Assessing Pakistan’s Environment

Assessing Pakistan’s Environment
In the 1970 s, there was a famous movie featuring Clint Eastwood. It was called The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. But, this article is not a movie review. This is a golden jubilee review of the state of Pakistan’s environment.

However, when the editor assigned me the topic, that particular movie name popped into my head. For a reason! Because these three adjectives run the whole gamut of how we have treated our environment, all while the genie of climate change kept coming out of the bottle, threatening to throw all measures out of sync. And how!

I need to start with two disclaimers:

This is not an opinion piece. I want to state some facts and throw in some numbers. But each time I have attempted to do that, I have been confronted by the realisation that Pakistan is a severely data deficient country. And, I will come back to this challenge later in this piece.

The other disclaimer, painful though it is, is about not assessing the state of Pakistan’s environment prior to 1971 because that really has little bearing on what measures need to be taken to deal with the challenge of climate change. Of course, there are many lessons that post-1971 Pakistan can learn from what was also Pakistan pre-December 1971 -- in its handling of environment and climate change.

For those interested in going back to trace the history, Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, in his Dawn column, has clearly linked decisions that negatively impacted Pakistan to the autocratic rule. Personal whims decided on the propagation of harmful Alien Invasive Species, like the paper mulberry that infested Islamabad, water-guzzling Eucalyptus across the country and dewi (Prosopis Juliflora) across Sindh that has overtaken indigenous plants.

One must also bear in mind that the topic of environment and climate change is like an octopus with tentacles touching many things at the same time. The touch points are not limited to birds and bees, turtles and trees, but are as varied and sometimes seemingly unconnected as water, transport, irrigation, agriculture, construction, town planning, industry, governance and health and education plus advocacy and awareness.

Any conversation on environment and climate change in Pakistan must begin with the acknowledgment of the presence of the elephant in the room -- population growth rate. It rings alarm bells because of the pressures on the already meagre resources. This is something that Dr Zeba Sathar of Pakistan Population Council flags in her Dawn article.

The other acknowledgement has to be that much of the mapping of our natural resources was done during the British era and there are rich accounts of our zoological, hydrological and botanical assets. However, after Independence in 1947, the skill set shrunk and became confined to the academia and practitioners, and lost its clout to influence policy decisions at the level of bureaucracy and political leadership. In natural resource management (NRM), the forestry department managed to hold its own through the centre of excellence, the Pakistan Forestry Institute in Peshawar, but the biodiversity database lagged far behind in gathering information, listings and analysis, and has been playing catch since the late 1990s.

Grappling with the fallout of the dismemberment of the country, Pakistan played catch through the 1970s and 1980s. To its credit, Pakistan became a signatory to the Stockholm Declaration of 1972 where the current global environmental movement finds its roots.

This provided impetus to the development of environmental laws and regulations, and in 1983, the Pakistan Environment Protection Ordinance was promulgated, which was the precursor to the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act enacted in 1997.
One must also bear in mind that the topic of environment and climate change is like an octopus with tentacles touching many things at the same time. The touch points are not limited to birds and bees, turtles and trees, but are as varied and sometimes seemingly unconnected as water, transport, irrigation, agriculture, construction, town planning, industry, governance and health and education plus advocacy and awareness.

The Act was the roadmap, while the milestones were set in the National Conservation Strategy that was finalised in 1992 by the government of Pakistan, IUCN, UNDP, with assistance provided by the Canadian International Development Agency. This spurred the development of provincial as well as area specific conservation. On a parallel track, the National Environment Quality Standards were rolled out.

Come 2000, Pakistan signed up to the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), of which Goal 7 pertained to environment, which was connected with other goals in the broader context. However, like the other goals, over the last 15 years, despite time and resources invested in them, the MDGs remained unmet.

Meanwhile, the IUCN-Pakistan supported the development of Integrated District Development Vision (IDDVs) documents much before the world rallied together to formulate the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a qualitative sequel to the failed MDGs.

