Climate Crisis Hits Pakistani Women

Against the Current, No. 144, January/February 2010

Bushra Khaliq

PAKISTAN IS AMONG the countries that will be hit hardest in the near future by effects of climate change, even though it contributes only a fraction to global warming. The country is witnessing severe pressures on natural resources and environment. This warning has recently come from the mouth of Pakistan’s prime minister Yousaf Raza Gillani, who alarmed the countrymen by disclosing that Pakistan is the 12th most vulnerable country in the world to environmental degradation.

The estimated cost of environmental damage would reach 5% of the Gross Domestic Product every year. Yet there is no media uproar, no popular movement and no political clamoring over the issue. Sad! The majority of the Pakistani policy makers have no time to think about the horrifying future to be brought on by the worsening climate conditions. The country is busy fighting the U.S.-led “war on terror” and now almost trapped in a complex political quagmire where it finds itself fighting a war with itself.

Climate experts in the country are hinting at severe water scarcity: Supply, already a serious concern in many parts of the country, will decline dramatically, affecting food production. Exports such as agriculture, textile products and fisheries will also be affected, while coastal areas risk being inundated, flooding the homes of millions of people.

Pakistan’s northeastern parts already experienced droughts in 1999 and 2000 that caused sharp declines in water tables and dried up wetlands, severely degrading ecosystems. Although Pakistan contributes least to global warming — one-thirty-fifth of the world’s average annual carbon dioxide emissions — temperatures in the country’s coastal areas have risen since the early 1900s by 0.6 to one degree centigrade (one or two degrees Fahrenheit). Precipitation has decreased 10-15% in the coastal belt and hyper-arid plains over the last 40 years, according to Dr R.K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while there is an increase in summer and winter rains in northern Pakistan.

The health of millions would also be affected with diarrheal diseases associated with floods and drought becoming more prevalent. Intensifying rural poverty is likely to increase internal migration as well as migration to other countries.

One example of severe ecosystem damage is Keti Bandar; once it was one of the richest ports in the coastal belt. The former port facilities bordering both shores of the Indus River delta have become submerged as a result of coastal erosion, leaving only a thin, two-kilometer-long isthmus by way of a land bridge to the mainland. (Saadia Kamar, The Daily News, May 26, 2009)

There was a time when this was known to be an ecosystem thriving on mangroves, rich with agriculture and boasting a busy seaport. Now the landscape is barren, with thatched houses dotted on mudflats. Water logging and salinity are major problems, and the intruding sea has almost eaten up the villages. Thousands of peasant families and fisherfolk communities already had to migrate to other areas in search of livelihood. Cyclones now often visit the coastline and their intensity has increased manifold. Poor peasant and fisherfolk communities are always hit hardest.

Environment and Social Crisis

When it comes to climate change, population does matter, particularly for countries like Pakistan. With an annual growth rate of 2.69% as given in the government’s Statistical Year Book 2006, is the sixth most populous country.

As poor families struggle to survive, environmental degradation is going to be more pervasive. Increased use of wood for fuel, abusive use of land and water resources — in the form of overgrazing, overfishing, depletion of fresh water and desertification — are common in rural Pakistan. Long-term sustainable development goals are disregarded in favor of immediate subsistence needs, leaving vulnerable communities at the mercy of climate.

There seems to be no stopping the runaway population growth here in Pakistan because birth control is often portrayed as anti-people. The country’s political and religious leaders who could make a difference are to blame. They have ignored explosive population growth. Birth control is a taboo topic. The larger the number of children, the stronger the family feels.

The rural population has been kept illiterate. Instead of building schools we built armies. The feudal landowners saw to it that the rural population is kept away from schooling. Mullahs declare girls’ education to be un-Islamic. The reality is that even where women want to practice birth spacing they face difficulty in accessing the family planning services. They meet with a non-supportive environment at home, and encounter misconceptions and misinformation about the use of family planning.

At the regional level, according to experts, by 2050, the Indian subcontinent will have to support 350 million Pakistanis; 1.65 billion Indians; 40 million Nepalese; 300 million Bangladeshis and 30 million Sri Lankans. The total will be about 2.4 billion people, equal to the total population of the whole earth around 1950 (Zofeen Ebrahim, Daily Dawn, July 31, 2009).

The strain on resources in the region will be tremendous, the consequences catastrophic. By then the glaciers in the Himalayas will be gone, the monsoons will be erratic; new uncontrollable diseases will have emerged. Overnight. we will wake up, and find that all we had yesterday (food, water, electricity) is gone.

This horrific picture is, no doubt, a matter of concern to the entire population living in this part of the world, but of special urgency for the marginalized sections, women in particular, who will be hit first and hardest by the climate bomb. The need of the hour is to highlight the gravity of the issue and demand security for the rights of the poor and marginalized in climate change policy planning.

As in other poor countries, climate change is harder on women in Pakistan  because most are dependent on primary natural resources: land, forests, and waters. In case of drought they are immediately affected; usually women and children can’t run away. When there is deforestation, when there is drought, when there is crop failure, it is the women and children who are the most adversely affected.

While Pakistani women are the main providers of food, they face barriers to land ownership and access. Sixty-seven percent of women are engaged in agriculture-related activities but only one percent own land. When hit by the negative impact of climate change, women lose both their means of livelihood and their capacity to cope following a disaster. Collecting water and firewood become more burdensome and time consuming. As girls commonly assist their mothers in performing these tasks, there is less time left for school or any other economic activity.

Recent data show that major crop yields in Pakistan have declined by 30%. Experts are of the opinion that climate change is enhancing the susceptibility of agricultural zones to floods, drought and storms. Agriculture is the single largest sector in Pakistan’s economy, contributing 21% to the GDP and employing 43% of the workforce.

There is a common perception that “it is men who are the farmers.” Contrary to this perception, it is the women who produce 60-80% of food consumed in the house. Especially in the mountainous regions, men migrate for livelihood opportunities; the women look after the family’s piece of land along with many other responsibilities. Their work is generally less visible and attracts less public recognition.

Pakistan was one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1994 and has also endorsed other related protocols (Kyoto and Montreal), but its climate change  policy is still in the making. Experts expect little in terms of gender from the forthcoming national climate change policy, as responsive policies can only result from forums that have equal gender representation as well as the necessary sensitivity.

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is a new mechanism of the Government of Pakistan. It is an attempt to address the disaster vulnerabilities of the communities living in hazardous regions, but if women are not involved in developing and monitoring important policies and legislation, gender issues will remain unnoticed.

ATC 144, January-February 2010