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Is Pakistan paying attention to environment crises?

S Khan Islamabad
May 31, 2022

Pakistan is facing an acute water shortage and climate change is damaging crops. The public health system, meanwhile, is in a disarray. To deal with these challenges, the country's authorities need long-term planning.

View of a dried part of Indus River in Pakistan
Pakistan is slowly running dry, and heat waves are rapidly intensifyingImage: PPI/Zuma/picture alliance

Pakistan is facing an acute water shortage, with experts saying the country could run out of water by 2040 if authorities don't take long-term measures to deal with the problem.

The recent heat wave has damaged crops and caused food shortages, and comes at a time when the Islamic nation has yet to fully recover from the COVID pandemic and its devastating toll on the public health sector and economy.

Experts say that degradation of natural resources, soil erosion, deforestation, unbridled and unplanned urbanization, and contamination of ground water are some of the many serious issues that need immediate attention from the government.

Tariq Banuri, a leading environmental expert, believes that the most crucial challenges for Pakistan include the impacts of climate change — floods, heat waves, drought, crop losses and diseases — whose frequency has increased rapidly over the past couple of decades.

"Air pollution has also emerged as a big problem in large parts of the country, affecting health as well as transport and mobility, while water pollution is killing thousands of people every year. Around 80% of Pakistan's population do not have access to clean drinking water," he told DW.

Pakistan struggles amid heat wave

Water crisis

Researchers predict that Pakistan is on its way to becoming the most water-stressed country in the region by the year 2040.

According to a 2018 report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Pakistan ranked third in the world among countries facing acute water shortage. Reports by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the Pakistan Council of Research in Water Resources (PCRWR) also warn the authorities that the South Asian country will reach absolute water scarcity by 2025.

In 2016, PCRWR reported that Pakistan touched the "water stress line" in 1990 and crossed the "water scarcity line" in 2005. If this situation persists, Pakistan is likely to face an acute water shortage or a drought-like situation in the near future, according to PCRWR, which is affiliated with the nation's Ministry of Science and Technology.

Pakistan has the world's fourth-highest rate of water use. Its water intensity rate — the amount of water, in cubic meters, used per unit of GDP — is the world's highest.

Environmental degradation

Environment specialist Rahat Jabeen writes in a World Bank blog that every year Pakistan loses almost 27,000 hectares of natural forest area, explaining that almost three-quarters of the country's population use forest resources for a lack of alternative energy resources.

Pakistan is among the top ten countries in the world that are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, according to Mome Saleem, an environmental activist.

"The agriculture land is being used for housing projects, which has resulted in the loss of trees and extreme heat waves. No attention is being paid to depleting water, which is already scarce," she added.

"Pakistan must have at least 25% of the forest cover, but we are also not doing well on this front. The government is not preventing the cutting down of trees, which is happening on a massive scale. A dilapidated public transport system and low-quality fuel cause a significant rise in carbon, but unfortunately the government is not taking measures to mitigate the hazard," she added.

Economic toll

All this is taking a huge toll on the economy. According to a report by Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission, the annual monetary cost of environmental degradation alone is equivalent to around 4.3% of GDP.

Hasan Abbas, an Islamabad-based expert, criticizes the authorities for not paying proper attention to environmental problems.

Saleem says that despite the fact that Pakistan ranks 142th on the environment performance indicator, the government has not taken concrete actions to deal with the challenges.

Saleem believes the reason behind the country's negligence towards such existential crises is its fixation on economic growth.

Abbas is of the opinion that Pakistan needs a green economic model. "Scrap all big hydro-power and coal-power projects. We need to switch to wind and solar power, which are viable for countries like Pakistan," he suggested.

Kishwar Zehra, a government official, said it is easier said than done. "Pakistan is already under huge debts. It cannot overcome these challenges without assistance from the international community. And this assistance should not be in the form of loans; we should be given [financial] aid to deal with them," she said.

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Edited by: Shamil Shams

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