Resolving Pakistan’s climate extremes requires systemic action

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By Mohsin Hafeez, Abdul Wajid Rana and Claudia Ringler

It will come as no surprise to much of Pakistan’s population that their country ranks among the lowest for disaster risk management for water security in Asia, according to the Asian Water Development Outlook (AWDO). Following the extreme heat wave of May – the city of Jacobabad hit 51°C on May 14 – Pakistanis experienced the most extreme flooding of their lifetimes. These were two systemic, interlinked extreme events, with the hotter air earlier in the year holding more moisture and melting glaciers foreshadowing the floods.

Government agencies were ill prepared. And, as always, the poorest populations suffered the most: the provinces of Balochistan and Sindh were hit badly, and poorer and rural populations lost not only their homes but also their income and livelihoods. If in May crops and livestock were burning in the heat, by August they were flooded. The livelihoods of over 33 million people are devastated by the floods and more than 1,400 people have died.

Both climate extremes have worsened the already high levels of water and food insecurity: 72 million people in the country are either moderately or severely food insecure and 4 out of 5 Pakistanis cannot afford a healthy diet. Both water and food insecurity are exacerbated by a lack of reliable clean energy access: fewer than two thirds of the rural population are connected to the grid and outages of 18 hours a day are the norm. And while Pakistan’s Vision 2025 explicitly calls for the design of water, food and energy security policies that address climate change while protecting natural resources, frameworks and policies for implementation on the ground remain lacking.

To address this and future extreme events linked to climate change, systemic water–energy–food–environment plans and programs are urgently needed. These include:

  1. Providing immediate relief for the most vulnerable. Relief efforts should focus on reopening schools, or in the interim, establishing transition schools and health facilities in tentage areas, and on providing food relief through schools and social assistance through women’s self-help groups. Moreover, farmers need timely access to seed, fertilizer and other inputs through concessional loans from the government to restart food production as soon as floods recede. The country will need food aid to address growing undernutrition and other aid to tackle health problems associated with lack of drinking water.
  2. Reducing the long-term adverse effects of the crisis through sustained relief. A CGIAR study of the uneven relief effort following the 2010 Pakistan floods shows that communities that received Citizens Damage Compensation (Watan Card) Program flood relief – which provided cash equivalent to 9.4% of annual household expenditures in each of the three years following the disaster – were able to restore their livelihoods, replace damaged assets, and coped better in managing mental stress as a result of the disaster.
  3. Implementing integrated forecasting systems and associated disaster action that bring together the Federal Flood Commission; the National Disaster Management Authority and the Provincial Disaster Management Authority; the authorities responsible for food, water and energy; and the National Disaster Risk Management Fund. The focus should be on reducing impacts for the poorest populations. Pakistan also needs to improve its capacity for rapid damage assessment following extreme weather events using the latest developments in satellite imagery, drones and machine learning.
  4. Reviewing rural infrastructure for better heat stress, drought and flood management. Flood drainage investment along the left and right bank of the Indus River in Sindh Province and a review of all rural infrastructure are urgently needed; climate proofing needs to jointly consider water, food and energy security and environmental sustainability.
  5. Better understanding and developing the country’s many water storage options, considering complementary storages including aquifer systems, soils and trees, wetlands, and gray infrastructure that can support water, energy and food security and environmental sustainability. A storage diagnostic is currently being undertaken by the CGIAR NEXUS Gains Initiative.
  6. In the medium term, reviewing and revising national food production strategies to improve the country’s climate resilience. With both droughts and floods on the rise in Pakistan, the use of scarce water resources (despite the flooding) for the production of extremely water-intensive crops like cotton, rice and sugarcane for export should be reassessed. While these three crops are important foreign exchange earners, growing shares of these areas should instead be dedicated to vegetables, fruit trees, and other high value but water-thrifty and leguminous crops that are essential to improve national diets, reduce over-exploitation of water resources and improve rural livelihoods.

Systemic cross-sectoral thinking across water, energy, food and environmental systems is central to the climate-resilient development of Pakistan as the complex interlinkages, if not considered, are bound to worsen impacts for the poor. This is not the last summer of climate extremes in Pakistan, but there are clear opportunities to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change on the poorest rural women and men. These should be seized now.

Mohsin Hafeez is Country Representative – Pakistan, Regional Representative – Central Asia, International Water Management Institute (IWMI); Abdul Wajid Rana is the Program Lead for Islamabad, Pakistan at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFRPI); and Claudia Ringler is Deputy Director of Environment and Production Technology Division, IFRPI, and NEXUS Gains Co-Lead.


Header image: Flooding in Jacobabad district, Sindh, Pakistan. Photo by Mr. Usman Ghani.

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