Fast forward to 2009, when the 18th constitutional amendment in Pakistan devolved the subject of environment to the provinces, and provincial acts were framed. By now the spectre of climate change was quite apparent. Pakistan became a signatory to most of the subsequent agreements related to shared responsibilities to combat climate change, be it the Kyoto Protocol or the Paris Agreement that called for mitigation even by countries like Pakistan whose emissions had barely made it to 1 percent.

Other than these, Pakistan became a signatory to the many protocols, conventions and treaties that called for collaboration on trans-boundary, regional and global levels. Some of these included the Bonn Convention for the conservation of migratory species, the Ramsar Convention for the protection and preservation of wetlands, Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade and several others.

While there can be a fair amount of debate on the efficacy of implementation of these agreements, they did result in the formulation of corresponding policies and frameworks to address the issue, though many more lie in wait for approvals and implementation plans.


Not only this, Pakistan has been found wanting on the commitments on certain targets agreed on at those fora. For instance, Pakistan is a signatory of the Convention on BioDiversity, whose Aichi targets set the target of declaring 10 percent of coastal area as marine protected area (MPA) by December 2020.

In 2017, Astola Island of Balochistan was declared as Pakistan’s first MPA. We are one and a half years beyond the deadline despite agreement on which areas to declare next.

Another dragging of the feet is on the provincial climate policies. Balochistan still awaits one while Sindh’s is ready and waiting for the cabinet approval. These too flow from the National Climate Change Policy that was rolled out in 2012, followed by its implementation plan in 2014. The delays on part of Pakistan are despite the fact that the National Climate Change Policy was updated and revised in 2021, in light of the commitments made to draw up the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) or to reduce emissions after the Paris Agreement.

However, the commitments have seen a push towards renewable energy. Now, Pakistan has a Electronic Vehicle Policy and an aggressive afforestation plan that was experimented in one provinces through the Billion Tree Tsunami, and then spread over the entire country through the Green Pakistan Programme, followed by the 10 Billion Tree Tsunami.

The country’s forest and green cover has been mapped and carbon stock accounted for, followed by Pakistan joining international initiatives, like Reducing Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation Plus programme (REDD) and Mangroves For the Future. Yet, Pakistan has a paltry 5 percent of forest cover against a globally recommended 25 percent. However, the results of both these initiatives have won Pakistan accolades at Davos and the UN. Pakistan posted the largest increase in hectarage of arid area mangroves in the world, credited to the efforts of IUCN-Pakistan, WWF-Pakistan, and of course the Sindh Forest Department, which, with the support of local communities, and led by the phenomenal Baba e Mangroves, Late Tahir Qureshi, has to its credit three entries in the Guinness Book of World Record for the number of mangroves planted in a single day.

Giving reasons for the low percentage, Rizwan Mehboob, Ecosystem Restoration Expert, Member Science, WWF BOD, explains, “Pakistan forest ecosystems have seen major changes since 1947” -- maximum degradation has happened in riverine and bela forests due to cultivation encroachments and less inundation (inflows) due to (upstream) dams. Irrigated plantations in Punjab and Sindh have suffered the most because of the reduced quantity of irrigated water available for forest crops.

Third major degradation has happened in rangelands as water and grasses have been over exploited and productivity of livestock products has nosedived. Hilly forests have generally recovered due to the green felling ban since 1992. In terms of wildlife, scrub and desert wildlife has suffered most due to habitat loss. Similarly, land for housing has also massively disturbed wildlife habitats in all ecosystems.

Pakistan’s Mangrove Cover

Maps by Dr. Hammad Gilani, Researcher - Remote sensing & GIS IWMI

The human-nature conflict has left an adverse impact on the wildlife of Pakistan. The trophy hunting initiate though has received international acclaim. It has proved to be a valuable tool for conservation and community development. International organisations, like IUCN-Pakistan, WWF-Pakistan, Snow Leopard Foundation and Birdlife, along with dedicated local NGOs and communities have been making great efforts to combat threats leading to biodiversity loss.

