Does the environment matter in Pakistan’s elections?

Zofeen T. Ebrahim examines the politics of the environment of three main political parties, and one urban based party, of Pakistan
<p>Women in Rawalpindi voting for 2013 general election [image by: Rachel Clayton/Department for International Development]</p>

Women in Rawalpindi voting for 2013 general election [image by: Rachel Clayton/Department for International Development]

With less than two weeks to go until Pakistan’s general elections scheduled for July 25, among the mainstream political parties only the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) have released their manifestoes.

Nevertheless, political parties are laying stress on environmental issues in their public rallies. Recently Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the PPP, spoke about sea intrusion in the Indus Delta. The PPP governed the province of Sindh for the last ten years, and was the key opposition party at the centre since 2013. Speaking at the Davos World Economic Forum, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari had called climate change and terrorism major 21st century problems that “recognise” no borders.

Imran Khan, a former star of the Pakistani cricket team who joined politics in 1996 and founded the Pakistan Tehrik e Insaf (PTI), has continuously reminded people of his party’s most successful programme – the reforestation scheme of the Billion Tree Tsunami to counter the effects of climate change. This was part of the party’s 2013 manifesto. Its successor is likely to be included in the new one.

See: Pakistan’s ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ takes hold

The president of the PML-N, Shahbaz Sharif (also the former chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and arguably most powerful province), tweeted on June 19 that he had directed his manifesto committee to prepare a comprehensive road map as the “dangers posed by climate change are present & real” and acknowledged the country faced severe challenges to its water resources and food security.

True to the word, the manifesto is very detailed. There are promises of off-grid solar solutions, roof-top solar plans, expansion of the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) portfolio and shale potential exploration. The party promises to add 15,000 MW of power by 2025 and create a clean energy fund.

As for water, among a plethora of solutions, it promises to ensure speedy implementation of the National Water Policy, develop a plan for water storage and run-of-the-river hydropower generation, tap into the full potential of the Indus hydropower cascade, regulate domestic and industrial utilisation of water,  set up desalination and reverse osmosis plants, develop flood protection plans through effective zoning and forecasting, regulate ground water extraction, employ technology to recycle municipal and industrial waste water and invest in rainwater harvesting.

See: Pakistan’s first national water policy – historic or mere electioneering?

See: Indus cascade a Himalayan blunder

The PML-N has promised to construct the Diamer-Bhasha dam and Mohmand hydropower project while conducting studies to assess feasibility of dam sites along the Indus cascade.

It promises to end flood irrigation by universalising the use of sprinklers, tunnel farming and drip irrigation, as well as by lining water canals and promoting “more crop per drop” by developing high yielding crop varieties that consume less water.

On climate change the PML-N promised to strengthen the working of the Pakistan Climate Change Council, the Pakistan Climate Change Authority and the Pakistan Climate Change Fund envisaged in the Pakistan Climate Change Act of 2017. It also said it would declare at least 10 marine protected areas along the coastline, enforce a ban on non-biodegradable plastic bags throughout the country, launch a massive reforestation campaign and introduce urban forestry through the provision of state land, introduce a wetlands conservation policy and secure funding from foreign and domestic sources for implementation of commitments made under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). reached out to leaders of the four main political parties: Shahbaz Sharif, president of the PML-N; Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the PPP; Imran Khan, chairman of the PTI; and Karachi’s mayor, Wasim Akhtar, who is also the spokesperson for the now fractured Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). The MQM has been one of the main political forces in Karachi – Pakistan’s most populous city – since 1988.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari at a political rally [image courtesy: PPP]
While the leaders of three parties promptly responded, the PML-N has neither been able to arrange a meeting, or respond to our queries.

  1. What are the three main environmental issues plaguing Pakistan?

Imran Khan identified the “foremost challenge” facing Pakistan as climate change. “It is no longer a distant threat but a ground reality affecting the country in critical ways,” he said. He said that he found “rapid deforestation”, “uncontrolled and choking urban air pollution” as disturbing as the water crisis – both of water scarcity and the levels of pollution.

For Bilawal Bhutto Zardari “extreme water stress” and “the inequitable water rationing in low lying and vulnerable communities across Pakistan, especially those situated in large urban slums” were of key importance. He saw disposal of solid waste turning into a “big issue”, adding that cities would have to find “better ways of grappling with its management”. He was the only one that spoke to who brought up the issue of “re-use of plastics” and accompanying “strong recycling initiatives” (the PML-N manifesto addressed this too). He said “oceans, beaches, cities and villages are choking with waste” and that cleaning the environment should be made a “national effort.”

