Mar 14, 2009

Danger zone

Cities and settlements are at risk due to climate change

By Dr Noman Ahmed
Climate change has emerged as a matter of global concern in the last decade or so. Pakistan is also affected by different outfalls of climate change caused by global and local actions. The common global factors include carbon emissions, global warming, depletion of ozone layer, melting of icecaps, rising ocean levels, reduction in forest cover, adverse impacts on biodiversity, reduction in fresh water reserves and anamolies caused in weather patterns.
The issues especially pertinent to Pakistan in the context of climate change include droughts, unpredictable rates of precipitation, depletion of water aquifers, spread of water logging / salinity, melting of glaciers, flashfloods, unpredicted monsoons, acid rains, drastic reduction in forest cover, marine pollution and rise in sea level. Besides the aforementioned global factors, development processes and other local factors have also a sizable damage.
It is important to note that Pakistan is suffering from those impacts of climate change that are a visible cause of loss in productivity and livelihoods, as well as of redundancy of precious ecological assets. While it is wise to take a pro-active stance at the global level in climate change initiatives, it is equally important to mitigate the local causes without further delay.
For example, the coastal marine environment of Pakistan under increasing threat, ironically at the hands of its very users. This trend has been spiralled by periodic reduction of mangrove forests from traditional habitats, such as Gizri, Korangi, Phitti, Gharo and adjoining creeks. The development of large-scale real estate along Defence Housing Authority, Bundal and Buddo Islands is one reason for the reduction in mangrove cover. Other factors that have led to this situation include the reckless cutting of mangrove branches and trunks by coastal communities for use as firewood.
Field studies by researchers have shown that local people uproot and plunder budding habitat of mangrove plants and continue to do so for mundane use. The uneven pattern of land reclamation by some ambitious developers has cut away marine water flow, thus causing natural death of mangroves. The marine ecology is also impacted by raw sewage inflow. Currently, 400 million gallons of sewage is pushed into the Arabian Sea from Karachi daily.
Human waste, sludge, acids, bases, and biodegradable and toxic substances are a few of the ingredients that pass untreated into the sea, thus the microenvironment of the coastline is constantly degraded. The oil spills from ships is another source of pollution. About 90,000 tonnes of used oil is discharged along the Karachi coast annually. These factors contribute to the various climatic factors that need to be scientifically analysed for proper prevention, mitigation and adaptation plans.
The precious ecosystem of the Indus delta, spread over 0.6 million hectares, is another case in point. This habitat primarily owes its lifeline to the freshwater discharges from the Indus river. Research studies have shown that 35 million acre feet (maf) water flows down the delta every year, but this happens during only three months. Despite the interprovincial conflicts and claims, it has been found that estuaries run dry for most part of the year.
Ingress of sea and threat of destruction of soil quality are two principal hazards faced by local communities in these locations. It may be noted that high salinity adversely impacts the aquatic life and fishing population. Over-harvesting of marine resources, natural meandering of creeks, and grazing of marine greenery by cattle and camels are some of the major concerns in this regard. Mangrove reduction in the region is also extensive due to the aforementioned reasons.
A Suparco study informs that about two-thirds of the mangrove population has died between 1979 and now. Catastrophes – such as tsunami, cyclones and tidal waves – are naturally intercepted by mangroves, thus saving lives and assets. They do the work that is worth a multi-million dollar construction of artificial dykes. The so-called ‘war on terror’ and deforestation in the country’s north has had negative climatic impacts. Dislocation of population and its re-location to places unprepared for new settlements destroy flora and fauna. Bombings and explosions along the length and breadth of Swat and other parts of Malakand have harmed plant life, and scientists have estimated forest depletion of about 800 square kilometres per year in the region.
Common sense informs that the loss of forests causes soil erosion and compounds effects of land sliding. The conservation of forests acts as the natural regulator of climate and topographical conditions. In the prevailing anarchy and lawlessness, the forest cover is being conveniently removed by the vested interests for their personal advantage. The existing institutional arrangements for the management of forests fall grossly short of this vital national duty.
Mass scale corruption and involvement of high stakes render the monitoring process ineffective. Unless immediate administrative attention, with befitting political assistance, is not paid, it is feared that the damage will lead to environmental catastrophes of high magnitude. In Pakistan, awareness about climate change is slow and unpromising. It is important only because of its link with existing cropping patterns, conservation of water resources, protection of lives and assets of people, and combatting vulnerabilities caused to low-income groups. Meteorologists and other professionals have also made predictions about impending droughts and reduction in water availability.
For food production and conservation of settlements, it is vital to prepare a mitigation and adaptation strategy. If food prices soar, it can lead to social and political upheavals. It is also likely that the country may suffer from the climate migration syndrome; people would be forced to relocate due to hazards generated by climatic factors. For a country that is already grappling with security and conflict-based dislocations, a further wave of natural displacement of population is undesirable.
There are many ways of approaching this scenario and many organisations are working to address the issue of climate change. Several research groups are also busy in analysing the trends, and developing plans and strategies. A knowledge base is also being developed to address this menace, which is common to all of us. By intelligent use of resources, timely actions and concrete implementation, the constraint can be turned into an opportunity. It is hoped that the decision-makers will rise to the occasion.

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