Climate change is upon us already
While scientists the world over have been warning of the impending impact of climate change, we in Pakistan are experiencing its effects already. The current heat wave affecting many areas of Sindh and Balochistan is taking its toll. Temperatures the mid-40 degrees Centigrade are being reported from Karachi, Chhor, Mithi, Dadu, Mirpurkhas, Rohri, Moenjodaro, Sakrand, Hyderabad, Turbat, etc. Over 60 people have died, although the authorities seem to be in denial that the extraordinary heat has something to do with this loss of life. What is adding to the woes of ordinary people is the extent and duration of load shedding. The government had announced there would be no load shedding in Ramzan during sehr and iftar and had even stopped electricity to industries during these times to ensure this. However, reports speak of even those fasting not being spared during the day or at night amidst sweltering heat. In 2015, lower Sindh was hit by a record-breaking heat wave that killed over 2,000 people, mostly in Karachi. With much fanfare plans were announced to implement measures to avoid such a disaster in future. But this year’s spike in temperatures and the attendant problems of load shedding and water shortages shows that the ‘plan’ was mere lip service and nothing concrete has been done to manage such disasters. All the governments have managed is so-called heat wave centres whose efficacy is still to be determined. Meanwhile meteorological forecasts speak of a continuation of high temperatures for some days, climbing 4-5 degrees Centigrade by the end of May (implying temperatures in the 50s). The urban areas especially, where trees and greenery have been butchered in the name of development turning them into concrete jungles, are being described as heat islands. Tragically, whenever a tree is cut down, instead of planting two to replace it, cities have been denuded of the greenery that helps mitigate the effects of urban pollution, provide shade and help cool the environment. Instead, our ‘developers’ have fallen for some years under the spell of foreign trees and shrubs, some of which are water guzzlers (an increasingly scarce resource) or unsuited to our climate. Meteorological experts are warning that impending heat waves are likely to occur more frequently, even annually, and for longer durations. Short-term disaster management is of course necessary (although so far conspicuous by its absence) but long term ecological, water conservation and climate change impact policies have become inescapable.
Unfortunately, since the country is poised on the cusp of elections, governments have other things on their minds than climate change and its devastating impacts that are growing. For the cities, urban design and construction materials are crucial if climate-sensitive criteria are used. Felling trees and replacing green areas with high-rise concrete buildings can only worsen the urban heat island effect. Efficient public transport too is necessary to lessen pollution and the carbon footprint. Public parks and green belts have to be developed on a war footing. As far as load shedding is concerned, three major power breakdowns this month underline the failure while adding substantial new generation capacity to tackle the parlous state of the electricity distribution network. The much-touted surplus power as a result of the government’s crash drive to add generation is no help if the distribution grid keeps on tripping in major ways. Water scarcity, when combined with high temperatures, may become a serious crisis in future. Water scarcity has to be met through building reservoirs big and small wherever possible, introducing water conservation through canals and water channels’ incremental lining, the introduction of less wasteful methods such as drip irrigation, etc. Forest cover has to be enhanced and lumbering regulated. Unless all these and other measures are taken on an urgent basis, climate change experts are predicting that life will become impossible in the worst hit areas, triggering mass migrations with their attendant problems. Time to wake up to Pakistan’s vulnerability to the climate and ecological disaster looming.