Like Imran Khan, he found “de-forestation, pollution of our rivers and sea, and poor air quality” adding to the “crisis of toxic elements”. “We must also start looking at emissions seriously, as you can see it’s already become a huge regional problem, especially in the winter months,” Bilawal Bhutto Zardari pointed out.

Asked to give a list of environmental issues faced by our country, Wasim Akhtar of MQM, said he could only think of those Karachi was beset with. “There are so many problems in Karachi we are bogged down with that resolving those alone can take one’s lifetime… I don’t even know where to begin with my list!”

He named gallons of “untreated sewage” thrown into the Arabian Sea every day that was causing “untold damage to the marine life”; storm water drains of the city choked with solid waste; the runway rate of Hepatitis C among Karachi’s population; and the increased population of stray dogs and not enough anti-rabies vaccine…” as issues he found alarming.

Being an urban-based party with a core constituency composed of relatively well-educated, middle class party voters, these civic issues had always been important to the MQM, he said. “These are the very issues that brought our party into existence. We have always been bringing them to the notice in assemblies. Our parliamentarians face the very same issues every day, they are fighting to resolve [them], unlike parliamentarians from parties with a feudal background who remain unconcerned with what the common man goes through… Their homes are not even in their constituencies they go to, to ask for votes!” he rued.

With the provincial government (the PPP) in Sindh holding on to the purse strings for the last ten years, and the MQM running the local government, Akhtar said that his position as the mayor of Karachi came with little authority. “Neither the water board, nor the solid waste department, not even the police, report to me,” he lamented, adding, “If the provincial government had the will,” things would not have come to this pass.

  1. Which environmental issue will be the first that you will take on a war footing if your party gets elected?

Imran Khan said that he hoped to “initiate a Ten Billion Tree Tsunami within our first 100 days of government”. This time, he said, the focus will be urban areas.

Imran Khan listens to a speech [image courtesy: PTI]
In 2014, PTI had launched its Billion Tree Tsunami in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where it formed its government. Four years later, independent monitors say it had surpassed its billion tree target and met the Bonn Challenge of restoring 350,000 hectares of forests and degraded land.

Bilawal Bhutto Zaradari said that the PPP will focus on water shortage, solid waste disposal and urban sewage system. He wants to continue to expand the “web of RO plants” PPP laid in Sindh to the rest of the country; “conserve water by lining more of Pakistan’s canals”, like his government did in Rohri (a town in Sindh), and “invest in desalination processes for the coastal areas” too.

  1. How will you ensure your government takes a bigger part in the global fight against climate change?

At the launch of his party manifesto, Bhutto Zardari said, “Terrorism and climate change require regional and global solutions, so we must always seek to be in dialogue with our neighbours and all global powers” but the manifesto was disappointing. There was no separate chapter devoted to environmental issues, no timeline and nothing quantified, although it promised to develop rainwater harvesting, promote drip irrigation, address waterlogging and salinity, the lining of canals and installation of plants for treatment of sewage in Karachi.

Importantly, though, the manifesto pledged to complete the stalled Bhasha-Diamer dam and resume the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline in the next five years. By 2023, the PPP promised to increase the share of renewables in the energy mix by 5%.

If elected, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari told, his party would pay close attention to Pakistan’s “climate commitments” it made at COP21 and mainstream the multi-sectoral strategies “articulated in the national and provincial climate change implementation frameworks” to reduce climate vulnerability, mitigation and adaptation strategies. “At the international level, we will make a sustained effort along with other climate vulnerable nations to press for mitigation and adaptation funding,” he promised.

He also said efforts would be made to “preserve the ecology and well-being” of the Indus Basin with a regional or basin-wide approach.

The PTI would tackle climate change through “trees, trees and more trees”, said Imran Khan. His party would “protect and expand the existing natural forests through community aided natural regeneration, expand forest areas through public- private models and to create an urban tree tsunami”.

“This will be our main tool to mitigate and adapt to global climate change,” he said confidently, adding, “We shall also make our development climate compatible and enhance the resilience of our infrastructure to rising climate vulnerabilities.”

