Pakistan is internationally known for a wide array of geopolitical and domestic problems. It is stuck between India and Afghanistan, China and Iran, and is taken in a very uneasy alliance with the United States.
The multiple violent disputes between factions defined along the mixed lines of region, religion, tribe, economy, family and politics are infinite. Their combination with the US “drone strategy” in Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan and its blowback further heightens these tensions (Jason Burke, 9/11 Wars, 2011). Moreover, the country knows the same demographic and urban explosion as the whole of South Asia, while being taken in the complicated political and religious games that affect Muslim and non-Muslim countries in the region, and beyond (Anatol Lieven, Pakistan, A Hard country, 2011). Furthermore, since 1998, it is a nuclear power (e.g. NTI, Pakistan Nuclear Power, July 2013).
Finally, today, one major fact must be understood: this country is on the most advanced front lines of climate change, and we need a new approach to understand what it means for Pakistan and for the world.
The country is organized along the Indus River valley. The river has its sources on the Tibetan plateau and flows through Pakistan to the Arabian Sea.
During the 2010 summer, from 29 July to the early days of September, the Indus floods were historically catastrophic. In one month, 1,781 people died and 2,966 people injured, more than 6 millions people were made homeless, and more than 18 millions of people were affected in a way or another (Reliefweb).
Huge swaths of Punjab and Sindh, the “breadbasket” of Pakistan, were submerged for more than a month. Water covered more than twenty per cent of the country, and affected more than 7.9 million acres (3.2 million hectares) of land, washing out entire crops and destroying the seeds needed for the next crop season. Flood waters took weeks to recede, and destroyed 70% of the bridges and the roads in the flooded areas (Environment News Service, September 1, 2010).
The reaction of the Pakistani government proved awfully inadequate, letting the vast majority of the population facing the disaster without their support, while emergency and crisis management matters were left to the NGOs and the US military (Jason Burke, ibid).
This catastrophe was the result of heavy monsoon rains, combined with some intense melting of the Himalayan glaciers. So, the Indus water met top soils already saturated by water that could not be, even partially, absorbed. The whole dynamic was aggravated by the ongoing deforestation of the country. 33% of the forest cover have been lost since 1990 in favour of crop cultivation, which facilitates riverbank erosion and flood expansion, (Michael Kugelman, Pakistan’s Climate Change Challenge, Foreign Policy, May 9, 2012).
A very similar scenario took place one year later, in 2011. A twelve months drought was followed by record shattering monsoon rains, combined with a strong melting of the Himalayan glaciers. The resulting flood affected 8 millions people, inundated 1.3 millions homes, and killed 350 people, while destroying crops in the Sindh province (Zafar Iqbal, Pakistan: another victim of climate change, Environment news service, September 27, 2011).
Since then, Pakistan has been reported as being at the very top of the list of countries affected by climate change, according to the Global climate risk index (Germanwatch.org).
However, the way Pakistan recovers from these huge disasters demonstrates a strong resilience capacity. This comes most probably from the fact that “Pakistan has a weak state and a strong society” (Lieven, ibid).
There is a huge risk to see this type of scenario becoming the “new normal” during the years and decades to come, in a country with a population that could grow from 180 million today to 256 million in 2030 (Jeff Spross, Climate Progress, July 22, 2013).
The “water curse”
A naturally arid country, Pakistan literally emerges from the gigantic system of irrigation created during the nineteenth century by British engineers, for the most part in the Sindh region (Fred Pearce, When the Rivers Run Dry, 2005). Thus, only 24% of Pakistan is irrigated and cultivated (Lieven, ibid), the rest being semi-desertic.
Since Pakistan’s creation in 1947, the simultaneous growth of demographics, cities, and food needs went hand in hand with the building of a dam system along the Indus, on the one hand, and, on the other, violent and nationalistic tension with India about Kashmir. (Parenti, ibid).
Today, the Indus is dangerously overexploited and badly managed, while the rate of evaporation increases. Meanwhile, water tables are overused, as is the case in Islamabad and Rawalpindi (Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos, 2011).
In July 2013, in Abbotabad, residents threatened the local government of mass demonstrations if a solution was not found to the multiplying water shortages when the weather was very hot (Aziz Nayani, The Atlantic, Pakistan’s New Big Threat Isn’t Terrorism—It’s Water, July 19, 2013).
On top of this, India has constructed the Baglihar dam on the Chenab, one the main tributary of the Indus, despite the fact that the water of the Chenab has been attributed to Pakistan under the terms of the Indus Waters Treaty.
As a result and despite past real diplomatic efforts to ease their historical feuds, exemplified by a cooperation induced by the Indus Waters Treaty, signed in 1960, renewed tension emerged between India and Pakistan (Parenti, ibid). Indeed, the dam seems to have reduced the flow of water arriving in the Indus valley (Parenti, ibid).
Political parties, some close to Pakistani Taliban, mix religious, political and water issues in their discourses. In 2010, there have been several demonstrations of farmers, whose slogan was “Water flows, or Blood” (Parenti, ibid). Today, the potential for conflict of the Indus Basin is closely watched by the US intelligence community.
The current annual water availability from the Indus is of 236 billion cubic meters (bcm), while water demand could rise to 338 bcm in 2025 because of the demographic growth. Yet water availability will remain the same as today, if it doesn’t decrease (Woodrow Wilson Center, Kugelman, 2009).
