bank, and the priciest real estate in the country, according to the CEO of real estate portal Zameen.com.
Karachi is also close to the Indus River Delta, where the Indus flows into the Arabian Sea. Due to rising sea levels, the delta is now almost at-level with the Arabian Sea. This threatens the stability of the ecosystem because it leads to land erosion and increases the salinity of creeks flowing from the Indus, creating an inhospitable environment for aquatic creatures and mangrove trees that depend on fresh water. Sea intrusion can cause temporary and permanent flooding to large land areas, negatively impacting local ecosystems and fresh water supplies that villagers rely on for food security and drinking water.
The repercussions of climate change are exacerbated when combined with man-made modifications that have a drastic effect on the overall ecosystem. It not only upsets the balance of the environment, but also increases susceptibility to natural disasters like cyclones and tsunamis. Alarmingly, the area of Pakistan that is covered by mangrove forests has decreased from 400,000 hectares in 1945 to 70,000 hectares today due to land grabbing, rising sea levels, and the decreasing flow of fresh water into the sea. According to the World Wildlife Federation (WWF), the mangrove trees play a critical role in buffering the coastline from erosion caused by waves and storms.
In an interview with me in January, Dr. Asif Inam of the National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) said, “Mangrove trees cannot stop cyclones and tsunamis. Instead, they act as the first line of defense against these natural calamities, minimizing their damage.” Once home to a dense mangrove forest essential to the sustenance of the delta, 205 acres have been razed to make way for several coal-fired power plants. With the mangroves gone, the Karachi coastline is now more prone to natural disasters such as cyclones and tsunamis.
Last year, the United Nations conducted a drill simulating a major earthquake in the Indian Ocean. The exercise was based on a hypothetical 9.0 magnitude quake in the Makran Trench, where the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates meet off the coast of Pakistan, which could trigger a catastrophic tsunami. Tauseef Alam, the chief meteorologist who supervised the tests, warned that the disastrous tsunami waves could reach Karachi in one and a half hours and “wipe out the entire city.” As the sea line creeps closer to the city limits because of land erosion resulting from Mangrove tree deforestation, the danger to Karachi’s population increases.
In 2014, the United Nations released an assessment of what would happen to Karachi if it faced another Tsunami like the one it faced in 1945 that claimed the lives of almost 4,000 people. So far, no tangible evacuation plan exists, despite efforts to implement an early warning system to prepare the city’s residents in case of an emergency.
An additional strain to Karachi’s stability is the Port Qasim Power Project, part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor program, currently in development along the coastline of the Arabian Sea. Though created to alleviate Pakistan’s energy crisis, the project has wreaked havoc on the lives of people in close proximity to it, and damaged one of Pakistan’s most critical ecosystems. Many Pakistanis living along the coastal belt rely on the ecosystem’s stability for their livelihood, to farm and fish. Changes in the ecosystem, caused both by manmade developments and climate change, have displaced as many as 80 percent of the five million Pakistanis who once lived along the banks of the Delta. Climate-induced migration has spread across much of Pakistan, as droughts, floods, and sea intrusion disrupt local communities.
With sea levels rising, there is also an increased chance of trans-boundary migration. According to a report by Dawn, sea level rise is expected to produce 35-40 million climate refugees. These Pakistani refugees will have no place to go: migration to India will not be possible because of the tense political history between the nations, and Bangladesh will not be able to absorb the vast number of refugees as it suffers from its own low-lying coastal belt.
Dr. Inam of the NIO agrees that the danger is imminent unless drastic actions are taken. “Time for Karachi is quickly running out,” he said. “Some parts of Karachi’s Malir have already gone under water. And with the current rate of climate change, the economic hub of Pakistan has 35 to 45 years before it completely submerges into the Arabian Sea.”
Karachi’s stability is critical to Pakistan’s security. As climate change increases the intensity of natural disasters and threatens economic stability, the fate of the metropolis could shape that of the entire country.
Pakistan runs on an agrarian economy. From 1949 to 1950, Pakistan’s agriculture sector was responsible for 53 percent of the total GDP. By 1980 to 1981, this number had dropped to 31 percent; in recent years, it has fallen even further to 21.4 percent. Among other factors, experts blame the drop on increased floods and droughts. The decrease in agricultural contributions to national GDP have stunted the economic growth of the country. According to leading economist Ishrat Husain, the economy grew by 2.9 percent per annum in the last five years, but it could have exceeded a projected rate of 6.5 percent if flooding had not caused economic and human losses.
According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Defense, “climate change will exacerbate global instability, posing an immediate threat to national security.” Among other factors, the report identified strained water supplies due to melting glaciers as a factor that could trigger instability. Pakistan ranks as the sixth-most populous country in the world, and is already unable to meet the growing water demand. The flooding and droughts destroy billions of dollars’ worth of crops every year, increasing the rates of inflation and unemployment. In addition to the water shortage, the long-term damage to fields and crops will lead to food scarcity. If this trend continues, Pakistan will be unable to meet the demands of its population, which is growing by nearly 2 percent each year.
It is imperative that Pakistan makes climate change a priority. Failure to do so would jeopardize the country’s national security. Where water and food shortage catalyzes civil unrest and conflicts, it will also hinder the government’s ability to properly manage its resources.
Currently, Pakistan has allocated 58.8 million rupees to combat climate change, a commitment that must be increased. Since Pakistan is not financially secure enough to afford climate change implementation programs on its own, it needs assistance from foreign entities as well as climate change experts who can design comprehensive programs, bearing in mind the government’s limitations.
The historic Paris Agreement in 2015 provides hope for a global response to the threat of climate change. The agreement made it clear that the responsibility for climate change lies with all nations. The government of Pakistan, much like all the member countries, has an obligation to follow strict guidelines and adopt more intense and frequent reporting of their progress. Only by assessing the vulnerabilities and needs of the state and strengthening its adaptation at the local level can Pakistan fully pursue opportunities offered, especially climate financing opportunities, through the Paris Climate Summit.
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images