Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD), Pakistan, is an independent policy think tank that focuses on policy research, public policy engagement, and leadership development in the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. During the last few years, LEAD has been the strongest proponent and exemplar of climate compatible development in the country. We sat down with Mr. Ali Tauqeer Sheikh who is LEAD’s chief executive officer (CEO) to discuss the threats and challenges Pakistan faces on climate change and water management front.
Safety & Security Today: Pakistan’s contribution to global emissions is minimal yet it is among one of the countries’ most vulnerable to this threat, what is the reason behind the country’s vulnerability?
Ali Tauqeer Sheikh: Despite having a relatively small area, Pakistan is more like a continent and has huge diversity in terms of climate and geography. We have a coastline and one of the highest mountain ranges in the world. We have the largest repository of glaciers, deserts and one of the largest contiguous canal system that gives us the biggest plains for agriculture and food security. So, our country has immense diversity but in a squeezed space.
All these things put together mean that we get adversely affected by climate change. So, everything the world faces in terms of climate change, we will face it too and perhaps in our country, the severity of the effects of climate change will be much serious.
As far as your question goes regarding our negligible contribution to greenhouse gases, yes, we do not contribute much to the CO2 emissions, but we cannot sit idly by when we are faced with the threat of climate change. We are not responsible for causing the problem, but we are certainly responsible for protecting our people, our civilization and our economy. So, in our case, our response must be even more serious than the industrial world because they are rich countries, have more resources and are in areas that are not at a direct threat of climate change.
If we think that the ecosystem God has gifted us is worth protecting, then it is our responsibility, and responsibility is a very serious business. If I were the Prime Minister of Pakistan, I would not have a peaceful night. If I were a parliamentarian, I would not have a peaceful night. Because of the sheer number of people at risk. Another important issue here is our growing population. This means that we are adding more and more people who are at risk from climate change.
S&ST: Which areas would you say need immediate attention of the government with regards to climate change?
I think we need to focus the most on education followed by population control — other areas of concern include water management, floods, drought and energy sector.
Education is the most important because unless we have an informed population we cannot protect ourselves and our investments will not give us good returns. Studies have shown that families that have education have better chances of coming out of poverty — similarly, farmers who have an education are more capable of adopting adaptation policies to protect themselves. This makes education a vitally important aspect of the fight against climate change. And when I talk about education it does not mean just schools and colleges. It also includes skill sets and knowledge of education, knowledge of climate change and its vulnerabilities.
I have already touched upon the aspect of the population but let me emphasize by giving you some stats; by 2047 our population will double, i.e. we will be a country of more than 400 million people. Almost 200 million of these would be below the poverty line. No amount of resources will help us if our population hits such a number. With so many people below the poverty line and such an exponential increase in population, our economy will also struggle to sustain itself. We need immediate and robust population management policies to bring down our population growth rate to below 1%. There are two major hurdles when it comes to tackling population growth — firstly the political decision-making elite is morally so weak that they don’t confront this issue upfront. When population control policies can be implemented in other Islamic countries, why can’t we do the same? Secondly, it requires a lot of planning, human resources and financial resources which we currently do not seem ready to invest in. However, we must realize that if we spend on population control, it will inevitably mean that we save money as we will be catering to the needs of a lot fewer people in the coming years.
The third concern is with regards to water. Climate change in South Asia will make the region increasingly wet. This will mean more ferocious and frequent floods. Another concern is that the monsoon pattern will change. It will bring rains at a time different from its usual time and at places which are not its usual destination. Whereas, some of the traditional areas that usually receive rainfall may not receive any. This can put our food security at major risk since our farmers would not know what and when to grow. The crop cycle which is already changing will change even further. The changing weather pattern can also potentially cause urban flooding and currently, we are not prepared for it.
During the summer months this year the Rawal Dam in Islamabad was dry for a very long period. Now we are planning to build more large dams. If we don’t have enough water how will we justify such massive investments in the storage infrastructure? I am not putting this argument to say we should not build dams but merely to highlight the intensity of the problem and the need to think differently. The biggest problem when it comes to water is uncertainty. We won’t know how much water we are getting, for example, if the prediction is that it will rain 20% one can plan for that. However, if the prediction is that it can rain from 1% to 200% you cannot plan for such a scenario, our farmers won’t know what to plant and when to do it.
