Climate-instigated instability & threats

Published: July 4, 2015
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The writer is author of the book Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

The writer is author of the book Development, Poverty and Power in Pakistan, available from Routledge

As the death toll from the severe heatwave in Sindh kept mounting during the past week, so did political tensions and blame-shifting, including the opposition seizing the opportunity to criticise the government for its ineptness, and the government in turn claiming that it is entities like K-Electric which are at fault for failing to supply electricity, in turn exacerbating the problem. The minister for climate change has even pointed a finger at coal-powered plants in Rajasthan, for contributing to the deadly heatwave, which is ironic since our government has ambitious plans to generate power from coal to overcome the current electricity crisis. As this current heatwave is also being linked to global climate change, it may not be a standalone event, and instead become a more troubling recurrent phenomenon.

Countries like ours could face increasing political instability and security risks as a result of mounting climate change pressures, which have thus been dubbed “the ultimate threat multiplier” in a report commissioned by the Group of Seven (G7) major industrialised countries. Besides urging G7 governments to consider climate change and its associated fragility risks as a primary foreign policy agenda, this report points out how failure to prevent and manage disasters has already begun to exacerbate conflict and tensions across the developing world. The climate threat has been highlighted in the social upheaval surrounding Egypt’s revolution in 2011 to the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria. In Asia, Thailand’s severe 2011 floods, which affected two million people, further instigated ongoing anti-government protests.

Looking ahead, states already afflicted by conflict and poverty, such as Somalia, Afghanistan and Niger, and the increasingly water-short Indus River basin in India and Pakistan, are identified as facing some of the biggest risks of instability. In the last five years, Pakistan has become one of the top 10 countries most impacted by climate change. Global warming has also triggered a Himalayan glacial melt, which will have severe consequences for our nation, given that the Indus River depends on glacial waters for almost half its flow. The ongoing glacial melt is feared to cause more frequent and intense flooding in the short-term, followed by decreasing water flows in the future, threatening agricultural production and national food security.

The above report also warns that the changing environmental conditions could disrupt the viability of the existing Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan. Indo-Pakistani water interdependence requires collaborative research concerning the predicted effects of climate change, or else growing water stress will increase the threat of unilateral action based on divisive politics, which continue to plague relations between the two countries.

Weather related problems have also begun to cause socio-political tensions domestically. The major floods which have been wreaking havoc across rural Pakistan in recent years, for example, and the lacklustre government and donor response to these calamities, has increased political marginalisation and disaffection among affected groups, especially small and landless farmers.

Yet, our government continues to emphasise disaster response over disaster preparedness.  National climate-related policies and strategies are not implemented at the local level due to confusion over federal and provincial jurisdictions, and lack of departmental coordination. Incoming donor resources continue to be captured by local elites, often bypassing those most in need.

There is need for much greater effort, both nationally and internationally, to coordinate climate change adaptation, and to reduce climate-related security risks. These efforts must include better disaster risk assessments and mitigation, improving national food security and water conservation capabilities, and finding better ways to defuse water disputes, both within and across borders. The challenge of coping better with climate stresses requires herculean efforts, but until the time efforts are made, the pressures driving world instability will only continue to be compounded over the coming years.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 4th,  2015.

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