Climate change is the biggest threat the planet faces today, with the resources of the entire world getting affected. Water, the world’s largest natural resource, faces multiple threats as increasing temperatures lead to the melting of glaciers at a faster pace, causing mass-scale floods, devastating our plains and displacing millions of people. Climate change cannot be denied and it’s bound to impact everyone – regardless of religion, social class or country.
Unfortunately, climate change is also affecting Pakistan as sea levels rise, putting the entire ecosystem at risk. The northern areas of Pakistan, especially, face its harsh impacts; temperatures have risen by more than 1.5 °C – almost double that of other parts of the country (0.76 °C) during the last three decades. Chances of flooding across the country have increased, and Pakistan has witnessed the deadliest impacts of floods over the past few years. The 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 floods exposed our vulnerability as millions of people were displaced, followed by a loss of billions of dollars in damaged infrastructure and property. And yet no concrete climate change adaptation and mitigation measures have been enacted so far.
The Earth consists of 70 percent water with more than 95 percent found in our seas and oceans. Hence any change in sea level and temperature can put the entire planet at risk. Glacial melt cannot be ignored and has threatened low-lying countries and island nations. The recently celebrated World Environment Day (June 5) encompassed the theme ‘Raise your voice, not the sea levels’ highlighting the need to deal with the most significant threat we face today.
The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a major scientific body under the UN, has estimated that the average global sea level has risen 10 to 25 cm (4 to 10 inches) in the past century and is a major threat to low-lying island countries like Fiji, the Maldives and the Marshall Islands which will be flooded if the sea level goes up by only a few feet.
Pakistan is also vulnerable to this phenomenon, as annual sea level rise up to 1.1 mm is witnessed, alarming for coastal communities as they face the risk of being flooded. Studies conducted by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan showed that in some parts of the Indus Delta the coastline has moved inwards by more than a kilometre in the past 50 years. This portrays a gloomy picture of our coastal towns which are threatened by the intruding sea and if adaptation and mitigation measures are not taken, they will soon perish.
WWF-Pakistan is also taking climate change adaptation initiatives in the coastal areas of the country through its project Building Capacity on Climate Change in Coastal Areas of Pakistan (CCAP). Mangrove plantations in coastal areas have yielded benefits for fishermen communities, as impacts of cyclones and floods are reduced and sea intrusion checked. Almost 7,500 hectares (ha) of mangroves were planted along the coastal areas through the Indus for All Programme (IFAP) and another 550 ha have been planted through the CCAP project. This has helped coastal communities build resilience to climate change. Elevated homes are another important initiative of the CCAP project, helping vulnerable communities protect themselves from high tides.
Durre Shahwar Durrani, research officer at WWF-Pakistan warns that climate change is also about water, not only in terms of floods or high sea levels but also in terms of droughts, change in weather patterns and dwindling agricultural produce. Flood water, if not managed properly, poses threats to our coastal areas resulting in a large population affected by a climate change trigger. However, it cannot be fully blamed for everything happening to this planet. We can avert the situation by better management practices and by using our water resources sustainably. Sustainable dams should be built so that environmental damage is minimised to a level that is acceptable to all stakeholders.
Pakistan’s main economic sector, agriculture, depends on water to produce output. Almost 96 percent of available water is used in irrigation and other related activities while the remaining four percent is used for domestic, industrial and other purposes. Hence, water scarcity in Pakistan can be disastrous for the whole economy resulting in droughts and food shortages. In order to cope with the situation, non-revenue water (produced but not utilised) should be reduced by keeping a check on leakages, water-theft, over-abstraction, inaccurate metering and illegal connections.
Unfortunately, due to the unsustainable use of water, per capita availability has decreased from 5,260 m3 in the year 1951 to 1,050 m3 in the year 2010, placing Pakistan in the category of a high water stressed country and is expected to reach water scarcity, which is the availability of less than 1,000 m3/capita in the coming years. Further, Pakistan stands at the 7th position among the top ten water insecure countries of the world, according to the 2010 Water Security Risk Index.
We must realise that if the glaciers keep receding at the current pace, there will come a time when there won’t be any glaciers and ultimately our rivers will run dry – the worst-case scenario. We don’t wish to become a drought prone nation, similar to so many in Africa, where children die every passing minute.
As the popular saying goes ‘God helps those who help themselves’. Climate change is a man-made phenomenon and water-scarcity is also the result of human activities. If we really wish to make freshwater available throughout the country, we should recharge the water table, which is decreasing at a rate of 2ft/year due to aquifer depletion. We also need to replenish groundwater, which has declined to over 40 metres (131.4 ft) today as compared to 5 metre in 1960. Issues like over-abstraction of groundwater and reduction of recharge must be resolved if we want to ensure future water availability.
Issues related to water security are increasing, but they can be reduced if effective regulation and monitoring is carried out. More trees need to be planted so that groundwater capacity and recharge increases. The government should take concrete measures to increase storage of water in the form of dams, barrages and harvesting ponds so that water availability is maintained throughout the year. Domestically, water can be stored by placing open tanks and linking them with small streams so that less water is wasted. Other initiatives such as rainwater harvesting and consequently replenishing groundwater reserves can be successful too.
There’s an urgent need to adopt a concise water policy. The government should re-establish a Ministry of Environment with sub-divisions of climate change, water and renewable energy so that these issues are given due attention. It’s high time we acted responsibly to protect this precious resource. If we don’t act now, Pakistan will face water shortages that can hamper economic development and push us back into the dark ages.
Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on Mountains and Climate linked issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last five years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in the Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>