Pakistan is facing an existential crisis

The IPCC report, warning of melting glaciers, should be a wake-up call for the Pakistani state.

Receding glaciers in Haramosh Valley, Pakistan, July 2021 [Erum Haider/Al Jazeera]

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest report in August 2021, on the heels of one of the hottest and most devastating summers on record: floods in northern Europe and China, wildfires in the US, and heatwaves everywhere.

The report tells us that the consequences of the current global warming crisis are largely irreversible. The most we can do is to prevent all-out ecological collapse.

One of the more sobering findings of the report is that polar and mountain glaciers are likely going to continue to melt, irreversibly, for decades or centuries to come.

Pakistan has more glaciers outside of the polar icecaps than anywhere on earth. The glaciers feed one of the oldest and most fertile valleys on the planet – that of the Indus Basin, split between India and Pakistan. Roughly 75 percent of Pakistan’s 216 million population is settled on the banks of the Indus River. Its five largest urban centres are entirely dependent on the river for industrial and domestic water.

Pakistan has been blessed with regular agricultural cycles that have sustained its economy through successive crises. However, if the IPCC Report is correct – which it almost certainly is – by 2050, the country will be out of water.

Pakistan is not the only low-income country facing the impacts of climate change. It is not alone in looking on helplessly as industrialised nations – China and the US being the foremost – drag their heels on lowering emissions. Pakistan, like the Maldives and many other island nations, will suffer from the consequences of global warming disproportionately. However, unlike many countries that have taken up the issue of global emissions at the UN, Pakistan is not doing even the bare minimum to try and secure its future.

To say that this is the largest security issue the country will face in the next few decades would be putting it mildly. No other country is as dependent on non-polar ice for freshwater as Pakistan. No other country stands to lose as much. Yet, Pakistan’s government seems singularly unaware of the looming crisis. It has not even made much effort to meet its target of producing 60 percent of its electrical power from renewable sources by 2030. At the moment, the country still gets well over 60 percent of its electricity from fossil fuels.

Pakistan is already facing mounting environmental challenges. Heatwaves are killing scores of people and impacting crop cycles and yields on a regular basis. This year, both its largest city Karachi and its capital city Islamabad experienced devastating floods. Furthermore, the 806-kilometre (500-mile) Karakoram Highway, which is a critical part of Pakistan’s economic corridor with China, was shut down multiple times, for multiple days, due to landslides. These devastating landslides were a direct result of large-scale deforestation in the area north of Kohistan and south of Jaglot. Further north towards Shimshal and east towards the Skardu Valley, timber mafias are rapidly stripping old-growth forests, all but guaranteeing future environmental catastrophes.

Local and international environmental experts have long been warning that, without urgent and drastic action, things will get worse – both in Pakistan and wider South Asia. They have been warning for over a decade that Pakistan’s glaciers are melting and it is only a matter of time before the country runs out of water. Now the IPCC is saying the same in no uncertain terms.

Despite mounting evidence of a growing crisis, however, the Pakistani state is refusing to act.

There are several local initiatives to understand and address the impact of climate change on the region, such as those of the Shimshal Trust. But these efforts often face obstructions by the state and the military, who do not want environmental considerations and conservation projects to limit their control over strategic regions near the country’s borders with China and India.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan announced, at the beginning of his term in 2018, the Million Tree Plantation Drive to counter the effects of ongoing deforestation and climate change on the country. This, however, is akin to adding a fourth wheel to a tricycle and hoping it will eventually transform into a driverless electric car. No amount of new tree planting can replace old-growth forests. This is just a fact. The ancient alpine and conifer forests quite literally hold the ecology of northern Pakistan – its glaciers, rivers, and fertile valleys – together. They have taken millennia to grow and stabilise. They are irreplaceable.

Today, Pakistan is facing an existential crisis. The effects of climate change are not threatening a single sector or region of the country, but the lives and livelihoods of its entire population. As this year’s IPCC report underlined, we are, sadly, already too late to reverse the damage caused by the rampant consumption of fossil fuels. The choice we are facing now – in Pakistan and around the world – is to continue on a path to certain destruction, or start fighting for our collective survival.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.