Climate change is a bigger threat to Pakistan than terrorism

People make their way through a flooded street after a heavy rain shower in Karachi, Pakistan, on July 11. (Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images)
People make their way through a flooded street after a heavy rain shower in Karachi, Pakistan, on July 11. (Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images)

I never took climate change seriously until last year, when a mother and her child drowned in flooding just a few streets away from my home in Islamabad. This year the flooding is even worse. At least 150 people, including women and children, have died from heavy monsoon rains across Pakistan in 2022. Sherry Rehman, climate change minister, says that recent rainfall has been 87 percent heavier than in previous years.

Pakistan and India have fought each other several times over the decades, but this summer they are facing a common foe that has killed many people and displaced millions of others: climate change. Now the two countries’ armies are struggling to carry out rescue operations in flood-affected areas. Fighting the effects of global warming, it turns out, is far harder than waging war on human enemies.

Temperatures are rising across the globe, but South Asia is proving particularly vulnerable. The region has been enduring heat waves, cyclones, droughts and flooding.

In 2015, experts informed the Pakistani Parliament that three cities — Karachi, Badin and Thatta — might succumb to rising sea levels by 2060. Nobody showed much concern at the time. But now parts of Badin and Thatta are already under water, and Karachi will probably follow sooner than predicted. The city, which just experienced its hottest April in 61 years, is already sinking. India’s Mumbai and Bangladesh’s Chittagong are among the other cities in the region that are under threat as seas continue to rise. One South Asian country — the island nation of Maldives — could disappear entirely by the end of the century.

Small wonder that Rehman recently declared climate change to be a matter of national security. Viewed objectively, global warming is a far bigger threat to Pakistan than terrorism.

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. But few Pakistanis have ever worried much about the environment. The United States has its climate change deniers; here, in contrast, few people have ever given much thought to global warming at all.

The era of complacency might be nearing its end. A German think tank recently ranked Pakistan No. 5 on its recent list of countries most vulnerable to climate change. Yale University’s environmental performance index is even more alarming: It lists Pakistan at 176 (followed by Bangladesh at 177 and India at 180, the very bottom). Lahore, here in Pakistan, and India’s Delhi are among the most polluted cities in the world. A United Nations report estimates Pakistan’s annual economic loss to climate change at $26 billion under the worst-case scenario, and says that this environmental instability could rob the country of up to 9.1 percent of its gross domestic product in the future.

Extreme climate events have become a regular phenomenon in South Asia. We are facing weather-related problems in almost all parts of Pakistan. Flooding has become almost routine in some areas; others are plagued by drought. Glaciers are melting fast, resulting in reduced water flow in rivers. Farming is suffering as a result, and the decline in agricultural productivity is creating food insecurity. All this is accelerating migration from rural areas to cities.

Deforestation is a particular problem. Pakistan has the second-highest rate of deforestation in Asia. When Pakistan was created in 1947, 33 percent of its total area was covered by forests; now that area is only 5 percent. I know from personal experience that Islamabad has lost many of its green spaces to housing developments in the past two decades. Forested areas in Islamabad declined from 19.3 percent in 1979 to 10.3 percent in 2019. One of the most beautiful capitals in the world is losing its forest cover very quickly due to urbanization and population growth.

Deforestation contributes to rising heat. We need to reduce the high temperatures melting our glaciers. Pakistan has more glaciers than almost any country on Earth. Urgent action is required to protect these glaciers. Mountaineers once viewed northern Pakistan as a paradise, but now this area, too, is facing the threat of flooding.

It is unfortunate that Pakistan and India are locked in a conflict on the Siachen glacier, the highest battleground on Earth. By deploying their armies on the roof of the world, they are contributing to the meltdown of the glacier. They immediately need to demilitarize Siachen in order to save its enormous expanse of ice.

Doing so wouldn’t only be a major victory for the environment. It would also send a powerful signal that tackling climate change is an existential issue faced by the entire region.

Hamid Mir is a contributing columnist for the Global Opinions section focused on Pakistani politics and geopolitical issues in the region.

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