Another phenomenon that we are already experiencing is that we will be facing floods and droughts at the same time. There will be certain districts that will experience drought-like situations while others will be more prone to floods. In essence, our country will be constantly in a state of uncertainty when it comes to weather. This will pose a huge challenge to our policymakers. Previously it was very easy for our policymakers to make policies but now with so much unpredictability, our policymakers will have a much more challenging situation to deal with.
We also have to take into consideration that climate change won’t affect only us — it will also affect our neighboring countries. Which inadvertently means that it could impact our river flows since all our rivers originate from Afghanistan, China and India (accounting almost 80% of our water). All these countries will be constructing dams upstream (whether we like them or not and whether they are legal or not), which means downstream flow on average will decline.
Among the threats that I have mentioned, I will place energy at the last. Energy is important for domestic users as well as industry on which our economic growth depends. Lack of energy will mean we have dull evenings, but lack of education means that the future of our coming generations will be dark. So, when it comes to prioritizing spending, if I have a hundred rupees, I’ll spend 90 on education, and 10 on energy. Energy also has a very important link with the health of citizens — bad policies in the energy sector are not only a long-term threat to the climate but have already polluted our rivers and the air we breathe in. We need a policy shift in the energy sector and need to shift towards renewable energy — the share of which is currently not more than 2%.
S&ST: What is your take on the debate with regards to the construction of new dams?
I have already touched on the subject and like I said water management is a serious issue. Because of the Indus Waters Treaty with India, seasonal variation aside Pakistan gets around 110 million-acre feet of water. But the downside is that we get almost ninety percent of this water over a period of just three months and for the remaining months we face water scarcity. So, for inter-seasonal water security we need water reservoirs. If we don’t have enough storage capacity for three months we will have plenty of water and a lot less for the remaining months.
S&ST: There is a myth that every year millions of acre-feet of water worth billions of rupees is dumped in the sea, what is your take on this?
We need around 10 million-acre feet of water to flush the delta according to the latest available studies. However, I think we need a new study every year to calculate the water we need to flush the delta with to keep it in good health. And for such an assessment we need a commission that is assigned the task of undertaking the study. Another problem is that water in excess is flushed in months where there is more water flow in the Indus (i.e. summer months) but the delta also needs water during the dry months, which it doesn’t get. The Indus delta mangroves are currently also under threat, so is the delta, and this is an alarming situation because rivers die when the deltas die. So, we need to work urgently to protect the Indus delta, else it will die. So, while constructing dams, an explicit objective should be to provide the delta water it requires in the dry season.
S&ST: What is your take on water pricing?
Water should be priced. It is a natural resource but the moment it touches human hands it becomes a commodity and there is a management cost for its provision, which has to be recovered. For an economy like ours, this cost has to be recovered with a profit. Currently, we are spending a lot of money to provide water for free to domestic users, corporate sector, industry and agriculture, this practice must come to an end.
S&ST: Are we a water scare country and are we really running out of water?
We have excess water in theory, but it will only materialize in practice if we become prudent in the use of water. In the coming years, advancements in science and technology will help us in better managing the water we have. We also need a policy shift in the agriculture sector to ensure that water is managed better. One of the aspects of this management has to be avoiding crops that are water intensive like sugarcane, we cannot waste our ‘A class’ water on ‘C class’ crops.
S&ST: How serious is the issue of depletion of aquifers?
We must find ways of recharging aquifers; many countries are already doing it. Moreover, the use of underground water has to be regulated. The current practice where everyone is free to extract underground water as per his capacity cannot be allowed to go on. Individuals are extracting water using small motors whereas big companies are extracting water using huge bores. This is unjust and it has to stop.
S&ST: You have painted a very realistic but bleak picture in terms of threats and challenges we face on the climate change front. Do we have the capacity to deal with these challenges or are we at least heading in the right direction?
