One of my friends in Islamabad asked why, when he can afford to drive to work, would he use a bus or a wagon, or ride a bicycle in summer in Islamabad. He is absolutely right. Why would we make our lives difficult if we can afford to drive and there are plenty of roads and parking spaces available for use, at least in the case of Islamabad?
This view, however, overlooks an important aspect of car use, which is that it not only serves our mobility needs, but also shapes our environment. The 2010 floods in Pakistan demonstrates that each action we take while living in, say, Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi has a global impact on the natural environment. Therefore, it is no longer true, as the saying goes, that “the more things change, the more they remain the same”. In the next 100 years, nothing is going to remain the same. Fundamental change in our natural environment, which is the very foundation of our economies and societies, is already forcing itself upon us and its devastating impact will increase, first in the developing countries and later in the developed world.
Climate change is now inevitable. The poor, living in developing countries, will be the first to pay, and will, unfortunately, pay the most. Climate change scientists and researchers were expecting the Indus to swell with the unprecedented monsoon rain and the melting of glaciers. However, they were unsure of how much additional water there would be. Now, the monsoon rains in the northern parts of Pakistan are described as being the heaviest in the last 80 years. Similarly, scientists and researchers agree that once the ice in the Himalayas has gone, the Indus will dry up. Therefore, Professor Nicholas Low of the University of Melbourne, in a recent publication, argues that unless global warming is contained below two degrees, Pakistan’s future will be limited to not much more than 200 years.
Of course, people living in the flood affected areas in Pakistan are not to blame for climate change. Their impact per person is many times smaller than that of the developed world. They have not been producing greenhouse gas emissions from their cars, whilst their friends living in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and in the developed countries adopted a path to development that relied heavily on the use of fossil fuels. That path leads to flood and later famine for Pakistan and other developing countries in the future. Pakistan’s 2010 flood sounds a call for the truth to be acknowledged that climate change is happening and that the entire world, especially developing countries, is ill-equipped to handle the resulting problems.
There is no doubt that Pakistan has governance problems like other developing countries. However, there is hope, notwithstanding the nine million acres of damaged crops, the loss of a couple of million houses and livestock, the displacement of 16 million people and the 2,000 people who died in this flood. Did the government or the arrival of US helicopters save the bulk of lives? The answer is no. People used their indigenous knowledge and skills, by using their karahies and pateela and charpais, to make boats to save their lives and those of their kids. What message does this give to the government, aid agencies and NGOs? That they must acknowledge that Pakistan needs help in developing the capacity to address climate change problems.
The causes of the flood put the responsibility on the middle-to-rich class of people who live in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to pay flood tax and, at the same time, spread hope and develop the capacity of local government and community institutions in Pakistan to promote indigenous solutions to fight climate change.
In Islamabad, attempts should be made to bring the climate change agenda to the forefront of our policies. Policies and actions that increase carbon dioxide emission, such as excessive use of cars and building more roads in urban areas, should be revisited.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 29th, 2011.