For a country like Pakistan, that has been consistently ranked high in several climate change vulnerability indices, the Ministry of Climate Change has immense importance. Prime Minister Imran Khan was perhaps one of the first leading politicians in the country to realize the threat Pakistan faces from climate change. This was the very reason that during the previous tenure of his party in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the government undertook several projects to protect the environment (including the Billion Tree Tsunami project). After assuming power after the July 25 General Elections, Prime Minister Imran Khan picked young parliamentarian Zartaj Gul Wazir to lead the fight against climate change by appointing her as the Minister of State of the all-important Ministry of Climate Change. The Minister was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule and talk to Safety & Security Today on the challenges Pakistan faces on the climate front.
S&ST: Tell us something about your early life, education and political career?
Zartaj Gul Wazir: My father was a government officer and was transferred frequently from one place to another. So, whenever he moved, our family moved with him. This is the reason that I switched almost ten schools during my early education. I studied in Miranshah, Tank, Bannu, Dera Ismail Khan and several other cities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. I completed my undergraduate studies from Lahore’s Queen Mary College and then went to the National College of Arts (NCA) for postgraduate studies. During my days at NCA, I volunteered for Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital along with my other friends. All of us were inspired by the work being done by Prime Minister Imran Khan (Chairman Pakistan Tehreek-eInsaf (PTI) in those days). From there I joined the Insaf Student Federation (ISF) and in 2010 I became the first North Waziristan president of ISF. This was the first women representation at this level from any party which was a great honor for me.
There was no looking back from there on and in 2012 I became a member of PTI’s core committee. I was one of the youngest members of the core committee. I also worked on the rally against drone attacks, the Waziristan march and the youth policy of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. I was runner up in the 2013 elections and five years later in 2018, I was victorious in NA-191 (securing 79,817 votes).
S&ST: Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases blamed for causing global warming, yet its 200 million people are among the world’s most vulnerable. What are the major threats posed to Pakistan by climate change?
Pakistan is not a major contributor to greenhouse gases and emissions, but it is indeed among the countries most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. Another major issue is that until now most of our policies when it comes to climate change and environment-related emergencies have been reactive. There has been no long term policy making with regards to climate change and this has exacerbated our problems.
As far as major threats posed to Pakistan by climate change, I regard floods as the most potent threat. The changing weather pattern due to climate change has already resulted in major floods in Pakistan in recent years and the country remains at risk of such disasters. Moreover, in recent decades we have done little to mitigate the threat of floods, as no small dams or barrages have been constructed. Upgradation and development of the water infrastructure have also been minimal.
In South Punjab, at least nine small dams can be constructed but little has been done in this regard. These dams, if constructed, could prove vital in stopping flash floods in the area. Similarly, in the mountain areas glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) have emerged as a major threat.
The United Nations rated the 2010 floods in Pakistan as the greatest humanitarian crisis in recent history, but little was done in the aftermath of the disaster and despite the passage of almost eight years the previous governments ignored the issue.
As far as emissions are concerned, yes Pakistan’s contribution is minimal, but we are still actively working to further reduce them. Some of the steps being taken right now in this regard include the introduction of high-quality fuels and strict action against factories with high emissions.
S&ST: Although it hasn’t been long since the government was formed, but which areas are you most concerned about when it comes to climate change?
As I mentioned floods are the most imminent and potent threat that we face. I say this because of a number of reasons. Due to changing weather patterns, the monsoon rains have become unpredictable. There are more rains in certain areas whereas areas like South Punjab get very little rainfall. We have done little to upgrade our water infrastructure and no large dams have been constructed. Even construction of smaller dams has largely been ignored. Moreover, our population is growing at a rapid pace which means we are putting more and more people at risk of natural calamities.
Floods also directly affect agriculture and standing crops are destroyed, adding to food insecurity. The cotton growing districts of Punjab and South Punjab, in particular, have been badly hit by climate change. People have been forced to shift to other crops which has severely damaged the local economy of the region. So, the area of concern ranges from damage by floods to food insecurity and economic hardships.
S&ST: Considering the monumental challenges that Pakistan faces with regards to environmental degradation and climate change, do you think, we as a country and your ministry in particular, has the capacity to deal with all the issues?
I will be very honest here. I think currently we cannot deal with the issue. Moreover, after the Eighteenth Amendment, the role of Ministry of Climate Change has been reduced to that of a focal ministry. We can only help in terms of facilitating the efforts of provinces and policies. As far as policies are concerned we have extensive policy guidelines but the major hurdle is the implementation. However, I must mention here that we are doing our utmost to ensure better coordination with the provinces and so far, we have been successful in this regard. The provinces have realized that when disasters hit they don’t stop at provincial boundaries or they don’t hit people with certain political affiliations. Disasters affect everyone and we must have a unified response to mitigate the threats posed to us by climate change.
S&ST: Implementation of laws has always been a sensitive issue in our country. What the government intends to do to ensure that laws are implemented? For instance, a ban on use of non-degradable plastic bags exists across most of the country, however the use of plastics bags is on the rise. How will the government tackle such issues?
Like I already mentioned, the implementation of laws is indeed a major issue. But as far as the issue of plastic bags goes, our ministry is working on it. Whether the issue is in terms of law or implementation, we will look into it and see how we can proceed on the issue. We will provide a comprehensive plan to phase out plastic bags and provide alternatives. We cannot immediately ban the use of plastic bags without providing an alternative as this will seriously hurt thousands of people associated with this industry.