Giving a gist of some of the measures taken, Rab Nawaz, Senior Director of WWF-Pakistan, mentions the by-catch programme to reduce cetacean mortality, track the population trend of the migratory houbara bustard, guide the issuance of hunting licences, trophy hunting scheme in Gilgit-Baltistan for recovery of endangered markhor, and conservation of the snow leopard by reducing retaliatory killing by local communities. This has been achieved through livestock insurance schemes and diversification of livelihoods.
Where Pakistan will head to over the next quarter of a century, to celebrate its centenary, will depend on how the adaptation roadmap synchronises with the country’s objectives that it has signed on to, to lift its people out of poverty without impoverishing the environment.

These measures can surely be put down in the column of wins for Pakistan but we must also be wary of the long list of measures in the column of losses.

Dr Uzma Khan of the WWF-Pakistan mentions that the common leopard has lost most of its range in Pakistan because of habitat loss, particularly in Margalla Hills National Park and Ayubia National Park. But this close vicinity also means that there is conflict between people and leopards, and usually the ones at a loss are leopards. They are either killed or captured to spend rest of their lives in a captivity facility. There are also issues of pelt trade and poaching of cubs from the wild to meet the market demands.

Getting into specifics of a region, Javed Mahar, Chief Conservator Wildlife in Sindh, lists some permanent losses, including gavial, common leopard, Balochistan bear, olive ridley sea turtles, Alexanderine parrots, black buck, spotted dear, whereas pangolins and vultures in Kirthar and Nagarparkar are eliciting attention for conservation from organisations like the IUCN-Pakistan.

In the list of near extinction species are bull frog, and the once famous Pallo fish, which is now extinct up stream Kotri, while monitor lizards fall prey to poachers, and also to the large vehicles of game hunters in the arid and desert areas. In flora, populus euphratica is near extinction.

Technical Director WWF-Pakistan and Marine Fisheries expert Moazzam Khan points to the decline in number of the marine dolphin, gastropod and large Arabian whales that were killed near Sir Creek, drastic reduction in the number of sharks and the absence of sawfish from our coastal waters.

These wins and losses, howsoever embarrassing or laudatory, have to find space in the reporting mechanisms that Pakistan is committed to. These can be found in the report submitted to the Convention on BioDiversity (CBD), to which Pakistan is a signatory.

While the Ministry of Climate Change, through the Zoological Survey of Pakistan and relevant experts, has embarked on the task of collection of a complete data. According to Dr. Tariq Mahmood, Fellow Zoological Society of Pakistan, as it is a long and arduous task, so far, only the portion of mammals has been completed. An attempt is also being made to compile a National Red List of threatened species.

Pakistan has already claimed to have met SDG 13, which is on Climate Action, despite the scepticism surrounding the checking of the boxes by a disaster prone country which is standing on a slippery slope every once in a while.

Though the environmental governance has many gaps, they are being plugged. One of the best examples is the readiness grant that was received for the ccGAP that focuses on developing a Gender Action Plan aligned with the National Climate Change Policy.

The initiations of programmes like Recharge Pakistan and Protected Areas Initiative to increase the number of national parks will go a long way in safeguarding and preserving flora, fauna and wildlife.

Pakistan has achieved a broad consensus, that sitting in the top 10 bracket in the Vulnerability Index, the country needs responses that match its status -- in speed, intensity and applicability, and adapt needs to the new paradigm of the Sustainable Development Goals which are a global roadmap with a room for local actions.

This is an imperative because a country in the path of disasters has not even started realising the negative disruptive potential of climate-induced migration, which will necessitate the realignment of all assessment and analytical parameters to frame an adequate response.

Where Pakistan will head to over the next quarter of a century, to celebrate its centenary, will depend on how the adaptation roadmap synchronises with the country’s objectives that it has signed on to, to lift its people out of poverty without impoverishing the environment.