  1. In the past several months, there is a resounding alarm over water scarcity in Pakistan. What’s your plan to resolve it?

All three leaders were unanimous that “conservation” was the key to dealing with water shortage and the urgent need for storages and reservoirs. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Imran Khan favoured “small to medium dams” and the creation of other “water storages” all over Pakistan. If the PPP came to power Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said his party plans to declare a “national water emergency” targeting the domestic, industrial and agricultural sectors. “This must be followed by an evidence-based media campaign to influence and guide citizens’ behaviour on water usage,” he said.

Wasim Akhtar on his rounds as mayor of Karachi [image courtesy: Wasim Akhtar]
Wasim Akhtar said MQM will have no qualms in initiating a dialogue on the very sensitive issue of the Kalabagh dam on the Indus in Punjab province for which a “non-serious attitude” has persisted for too long. This has been long opposed by Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces who argue it would allow Punjab to store more than its share of water.

Imran Khan pointed to the urgency of “plugging” water wastage. “We literally drain three to four Tarbela dams into the Arabian Sea every year; all this needs to stop. Water is our lifeline and we are going towards a water disaster,” he pointed out.

Possibly because he represents a mountainous area, Imran Khan seemed to be unaware of the problems of salinity creeping into the provinces like Sindh, where water was no longer reaching the sea. In contrast, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari of the PPP, which has a major presence in the Sindh, had said in one of his rallies that claims made by authorities about 35 million acre feet (MAF) of water was flowing into the sea was not true since the sea was clearly annihilating fertile land of Sindh. He criticised the Indus River System Authority for not implementing the 1991 Water Apportionment Accord between all the provinces that allowed an annual flow of 10 MAF of water downstream Kotri barrage in Sindh, to deal with sea erosion.

  1. How do you see the Indus Waters Treaty? Is it being honoured by both India and Pakistan? Do you want any change(s) in the treaty? If so, what are they?

None of the party leaders were in favour of a complete scrapping of the Indus Water Treaty. All three were of the view it had stood the test of time and served the feuding neighbours well. However, Imran Khan believed it needed to be “revisited and innovative models of shared water basin employed” with mutual consent. “For Pakistan, as the lower riparian, this is not a luxury but a necessity,” he said firmly.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, too, was of the opinion that the IWT would benefit from an “additional protocol addressing ecological flows and the environment at large”. Furthermore, he added, the treaty may be “deficient on later day environment and climate degradation concerns”, but it must “not be scrapped by Pakistan” as a new treaty may not be negotiable between the two riparian states.

Wasim Akhtar was of the same opinion that the elements of “climate change and groundwater depletion” were missing in the treaty” and perhaps there was “no harm in revisiting and tweaking” it to include that.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari pointed out that a provision of the treaty has enabled India to undertake unchecked construction upstream on the Western rivers. “These have been referred to the arbitration mechanism with mixed results for Pakistan.”

Footnote from experts

After our sessions with the politicians, we turned to experts to ask them what they thought of the promises made by political parties on the eve of elections.

Adil Najam, Dean of the Frederick S Pardee School of Global Studies, at Boston University, said there was “political benefit” at home and internationally in being seen to be “green” and he has noticed “sensible and frankly heartfelt ideas and statements” coming from politicians not just on climate but on water as well. “If I compare to even ten years ago, I think the awareness is more and the interest is also beginning to be real,” he concluded.

However, Malik Amin Aslam, global vice president of International Union on Conservation of Nature, did not think political parties in Pakistan were “attuned” to dealing with these issues and “despite the urgency, these issues remain on the “fringes of the overall political debate in the country”.

Michael Kugelman, who specialises on Pakistan at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C., said there was “certainly a lot of noise” coming from the political class these days about “climate”, especially water. He, however, did not see these issues resonating on the campaign trail.

Importantly, said Najam, this interest may not be translated into “serious policy intervention”. He said unless these environmental issues become central to the public, politicians will not see these “turning into votes”. Kugelman concurred, “Until there’s a paradigm shift in society that enables masses of voters to realise that environmental issues are critically important, I don’t think these issues will figure heavily in electoral campaign messaging.” He added that voters were still most interested in hearing about “bread-and-butter” issues like jobs and food prices and, beyond that, concerns such as corruption.

If Pakistani politicians really want to make a change on environmental issues, they will have to tie them to these.