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PostSubject: The silent terror   Fri Jun 05, 2009 7:16 am

The silent terror



Friday, June 05, 2009
Ahmad Rafay Alam


World Environment Day was established by the UN General Assembly in 1972 to mark the opening of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. Commemorated every year on this day, it is one of the principal vehicles through which the UN Environment Programme stimulates worldwide awareness of the environment and enhances political attention and action. A good time, then, to take stock of the environmental issues and challenges facing this Islamic Republic and its Ashraful Mukhluqat.

2009 is the National Year of the Environment. The federal ministry of environment has put together an ambitious yearlong calendar of events aimed essentially at raising awareness about the environment. Even though environmental degradation and climate change are challenges our country and its system of administration have never had to cope with, the fact is that altogether too many people still think "the environment" is a euphemism for their immediate surroundings. And perhaps a dolphin somewhere. The environmental problems of our country are far more complex than the solutions offered by, for instance, the arboreal and, therefore, the ministry's efforts are a big step in the right direction.

Pakistan's Initial National Communication on Climate Change was issued by the Ministry of Environment in 2004, and is our first official assessment of the effects climate change will have in our country. Based on an assumed, but expected, increases in temperature and changes in climate, glaciers are expected to melt faster, and less and less snow is expected to form in the mountains where our freshwater comes from. This will change the flow of our rivers and any system which depends on them. Our country's breadbasket will be affected. The increase in temperature will also put heat stress on crops, including "severe stress" on our cash crops: cotton, wheat and sugar. Any affect on crop yields will have the obvious effects on our food supply. It will also wreak havoc in rural society, where families have no other means save the fruit of the soil that they till. The Communication also expects that deforestation, coupled with shifting water resources, will cause landslides. The fragile ecosystems, flora and fauna sustained by what remains of our forest resources are also under threat. Changing water resources and crop patterns are also expected to result in mass migrations as rural populations follow better climactic conditions. Remember, these scenarios come from an official government report. They are not the worst-case scenarios of some hysterical tree-hugger

LEAD Pakistan has done excellent work on climate change. Dr Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, the CEO of LEAD Pakistan, has written, in this paper ("The Climate Change Challenge," Dec 30, 2008, and Jan 3, 2009), the best assessment so far of the challenges climate change will bring to our doorstep. In other research, LEAD Pakistan has highlighted the following seven major climate related threats facing our country: i) water stress; ii) food shortages; iii) energy stress; iv) a rise in epidemic diseases; v) increased disaster risks; vi) ecosystem degradation; and vii) mass migration. The poor and poverty-stricken, a substantial proportion of our population, are disproportionately at risk from these threats as they do not have the means to adapt to or mitigate the effects that will be visited upon them. Nor do they have a government structure capable of dealing with this issue. The effects of climate change should not be thought of challenges of the future. The displacement of people near the coastline in Sindh, flooding elsewhere, for example, are both the effects climate change is visiting upon us now. Last year's monsoon rain was the earliest in recorded history, and God knows what a shift in the rains will spell on crop productivity or the ecosystem. This is exactly why climate change has been referred to as "The Silent Terror."

The federal government Rules of Business and the four provinces' Rules of Business are the legal documents that set out the responsibility of ministries, divisions and departments. It is the document which sets out how our bureaucracy handles things and, embarrassingly, it they were compiled before I was even born. This means that our government is hardwired to handle things the same way it was in the early 1970s, even though they are more things in heaven and earth, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that are thought of in its philosophy.

In "A Ministry of Climate Change?" (July 13, 2008), I had written that the Rules of Business need to be overhauled and our system of government redesigned to meet the challenges of climate change. I had proposed, and still stand by the idea, that a Ministry of Climate Change be created that would integrate our climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies. It would have to connect all policymakers at every level, from international to union council and coordinate hitherto disparate issues, such as our canal irrigation system and agricultural productivity to things like our energy mix, trade policies and our international obligations.

Climate Change is now much more than just personal obligations. Far too often, I am asked what one can do to "stop" climate change; whether turning the lights off before we leave a room or turning the tap off while brushing our teeth will arrest what our race has done to its planet. Conservation habits like these should now be thought of as par for the course, and anyone not practicing them should be socially ostracised.

But more than personal obligations, we need to do things like address our dependence on the fossil fuels. We have to ask how we can adapt our transport infrastructure (the trucks, the trains, the planes and the cars) and make them more environmentally friendly.

We need to ask whether we can afford to continue with automobile-dependant urban development when smaller cities and public transport are viable options. We need to explore economic policies aimed at this goal. We have to ask questions about the efficiency of our energy use. Twenty-four percent of all the electricity generated in Pakistan is lost in transmission and distribution. Can we afford such inefficiency when there's an electricity crisis? We need to ask whether we can continue to rely on energy inefficient building techniques. We need to examine the way we use our water resources. We have to ask whether we can continue with the inefficient system of flood irrigation at a time when there is a water crisis and, moreover, there are almost no cooperative farming or irrigation practices. We need to ask ourselves whether we can continue without adding water reservoirs to our already meagre water resources.

These are big questions and pressing issues that need immediate attention and require citizens like you, dear reader, to raise them at every opportunity.

There's also this notion that Pakistan's contribution to global climate change is minute compared to developed countries and that, therefore, it's unfair to expect us to bear equal responsibility (and cost) for mitigation and adaptation measures. This is true, as Pakistan's per-capita carbon footprint is less than a ton a year, whereas the average US Citizen emits over six tons a year. Also, since the Industrial Revolution, the industrialised "West" has emitted just over half the carbon dioxide of the world (India and China combined account for just 10 percent). It's true that climate change raises equity issues, both international and historical, but this must not distract from the fact that, at this time, environmental degradation is killing Pakistan and Pakistanis.

According to an environment assessment the World Bank conducted of Pakistan in 2005, an estimated 20,000 infants die prematurely each year because of our polluted air. Far more are expected to die as a result of impure drinking water. An estimated 45 million respiratory diseases are reported annually. Earlier this year, Federal Minister for the Environment Hamidullah Jan Afridi disclosed that pollution costs the exchequer an estimated Rs1 billion every single day. These should be arguments enough to put a red alert on the environment and to place it at Top National Priority.
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