Conflicts And Climate Crisis: Northern And North-Western Pakistan Face The Fallout

Pakistan has been in the eye of a storm due to these natural and manmade disasters with the border regions of KP and GB in the north and the southern Balochistan province ground-zero

Conflicts And Climate Crisis: Northern And North-Western Pakistan Face The Fallout

The unprecedented heat waves and record-breaking high temperatures globally have resulted in scalding hot weather across the Subcontinent. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) ascribes this to an “El Nino phenomenon” which began in 2023 and will last through 2024. Unrestrained development and fossil fuel emissions being the primary drivers of global warming, besides population explosion and massive deforestation, have irreversibly tipped the global ecological balance.

Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan are home to over 7,000 glaciers, comprising the Himalayan, Karakoram and Hindukush mountain range.  This ecologically fragile zone is also referred to as "the third pole" after the Arctic and Antarctic poles which hold the largest reservoirs of glaciers of the world. As we know, these precious glaciers are being threatened by climate change and the extreme, unpredictable weather patterns.

According to the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change, up there with Afghanistan. Its ranking on the Environmental Performance Index doesn't inspire confidence either: 176th out of 180 countries. Of the 17 "extremely high water risk" countries, it stands at an alarming 14.

One crucial fact often overlooked in the context of Pakistan's struggle with climate crises is that natural disasters in the country occurred in concurrence with the biggest man-made disaster in recent history: the so-called War on Terror waged for the last two decades in the country, especially in the region bordering Afghanistan. Pakistan has been in the eye of a storm due to these natural and manmade disasters.

The border regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan in the north and the southern Balochistan province are the ground-zero, reeling both under a clear and present ongoing disasters and their lasting aftermath. Peripheral to the rest of Pakistan both by way of geography and development, the indicators for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are abysmal in these regions; climate change, environmental degradation and conflicts have only made them a dream unattainable.

As institutional breakdown continues apace in a milieu strained by disasters and conflict, and with it transparency, accountability and legislative bankruptcy, millions in the province and the region have been left to their fate to deal with devastating losses of lives and livelihoods in the wake of relentless climate-related crises. These regions have witnessed a loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, loss of medicinal plants, disruption of water cycles, displacement of communities and threats to food security.

A crucial fact often overlooked in Pakistan's struggle with climate crises is that natural disasters occurred in concurrence with the biggest man-made disaster in recent history: the so-called War on Terror 

One area where this institutional decay is painfully manifest is how the authorities have failed to deal with the problem of deforestation in the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in recent years. Forests may not entirely prevent natural disasters but certainly help adapt to Climate Change serving as carbon sinks, a vital link to keep the rising temperatures in check and maintain the hydrological cycle. 

A steady rot in governance and institutional performance has vitiated greed and corruption, worsening political interference in public affairs to secure private interests and profits. This manifests in illegal allocation of notified and protected (guzzara) forest lands to powerful development elites allegedly leading if not out-rightly writing forest policies; small and poor forest owners coerced into selling their rights of forest royalty to the select few among them or so-called timber mafia that has privileged access to decision making; forest policies and organisation altered on whims instead of adequate knowledge and facts, deliberate and criminal misinterpretation of law and information.

Not surprisingly, then, from 2001 to 2022 – a period marked by an intensification of natural and manmade disasters – Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has lost in excess of 11,000 acres of tree cover, according to Global Forest Watch. 

To put it in perspective, the entire reserved forest in Abbottabad District is about 38,000 acres. According to authorities, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has the fastest rate of deforestation estimated at 1.5 percent annually. Amidst all this, officials and citizens have been reporting huge stocks of illegally cut timber stored at different locations in the province, while seeking anonymity because of reprisals from the "timber-mafia". The plethora of social and mass media reports has been presenting undeniable evidence of massive deforestation in almost all districts and ensuing damages from natural disasters.

In particular, the “selected” and most corrupt interim government in KP set the ball rolling of retrogressive changes in forest laws, like opening the floodgates of commercial logging, reversing the Galliyaat Development Board rules against unsustainable development commercialisation and rewarding the ubiquitous real estate mafia to despoil the fragile biodiversity of the region.

In view of the alarming deforestation, SCN held a seminar at SDPI in Islamabad on 9th October 2023, with a video clip on the devastating deforestation in all districts of KP, followed by an in depth discussion by renowned forest experts who underscored the association between climate change vulnerability and deforestation and press briefing for robust measures to ban illegal logging. Earlier, on the 20th of July 2023, the SCN team met Ms Sherry Rehman, the federal interim minister for climate change, presenting her a detailed memorandum. She thereafter wrote a directive to the KP government demanding immediate steps to reverse the destruction of KP forests.

Recently, the Coordinator to the Prime Minister on Climate Change Romina Khurshid Alam highlighted Pakistan’s heat wave vulnerability, owing to its geographical location, shifting climate patterns, declining or changing rainfall patterns, expanding summer season unrestrained deforestation and urbanisation. She was chairing a meeting of the second National Task Force on Global Warming and Heat Waves. Underscoring the adverse impact of illegal deforestation in various regions, particularly in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, she also deplored recurring the forest fires, particularly in parts of KP, Murree and Nathiagali, thereby exacerbating the climate vulnerability of the entire region.

“Because forests play a crucial role in reducing flood risks by regulating water flow, stabilising soils, and providing natural flood control mechanisms, protecting and restoring forest ecosystems are essential components of comprehensive flood risk management strategies, particularly in areas prone to flooding,” she added, “ruthless deforestation had only aggravated the country’s vulnerability to the impacts of floods.”

On 8 June 2024, the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan hosted the “Conference on climate change: navigating climate governance; executive action and judicial oversight” at the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Top judges, environmentalists and policymakers at a conference deliberated upon issues related to climate change and stressed the need to make it a mainstream issue. 

These two overlapping initiatives in the federal capital shine a glimmer of hope for vanishing forests in KP, presently at the mercy of the deeply embedded timber mafia at all levels of bureaucracy. The political instability between the federal and provincial governments has impeded a robust governance and focus on critical social sectors in KP.

Being the least prioritised sector, the forest department, has perennially been a victim of oversight and rampart corruption. Herculean efforts by the federal Climate Change ministry, donors, and a judicial intervention could halt Pakistan’s slide towards impending doom in the wake of ongoing deforestation, which has been viral on social media ever since 2023. So far, there has been no light at the end of the tunnel.