S&ST: During its previous tenure in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government successfully launched and completed the Billion Tree Tsunami project. Prime Minister Imran Khan recently also launched a countrywide drive to plant 10 billion trees across the country in five years. Both these projects are laudable, and the former is already bearing fruit. However, when it comes to urban centers there is a major lack of forest cover. Do you have any strategy to address this issue?
I recently highlighted this issue during internal discussion in our ministry and it is a very valid point. Karachi, Faisalabad, Dera Ghazi Khan and several other cities seriously lack tree cover. In summer months it becomes impossible to even walk since there is no tree cover. Temperature in most of these cities is also towards the higher side.
We need to carry out urban plantation drives to increase tree cover in our cities. Apart from increasing forest cover in urban centers, I would also like to warn those involved in the business of tree cutting (timber mafia) that there will be absolutely no compromise on this. Strict action will be taken against all mafias (be it construction mafia or tree mafia) who are damaging the environment and violating laws.
S&ST: Forest cover has exponentially decreased in recent years in Islamabad. Moreover development work is rarely carried out keeping in mind the environment. This needs a complete policy shift and strong resolve of the government. What is your ministry’s agenda in this regard?
I have talked to the Capital Development Authority (CDA) regarding this very issue. I also pointed out how unplanned construction has been carried out in some of our national parks. Even large hotel complexes have been built without keeping in view the environment and wildlife.
We are working on this issue and will not spare anyone who has carried out development in violation of environmental regulations.
S&ST: In recent years the issue of Smog has plagued much of upper Punjab and even areas of Khyber Pakhtunkwa. In previous years our preparedness to tackle this issue was badly exposed. Is the issue on present government’s agenda?
Smog is definitely a serious issue and we are working to ensure that the sale of only Euro-IV compliant fuel is allowed which will help in reducing vehicular emissions. We are also taking several other remedial measures. As far as the issue of India’s contribution towards air pollution in Pakistan is concerned, we will also work on possible ways to minimize it. Indian capital New Delhi is one of the world’s most polluted cities. The pollution on the Indian side of the border has a serious impact on our environment and air pollution level. During our bilateral talks, the issues on the agenda include the foreign policy and Kashmir but now we also need to put the issue of climate change and environmental concerns on the agenda. I have also talked to the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister in this regard.
Another important factor to consider here is the unplanned and exponential growth of urban centers like Lahore. When cities expand at such a rate, problems like air pollution are bound to aggravate. The major reason for the influx of population towards urban centers like Lahore is that previous governments have only focused on the development of infrastructure in major cities. When the development is carried out only in certain cities, it is only natural that there will be an influx of population to these cities. What we need to do is carry out uniform development so the trend of migration to urban centers can be halted. One more factor which I will like to highlight here is our attitudes in general when it comes to the environment. Most of us are simply not aware of the importance of protecting our environment. People are surprised if they are fined on environment-related violations like high emissions from vehicles. Media also has a vital role when it comes to increasing awareness regarding environmental issues. By increasing environmental literacy and awareness we can tackle the issue more effectively.
Prime Minister Imran Khan’s vision for planting billions of trees in all parts of the country will also help address the issue of air pollution and climate change.
S&ST: What is your take on air pollution caused by brick kilns?
Pollution caused by brick kilns is a very serious issue and we have also acted against many brick kilns. These kilns not only burn fuels but also burn scrap that includes wasted tires which are detrimental to air quality. Our ministry will work on regulations that will ban the dumping of waste materials like used tires, electronic waste and other discarded items that have a serious impact on the environment. We simply cannot allow Pakistan to become the dumping ground of the entire world and for that, we need a national policy.
S&ST: The issue of coal power plants and their high emissions has also been a topic of debate. What is your view on such plants and what does the government intend to do about the plants that have already been set up by the previous government?
This is cruelty done to the people of Pakistan. Coal plants were set up by the previous government in agricultural lands. The world is moving towards clean energy and on the other hand, we set up coal and other thermal plants that are harmful to the environment. The only way forward is a shift toward renewable energy. The decision to set up coal plants was purely a political one since the previous government wanted a short-term fix to the energy crisis, but such short-term fixes in the energy sector will put us at risk of the climate crisis. Since the previous government wanted a short-term fix to the energy crisis, but such short-term fixes in the energy sector will put us at risk of the climate crisis.
S&ST: Water scarcity is a potential threat that Pakistan is facing. The debate so far has been focused on construction of new dams. How important is the up gradation of our existing canal system and water conservation?
Concerning the issues related to water, there are several things I would like to highlight. The Diamer-Bhasha and Mohmand Dams will be constructed and will help in increasing our water storage capacity. Besides, we also need to work on small dam projects to increase our storage.
Another issue that I want to highlight is the illegal construction of hydroelectric projects by India on our Western Rivers. India has violated the Indus Waters Treaty by building reservoirs on our rivers. It is something that must be addressed at the earliest.
S&ST: There has also been a lot of debate regarding plantation of non-native trees that are unsuitable to our environment, what is your take on this?
Plantation of non-native plants and trees is a serious issue and I have strictly instructed the relevant departments not to plant any more Conocarpus. We need to plant trees that do not have any harmful effect on our environment.
*The interview was published in the January-March, 2019 Issue of Safety & Security Today.