Triggered by human activity, global warming and climate change pose serious threats to the human life and economic activities along the coastal areas in many regions of the world, including South Asia.
The global average surface temperature on earth, as estimated by the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC), will increase from 1 to 3.5 degrees Celsius (about 2 to 6 F) by the year 2100, with an associated rise in sea level by 15 to 95 cm (about 6 to 37 inches), posing extreme dangers to human life in low lying coastal regions and low-lying island states like Venice and Fiji.
Considered as mankind’s greatest threat in the modern times, climate change is likely to have profound consequences for socio-economic sectors, like health, food production, energy consumption, natural resources management and security. In fact, the harmful impacts of global warming are already manifesting themselves in the form of storms, tornadoes, floods, droughts and other kinds of natural disasters with an increase of 400–500 a year against 125 in the 1980s.
In addition to Pakistan, countries most at risk from flooding and storms include: Bangladesh, Benin, Cambodia, China, Denmark, Egypt, Fiji, Haiti, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Libya, Madagascar, Mauritania, , Mexico, Moldova, Mongolia, Mozambique, Myanmar, Netherlands, Philippines, Rawanda, Samoa, Senegal, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tonga, Tunisia, Venezuela and Vietnam.
In addition to rainfall variability and changes in the marine ecosystems, evidence shows that most of the glaciers are melting and consequently shrinking in size, posing a serious threat to freshwater availability. In South Asia, glaciers of the Karakoram and Himalaya ranges are reportedly under threat due to climate change. For example: Siachin glacier is melting at 110 meters per year. And by the year 2100, the experts believe, the Himalayan glaciers will disappear.
Fresh water – a life sustaining gift of nature, expert’s project, might become a scarce resource in the future, adversely affecting yield of agricultural crops while increasing climate-induced diseases in many countries.
It is apprehend that the climate change would have a wide-ranging undesirable impact on human health: It would increase mortality rates due to heat stress and lead to increase in the potential transmission of vector borne diseases, including malaria, dengue and yellow fever. Moreover, it will hardly hit the poor, who are more dependent on natural resources and have a less of an ability to adapt to the changing climate. However, increase in winter temperatures in high altitude areas could lead to decrease in mortality rates.
The observed effects of global warming include: Increase in sea level by 1 – 2 mm over the last century, retreat of glaciers, decrease in snow cover and thawing of permafrost, shifts of plant and animal ranges, increased events of coral bleaching, earlier flowering of plants and insect emergence.
An indication of the gravity of the problem arising from the reduction in the availability of fresh water, which will reduce considerably by 2050, affecting over a billion people. In this context, the World Bank’s report titled “Pakistan’s Water Economy: Running Dry,” published in 2005, projects a terrifying picture of 30 – 40 per cent decrease in flow of the Indus river over the century with devastating economic repercussions. To meet the challenges of this climate change, according to the World Economic Forum, the nations would need to make considerable investments, to undertake water projects, instead of oil, on a high priority basis.
The main factors contributing to climate change are: burning of fossil fuels, industrial emissions and deforestation. Though Pakistan, like other developing countries, put in a very small amount to the overall greenhouse gas emissions, it remains severely impacted by the negative effects of climate change. In fact, Pakistan is rated 12th on the list of countries most vulnerable to the impact of climate change because of the following reasons:
(1) Increased glacial melt in the Karakoram and Himalaya ranges might initially increase flooding of rivers, but the river flows would decrease when the glaciers recede. At present, Pakistan receives 70 per cent of its fresh water from melted snow. (2) Decrease in fresh water availability will lead to biodiversity loss. (3) Decrease in crop yields will affect livelihood and food production, increasing the risk of hunger. (4) Rise in diseases primarily associated with floods and droughts; while increase in coastal water temperatures would exacerbate the abundance of cholera. (5) Increased flooding from the sea posed risks to coastal areas. (6) Likely aggravation of existing social inequalities of resource use could impact social factors leading to instability, conflicts, displacement of people, etc.
The geographical location and socio-economic fragility of Pakistan and some other developing states make them it vulnerable to the environmental, social and economic ramifications of climate change, while the lack of resources/capabilities to adapt to the changes can worsen the situation.
This brings to the fore the need for: constant monitoring/research of the impact of climate change on human life/glaciers, and mainstreaming climate change into development planning at all levels and sectors. In addition, the complexity of the problem calls for the need to increased access to innovative farm production practices and irrigation techniques, and improving forest management and biodiversity conservation.
Adaptation to climate change, aimed at allowing vulnerable groups to adjust and live with the change in the environment and economy would require a heavy expenditure over a long period of time. Since the phenomenon has been unleashed by the developed countries’ unhindered pursuit for accelerated development and material gains, the international community, in particular the developed states, should make focused efforts to bail out the third world countries from a bleak future, a situation in which they are likely to land. In view of the serious nature of threats to mankind and human habitats, one would suggest that the UNO/international organisations and the developed states should set-up a special fund and a dedicated organisation for mitigating the effects of climate change and to provide help and succor to countries affected or likely to be affected by this change. By Alauddin Masood