Climate Change and Pakistan's Water Challenge: Achieving 2 degrees Celsius - Fact or Fiction?

January 09, 2018


The 2015 Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) aims to address the threat of climate change, and reduce its risks and adverse impacts by 'holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels'. The international community committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate global warming and, subsequently, 173 out of the 197 members became Party to the Agreement and agreed to uphold this commitment.

The unprecedented and capricious changes in climatic patterns is an issue that affects all regions, but underdeveloped and developing countries are bearing the brunt of it. The 2017 Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index highlighted that the increase in frequency of extreme precipitation events supports the scientific deduction that global warming will change the hydrological cycle irreversibly. It also stated that water-related disasters including floods and extreme precipitation had the highest adverse impact in the year 2015. The 2017 Index ranked Pakistan as one of the top ten most vulnerable countries to climate change. While Pakistan's emissions are currently negligible, future projections indicate that with further industrialization, they could increase fourfold. However, as per Pakistan's Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted under the UNFCCC process, the Ministry of Climate Change has identified three key sectors - Energy, Industry, and Agriculture - in which adaptation and mitigation measures can be undertaken to keep the projected rise in emissions deferential without impacting the economic growth of the country.

The Changing Climatic Trends

Climate Change is manifested in different forms; the intensity and magnitude of some factors are increasing, certain parameters are decreasing or reducing, while for others the patterns are becoming more erratic and difficult to define. Various studies have indicated that air temperature near surface, sea surface temperature, ocean heat content, humidity, etc. are rising while snow cover, ice sheets, glaciers, etc. are losing mass. At the same time, tree lines are shifting poleward and upward. According to the WMO Statement on the State of the Global Climate in 2016, the warming trend in the 21st century has accelerated in the past few years with 2016 becoming the warmest year on record after the year 2015. Global sea ice saw an unprecedented drop, while global sea level rose to record levels in early 2016. At the same time, Carbon Dioxide quantities reached new highs as well. The year 2017 remains on track to be amongst the three hottest years on record.

Pakistan's Cryosphere and its Significance

The significance of the north and north-western regions of Pakistan cannot be undervalued; it is home to the confluence of the world's three largest ranges - the Himalayas, the Karakoram, and the Hindukush Mountains - and the largest glacial mass outside the poles. Pakistan's cryosphere assets include over 7259 glaciers, with a total area of 11780 km2 and the total volume of ice exceeding 2000 km3. Pakistan's rivers are predominantly fed by these glaciers in conjunction with snowmelt and direct runoff.

    The Himalaya-Hindukush-Karakoram region of Pakistan has ten major sub-basins: Astor, Chitral, Gilgit, Hunza, Upper Indus, Jhelum, Shigar, Shingo, Shyok, and Swat.

    Hunza and Upper Indus basins have the largest number of glaciers at 1359 and 1344 respectively.

    The largest ice reserves are in Shyok (731 km3), Shigar (602 km3), Hunza (416 km3), and Shingo and Chitral (172 km3 each) sub-basins.

Climate Change Impacts in Pakistan

The impact of climate change is quite pronounced and prominent for Pakistan's cryosphere and water bodies. According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), South Asian Summer Monsoons are becoming more erratic, deviating substantially from the norm. The set indicators based on which monsoon behavior was being predicted have significantly changed. While the monsoon system is being intensified, it is also reaching new regions and much higher elevations that previously were not covered by the monsoon system. This stronger incursion is bringing summer rainfall in the glaciated regions of Pakistan. Moreover, the snowfall patterns are also shifting. Usually, the largest snowfall accumulation takes place by the end of January, however, this accumulation peak is gradually moving towards the spring season, and now the snow maxima takes place in late February/early March. This is resulting in a smaller residency period for snow due to the sharp increase in temperature right after spring and accelerating the melting rate. Hence, this delayed precipitation cannot replenish the retreating glaciers. While a few glaciers are showing surging behavior, most are thinning and retreating excessively. Satellite imagery shows extensive damage to the ice stream of the debris-covered Batura Glacier in the last 45 years. The terminus of the Batura Glaciers has retreated by over 700 meters. Similarly, satellite imagery also shows a retreat of 670 meters of the Passu Glacier in proximity of Batura. PMD's temperature data for the last 114 years in the northern regions is showing an increasing temperature trend by 1.4oC. This increase is approximately 0.9oC in the central plains, while along the coast line of Pakistan it is 0.65oC, showing that the higher altitude regions are most susceptible to climate change.

Predicting the Intensifying Floods

One form in which climate change has manifested itself is the increase in the intensity and frequency of floods. The 2010 floods were considered to be Pakistan's worst-ever natural disaster and were followed by a series of floods in the following five consecutive years. The 2014 floods had a massive impact on local economy, including a reduction in rice and sugarcane production by 217,000 and 726,000 tons respectively, loss of 250,000 cotton bales, and massive losses to livestock. According to the National Disaster Management Authority's (NDMA) Damages and Recovery Needs Assessment Report (2014), total damages from the 2014 floods amounted to over USD 0.45 billion.

Pakistan shares many sub-basins of the Indus River with both India and Afghanistan, all of which have distinct characteristics and varying behaviors in response to climate stresses. Data sharing between riparian parties becomes crucial in such conditions, especially for flood prediction. Presently, despite diplomatic efforts to promote cooperation between India and Pakistan, data sharing from the upper riparian is somewhat limited reducing Pakistan's capacity for flood forecasting to approximately 3-6 hours, which is not adequate for contingency measures or implementation of appropriate actions downstream.

How Pakistan can contribute to Achieving 2oC

The current projections according to a business-as-usual scenario in terms of global emissions shows that efforts to limit temperature rise to 2oC above the pre-industrial development average is a daunting challenge that requires a persistent and consistent global effort. Sharing knowledge, data, and experiences is crucial in this regard. Pakistan, according to its capacity, must develop a clear vision for the future beyond the common rhetoric. At a local level, community perspectives and expectations should be incorporated, while an implementation mechanism should be devised and followed through with concurrence from all stakeholders. Currently, Pakistan's mechanisms are scattered and the roles and responsibilities are delegated amongst various Ministries, institutions, and commissions. These governance aspects need to function together in synergy. At the same time, Pakistan must pursue scientific and research endeavors to understand the cryosphere dynamics of the Himalaya-Hindukush-Karakoram ranges. A basin-wide, comprehensive climate change assessment is the need of the hour. Introducing robust methods, models, GIS and Remote Sensing techniques, etc. can assist in conducting this assessment, monitoring, analysis, planning, and decision making.

Key Messages

    Since the 2015 Paris Agreement, the largest economies and major emitters have shown little to no reduction in their emissions. Moreover the United States has withdrawn from the Agreement in 2017

    Fourteen out of the fifteen warmest years in recorded history have been in the 21st century

    Mid-century summer rainfall peaks are shifting towards August/September, while those of the winter season are shifting towards February/March

    The mountain regions have warmed considerably over the last century, and the temperatures are expected to continue rising in the northern regions of Pakistan

    Projected changes in precipitation vary considerably in terms of both spatial variations and magnitude of change

    Exposure to hazards and extreme events such as floods, GLOFs, avalanches, and landslides are becoming more prevalent