It is unfortunate that in the past many decades most of the rulers of this country were more focused on trying to consolidate their power instead of focusing on long term policies and reforms. This might be an unpopular opinion, but I think Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was the last reformist leader we had. All his reforms might not have been effective but at least he had a reformist agenda. There is some hope that the present government will be reformist but unfortunately, their knowledge of climate change is very weak, but I sincerely hope that they succeed. Since climate change related policies and initiatives are long term we also need to have some sort of charter among political parties (like an economic charter suggested by the previous government). This will ensure that policies and initiatives regarding climate change will be consistent no matter which political party is in power. This charter will also mean that key areas, where we need to focus are identified after consensus and are then pursued to achieve the desired objective. But a simple answer to your question is that we are lacking when it comes to policy making which inadvertently means that our capacity as of now to tackle these issues is not what it should be.
S&ST: There is a view that after the Eighteenth Amendment even issues of water management/conservation and climate change have become provincial subjects and the federal government has little say in it. Will this hamper our progress on these issues or will it make the implementation of policies easier?
Well, as far as federal and provincial governments are concerned they are yet to decide on the way forward in this regard. Even after the Eighteenth Amendment (that granted greater powers to the provinces) the federal government tries to encroach on the powers of provinces. These issues need to be sorted out soon and there should be clarity on who will lead such initiatives and all of it should be done keeping in view what the constitution says on the matter, which says that it is a provincial subject.
S&ST: How do you view the National Water Policy (NWP) and do you think that implementing it will be a major challenge for the current government?
The approval of the National Water Policy (NWP) which was pending for almost fifteen years was a huge credit to the last (Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz) government. And it is to the credit of the present (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government that it has not disowned this policy just because it was approved during the tenure of a rival political party. As far as the policy is concerned, it is very broad and it covers everything. It has around 29 main objectives but the problem with that many objectives is that it doesn’t have any strategic priorities. It is typical of a policy that is supposed to have a consensus of different stakeholders.
As far as the implementation is concerned, I have not seen any progress during the first 100 days of the current government. There has been no systematic and cohesive approach from the provinces to develop their implementation plans. I mention provinces because even though the policy is a national policy, water is a provincial subject. But because Indus basin is spread across the length of the country we did need some sort of guiding document to hold us together. But at the end of the day, the provinces will have to need their water policy. The national water policy has to be interpreted as something that is owned by the provinces since they signed up for it and determine their priorities from within these 29 objectives. The policy is a compass that provides direction.
S&ST: In your view how have we tackled (on the legal front) the issue of Indian hydro-power projects on our rivers?
I am not a technical person to answer this question from the legal aspect as I am a water governance person. But I know one thing that the way we are negotiating on the issue is not the way forward. Negotiating on such a sensitive matter requires competence and competence requires institutions, teams, studies, consultations and flexibility. You cannot just have an all or nothing approach. With the current strategy, we are giving our precious water to India on a platter, because we don’t know how to negotiate. Countries negotiate their interests and not their positions, but we are doing the latter, which is a flawed strategy.
S&ST: Is the global fight against climate change heading in the right direction and will the world be able to tackle the issue in the long run or are we fighting a losing battle?
Two things are happening on the climate front. One is in the formal realm and the other in the informal. In the formal realm, the United States withdrew from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. In the informal, California along with twenty other states and several big corporations say that they’ll meet the target set for the U.S. on their own.
In the formal realm, India’s stance is that due to global emissions the country is suffering a massive cost, but in the informal, it is aggressively working on adding more renewable energy to its energy mix. Formally most countries do not want to enter an agreement to phase out coal plants but informally most countries are doing so. So, practically the world is geared up to face the threat posed by climate change.
S&ST: What is the concept behind New Climate Economy?
By becoming more sensitive to the issue of climate change you can accelerate your economic growth, which is what New Climate Economy basically is. Western economies and even Asian countries like China and India have understood this and are working on it.
Countries that are working on the New Climate Economy are adding as much as 2% to their GDP’s whereas countries like Pakistan who are lagging might be losing out on the same. Pakistan will also need to work towards this and give a boost to its economy.
*The interview was published in the January-March, 2019 Issue of Safety & Security Today.