Climate Change: Who Are We Chiding?

January 25, 2018


The Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index 2018 rates Pakistan amongst the top ten countries most vulnerable to climate change, both in the long-term index and the index for the last six years. In the last half-decade, it has experienced devastating floods almost annually, resulting in substantial human and physical losses. The higher altitude areas are most susceptible to climate change in Pakistan, with Pakistan Meteorological Department's (PMD) temperature data for the last 114 years showing an increasing trend by 1.4 degrees Celsius in the northern regions compared to 0.9 degrees Celsius in the central plains and 0.65 degrees Celsius along the coastal line.

Pakistan has ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) aiming to address the threat of climate change and holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Pakistan submitted its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) to the United Nations in 2016, outlining its strategy for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for the period 2016-2030. Moreover, Pakistan has adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Agenda 2030 as a national development framework.

LEAD Pakistan, as part of its ongoing LEADING Perspectives series on Managing Shared Basins, held an interactive session with Dr. Parvaiz Naim, climate change expert and Country Advisor at KfW Development Bank, to discuss the implications of global climate negotiations for Pakistan and improving measures to address the impact of floods.

Global Climate Negotiations - The Dilemma

UNFCCC focuses primarily on fossil fuels and agricultural emissions and sidelines industrial gases. UNFCCC covers Carbon Dioxide (global warming potential = 1), Methane (28 times that of carbon dioxide) and Nitrous Oxide 265 under the category of greenhouse gases. These gases are emitted by burning fossil fuels and through biological activities. There is little attention given to the industrial gases, some of which are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. Most significant among the industrial gases are Hydrofluorocarbon 'HFC' (up to 12,400 times that of CO2), Nitrogen trifluoride 'NF3' 16,100 and Sulfur hexafluoride 'SF6' 23,500. These gases are all man-made and emitted due to proliferating industrial activity around the globe.

The reporting of INDCs under the Paris Agreement places developing countries at a disadvantage. The contribution of countries including Pakistan in addressing climate change is measured in 'tons of GHGs emitted/year'. These contributions are determined irrespective of a country's population and irrespective of their contribution to global GHG levels. This translates into a disadvantage for poor countries with sizeable populations who are expected to make contributions at par with more rich, stable and developed countries. It also means that some of the biggest emitters stay under the radar as they contribute to reductions much less than they add to global GHG emissions.

The global discourse on climate change is dominated and shaped by actors representing the most developed regions of the world. This potentially poses the risk that the goals and targets set by these countries are more suited to their needs than those of the developing countries. Pakistan's core need is to focus on adaptation to climate change, whereas the Paris Agreement requires us to measure reductions in GHGs that are already minimal. Sidelining non-UNFCCC gases produced due to industrial activity places some of the most industrialized countries under the radar. Global agreements have provided developed countries the flexibility to pay the poor countries for reducing emissions in lieu of their own contributions to global emissions.

The Flood Challenge is Urgent

An explicit manifestation of climate change is the rising frequency of flooding and magnitude of the resulting human and physical loss. The 2010 floods had a massive impact on the local economy destroying almost a million acres of crops including rice, sugarcane and cotton. National Disaster Management Authority's (NDMA) Damages and Recovery Needs Assessment Report (2014) estimated total damages from the 2014 floods as amounting to over USD 0.45 billion.

The shifting climatic trends in Pakistan signal the onslaught of floods in Pakistan. The monsoon system has intensified and reached new regions and higher elevations that were previously not covered by the monsoon system. Snowfall patterns have shifted leading to an accelerated glacial melt with PMD observing a rise of 23 percent in the previous decade, one of the fastest in the world. Most glaciers are thinning and retreating excessively with the exception of a few.

Upstream Measures to Reduce Disaster Risk

The prevalent upstream measures for flood control constitute expanding the network of glacial monitoring in the northern regions. About 80% of the river flow comes from around 5,000 melting glaciers in the northern parts of Pakistan. Improving the tracking of glacial melt strengthens the early warning systems and reduces the impact of flooding. Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) are a major occurrence in Northern Pakistan where ice walls containing the reservoir fail, sending entire lakes to inhabited areas down below. Measures to address risks associated with GLOF have included strengthening community based disaster risk management (CBDRM) combined with effective monitoring of GLOFs using site maps and installing observatories and automated weather stations.

Pakistan needs to consider international best practices in upstream flood control that have still not been adopted in the country. This includes using methods for controlled drainage of dangerous glacier lakes. The main element in controlled drainage is the hydraulic syphon technique that can be adopted to the specific conditions of the high altitude mountainous areas. In addition, river training can be adopted to prevent and mitigate flash floods and for general flood control. River training refers to structural measures that are taken to improve a river and its banks. River training measures also reduce sediment transportation and thus minimize bed and bank erosion.

Downstream Measures to Reduce Disaster Risk

Developing new flood storage areas is possibly the most crucial downstream measure in the context of Pakistan. With the increase in intensity of monsoon system and rising rate of glacial melt and more erratic climate trends we need to strengthen our capacity to store water for future use. Weak storage capacity magnifies the risk of flooding in downstream regions badly affecting livelihoods, habitats and ecosystems. Improved water storage capacity and better governance can also help mitigate risk of droughts.

The control of reservoir sedimentation through hydraulic flushing has been employed in several parts of the world to sustain the useful storage capacity of the reservoirs. Orchestrated flushing involves opening and shutting down gates in different sequences. Dredging is another technique employed to reduce sedimentation in reservoirs thereby expanding their useful capacity and longevity. Siphon dredgers for small reservoirs are being used in Warsak, Rawal and Manchhar dams.


An explicit manifestation of climate change is the rise in the frequency and intensity of floods in the country over the past decade. Shifting climatic trends and massive economic and human loses explain the urgency of the flood challenge in Pakistan. While efforts are underway to manage and minimize losses due to flooding we need to explore further international best practices and their potential for localization. Current upstream measures for flood control in Pakistan focus on expanding glacial monitoring and community based disaster risk management. We still need to explore innovative practices such as controlling drainage of glacier lakes and building river training structures. Controlling floods downstream should focus on building new water storage structures and improving useful storage capacity of reservoirs using methods like dredging and hydraulic flushing. Developed countries dominate the global discourse on climate change posing the risk that the goals and targets set forth are more suited to their needs than those of developing countries. Addressing climate change impacts requires Pakistan to have a far greater focus on adaptation and bringing it at the forefront of policy and practice. However, it continues to emphasize mitigation measures due to global commitments and comparative ease in measuring mitigation costs and impacts.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this Update are intended to capture the discussion and debate generated by the speaker. They do not represent the opinions of LEAD Pakistan or any other organization.