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Pakistan Is Losing Its Fight Against The Climate. Here’s Why

Prone to hazardous smog and devastating floods, Pakistan has been declared the fifth most affected country by the climate crisis. While little is being done by the government to address the problem, youth activism provides a glimmer of optimism.

Nov 1, 2020

In July, Pakistan was internationally acclaimed by the United Nations Development Program for achieving its Sustainable Development Goal 13 on Climate Change. However, a closer examination reveals that the country remains vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis.
In August, the Southern province of Sindh was devastated by flooding caused by torrential rainfall which destroyed over 77,000 homes and over one million acres of crop. Rising temperatures in the Northern province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have made an estimated 33 glacial lakes prone to outburst flooding. Lahore, the country’s second largest city, has consistently ranked as one of the world’s most polluted cities, with unprecedented smog seasons. The rate of climate induced migration due to regular heat waves, out of season monsoon flooding and damage induced by sea erosion is also alarmingly high. In totality, Pakistan was declared as the fifth-most affected country by the climate crisis in January 2020.
The scale of the crisis is enormous and while the threat is indiscriminately existential, it affects certain communities in disproportionate ways. The average monthly air quality index stays above ‘unhealthy’ for most of the year, with a whopping rise to ‘hazardous’ in the smog season. However, within Lahore, the areas most affected by smog are mainly working class neighbourhoods which are built near deregulated manufacturing industries and other poorly planned urban structures such as flyovers.
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Air Pollution
So who stands to lose from this clean air crisis? Low income laborers, construction workers and farmworkers, who are exposed to hazardous air throughout the day due to the nature of their work, are among the most vulnerable. Nearly 22 percent of the annual deaths in the country in 2015 were caused by pollution, a majority due to air pollution in particular. Amnesty International has even suggested declaring this crisis a human rights violation due to the gross government inaction in both mitigating the climate crisis and providing access to affordable healthcare. The government of Pakistan has sought to imply a connection between smog in Lahore and crop burning in India.
All of this deflects blame from the real actors in the crisis: the industrial and the transportation sector, which contribute more than 60 percent of all air pollution emissions. However, industries continue to operate without employing the use of pollution filters, and the government has fallen short of its promise to implement its industrial climate action plan or impose effective restrictions on the adulteration of fuel and lubricating oil under resistance from oil refineries.
Flooding and Migration
Along with an increasingly high risk crisis of unclean air, there has been an alarming rise in climate breakdown-induced migrations in the country. This has manifested in the displacement of over 2.4 million people in Sindh after the catastrophic floods of Aug. 2020, with people in the most flood-affected areas such as Badin losing their homes, livestock and in some cases their family members.
In Karachi, urban flooding turned streets into streams of water in some of the most apocalyptic scenes ever witnessed by the city. This devastation was especially concentrated in many low income slum areas which are already vulnerable to excessive rainfall and built around drainage channels. For these neighborhoods, the floods did not just bring a temporary minor convenience but long lasting effects on their livelihoods and sustained damage to their homes. The disaster was exacerbated by structural disparities including poor city planning and sewage systems, administrative negligence and a lack of disaster management.
Sea Level Rise and Forced Migration
Rising sea levels have exponentially increased erosion in the Indus River, with local inhabitants of the islands in the Indus Delta region experiencing a loss in indigenous land and fishing livelihood, food insecurity and limited access to clean drinking water.
Many of these people were already experiencing generational economic damage due to insufficient resettlement and compensation schemes after their families’ displacements for the construction of dams such as the Mangla Dam, the seventh largest dam in the world. Many were forced to relocate to other islands, which were also just as vulnerable to rising sea levels. An example of the state’s negligent and land grabbing attitude towards these indigenous communities manifested recently in the Pakistan Islands Development Authority (PIDA) Ordinance 2020 which threatens indigenous environmental degradation in the Sindhi islands of Bundal and Buddo.
The Youth Responds: Climate Activism
The climate crisis in Pakistan is a deeply systemic crisis which stems from historical negligence of frontline communities which have been historically marginalized. However, all hope is not lost. There has been an optimistic rise in climate activism among the Pakistani population, especially young people who are organising to voice concerns over the government’s inaction. Initiatives such as Fridays For Future Pakistan have brought international recognition to environmental injustice in Pakistan, allowing it to become a part of the global movement against the climate crisis. Coalitions of students, teachers, farmers, researchers, activists and workers have mobilised into organizations such as Climate Action Now! Pakistan and Haqooq e Khalq Movement which are advocating for the prioritization of frontline communities in national and local climate policy through grassroot organisation.
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Many independent organizations such as Pedaver have been turning towards the adoption of regenerative agriculture to reduce the impact of the monsoon floods on farmland.
“The government continues to subsidise the fertilizer industry which has disturbed the natural soil,” claimed Asif Sharif, the founder of Pedaver. “The multinational corporations and the government have political interests in creating a market for chemical fertilizers instead of empowering the natural biology of the soil.”
He advocates for the government to subsidise sustainable agricultural practices that do not result in the depletion of natural resources, instead of corporations that have no interest in improving the living standards of working people.
It is clear to climate activists and researchers fighting for environmental justice in Pakistan that these disasters are not a consequence of the system but a reflection of how the system was designed to function in the first place. Thus, the only way Pakistan will be able to defeat its greatest adversary is if the government embraces a solution that matches the scale of the problem.
Ibad Hassan is a contributing writer. Email him at
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