Furthermore, there are also tensions between the Pakistani provinces, especially Punjab and Sindh, because of the regional dams. Sindh is the lower riparian province and particularly sensitive to water sharing issues with Punjab, as irrigation and the prevention of soil salinization are major issues for this agricultural region (Fred Pearce, ibid).
These water tensions are turned into a massive strategic issue by climate change. Nowadays, Pakistan is literally under a “climate siege”. During the coming years and decades, the melting of the glaciers that are feeding the Indus is going to worsen (Joe Romm, Climate Progress, Asia glacier retreat, August 31 2010). Even if there are many debates to know when they will have melted, the basic fact remains: during the decades to come, their decrease could very well threaten the life of 200 to 250 million people (Anatol Lieven, ibid). 80% of the Himalayan glaciers are already melting.
This situation combines itself dangerously with the other impacts of climate change, such as the multiplication of extreme weather events, drought, floods, heat waves, higher average temperatures and sea level rise (The Nation, 22 january 2014).
These new climate conditions will have a rural impact, by reducing crop yields, and degrading the farmers’ conditions of life, thus reinforcing the rural exodus. The giant cities of Pakistan, already saturated, will become increasingly violent and unstable, as they receive vast numbers of people from different provinces, villages, and families. Pakistani people are all knitted together by the very strong ties of kinship (Lieven, ibid). Kinship makes for a very robust and resilient social link. Thus, these new and strongly connected urban migrants will feed the competition for the “jobs, food, water, services” in dysfunctional mega-cities in a specific way organised along kinship lines, and thus, potentially including kinship feuds (The Nation, Developing cities must protect against climate risks: study, November 29, 2012).
This situation will be particularly dangerous for Karachi, as for many coastal mega-cities. Karachi is already an extremely violent city (e.g. Huma Yusuf, Tactical Cities: Negotiating Violence in Karachi, Pakistan), while being the main Pakistani seaport and economic and financial center. Its power of attraction turns it into the epicenter of the political and religious conflicts of the country. At a time, the rise of the sea due to climate change will threaten the city with coastal flooding and will trigger new conflicts because of the destruction of the much-needed urban space that it will entail (Lieven, ibid).
Pakistan, a new world environmental power
If the situation of Pakistan indicates that, according to the works of Jared Diamond, Thomas Homer Dixon or Acemoglu and Robinson, this country is “on the brink” (Ahmed Rashid) of collapse, things could, nevertheless, be much more surprising.
“Around 500 million people in South Asia live on the coastal belt and their livelihoods will be destroyed if the sea levels rise,” said Pakistani Senator Mushahid Hussain, host of a conference on national security and climate change, in Islamabad in January 2013. (The Express Tribune, 22 January 2013). Out of those “500 million”, several million will be Pakistanis in the coastal area (knowing that Karachi in itself counts at least 10 million people).
In other terms, neither the country itself, nor its neighbors, nor, for that matter, other powers “can afford” to see Pakistan collapse. Should this happen, the whole region would be destabilized by flows of “collapse refugees” on an unprecedented scale, while India, China and Iran would be struggling with the same kind of problems (Lieven, ibid). Furthermore, this terrible scenario could be worsened by the religious and political factor that have already triggered massive unrest and slaughters between Muslims and non-Muslims populations in 1947 (Lieven, ibid).
Thus, neither Pakistan nor its neighbours can allow a global Pakistani disaster to happen.
Furthermore, the weak Pakistani State would be torn apart, while remaining nuclear (Paul Bracken, The Second Nuclear Age, 2012), which would obviously become immediately a global concern.
In fact, a new definition and dimension of international and regional security is emerging in this region, that we shall call “collapse prevention”. These interdependent security issues can become even more complex and sensitive, as they become entangled with other strategic issues, as exemplified by the fact that China has obtained the right, in 2012, to operate the Pakistani strategic port of Gwadar, close to the Iran border and the Strait of Hormuz.
The threat of its own collapse invests fragile Pakistan with a new political capital, turning the country into a new kind of “strongly weak” major regional and international player.
And so, the threat of its own collapse invests fragile Pakistan with a new political capital, turning the country into a new kind of “strongly weak” major regional and international player. The geophysics of climate change transform the status of Pakistan in a radical way: regional powers, Eurasia and the U.S. cannot allow the collapse of a nuclear power having a population of almost 200 million people, or more.
Towards an “extreme future”?
The combination of climate, water, agricultural, and energy problems, with the different forms of factionalism and the explosive urban growth (Anish Alavi, The Rising Cost of Climate Change, Dawn, 2012-01-20) have led the Pakistani government to try implementing adapted policies, such as the National Climate Change Policy, endorsed by the Prime Minister and supported by the Ministry of National disaster management (Kugelman, 2012).
However, the structural weakness of the Federal State condemns any national policy to a very limited level of efficiency. This means that the new forms of sustainability will need to come from the infra-State level(s), ranging from the provincial level to the regional and local levels of the “politics of kinship”, which appear to be the main rampart against the violence of climate change.
This means that, as of now, the crucial, delicate and fragile strategic balance in South Asia, is supported by the way Pakistani communities, provinces, cities and the strange “weak and nuclear” Federal State will adapt, or not, to the “long storm” that climate change may very well be for their country in the years to come. Of their success or failure depends the near future of the overcrowded, resource stressed and nuclear South Asia.