No, India did not cause the heat wave in Karachi

Pakistan needs a solid adaptation plan that will ensure that human and natural systems are made resilient to the impacts of a warming world

Among the usual gems of wisdom expounded by our leaders the one this week took the cake. The Minister of Climate Change hypothesized that the heat wave in Karachi was due to the hot air from Rajasthani power plants being directed towards the city. This is what happens when you willy-nilly appoint people ignorant of facts, at important ministerial posts.

While transboundary pollution is a problem of course, what the Minister does not understand is that climate change (or global warming) does not happen in this way. Let me simplify it. The earth's atmosphere has a certain amount of carbon dioxide (as well as other gases). This CO2 creates what is called the greenhouse effect, ensuring that the temperature of the earth is suitable for life on the planet. That is, it is not too cold. However, due to extensive use of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas), more and more CO2 is released into the atmosphere making it thicker and able to trap more and more heat. However, this does not mean that India's coal power plants are sending hot air into Pakistan.

Burning coal generates a lot of CO2 and approximately one third of global energy requirements are fulfilled by coal power plants. And as mentioned above, this CO2 collects in the atmosphere, making the world warmer. Other impacts of this are rising sea levels (due to melting of glaciers), changing rainfall patterns (which can result in drought in some regions and floods in others), changing snowfall patterns, expansion of deserts etc. Extreme weather events can mean heat waves, which is what has happened in Karachi in the last few days or so.

It is worth noting that Pakistan does not contribute extensively to global emissions (0.7%). However, its carbon emissions continue to increase with the transport sector being a significant contributor, together with energy production. Due to the increase in global emissions, Pakistan, like other developing countries, stands to be adversely impacted. A warming climate will increase glacial melt in the Himalayas thus leading to excessive flooding and will also affect water resources further. Sea levels will rise and flooding will also be experienced from the Arabian Sea. Therefore, it is crucial for Pakistan to implement effective strategies to adapt to such eventualities, in order to deal with the expected mortality rates due to flood and drought situations (as was seen in Thar). One of the reasons for such a huge loss of life in Thar has been due to a lack of preparedness.

Other issues that exacerbate the situation are extensive cutting down of forests to make room for agriculture and housing. Forests, when cleared or degraded contribute one-sixth of global carbon emissions. Conversely, more forest cover means that more CO2 is being absorbed by trees, thus decreasing the concentration in the air. Furthermore, unplanned urbanization, as is the case in Karachi, also contributes to rising temperatures together with deforestation and CO2 emissions.

What the world has understood is that climate will change. The need is to ensure that this change is minimized as much as possible through mitigation of carbon emissions. This can be done by reducing emissions and by increasing sinks of greenhouse gases. However, we have brought the earth to that stage where even with mitigation climate is going to continue to change. Therefore, adaptation is a crucial need.

Developing countries like Pakistan should contribute to global mitigation efforts, but more importantly, Pakistan needs a solid adaptation plan that will ensure that human and natural systems are made resilient to the impacts of a warming world.

Unfortunately, among other issues in Pakistan, crises and disaster preparedness are just fancy words not understood by government officials. Climatology is a science and extensive scientific research is being conducted on climate change globally. Increasing knowledge about this issue and how to deal with it are important aspects that Pakistan needs to get into.  This however is not happening. There is an extreme lack of knowledge and capacity in the country.

Added to that and extremely important is the fact that no amount of adaptation plans and policies (and adages from climate change ministers) are going to work if local governance is ignored. That is what happened in Karachi. Heat waves (and other disasters) should be expected but if the so called experts do not have the knowledge to understand the issues and to deal with them through a governance system, we can continue to expect the deaths of our citizens.

So, no, India did not cause the heat wave in Karachi but the lack of preparedness and response of the powers that be, surely contributed to its people dying.

Saima Baig

Saima Baig is a Karachi-based environmental economist, climate change consultant and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter

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