Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Climate Action in Pakistan: Policies at the Top versus Voices at the Bottom

By: Ayesha Mysorewala

Pakistani's taking shelter on higher ground near Thatta after the August 2010 flood. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica

The history of the climate change movement is rooted in obscure technical concerns that are disconnected from the understanding of lay people. Roughly over the past couple of decades, however, the concern has increasingly captured widespread public consciousness and international regulatory interests as the seriousness of the problem has gradually been realized. This is evident in international diplomatic consensus, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Paris Agreement, on limiting carbon emissions. The rapid political response is undoubtedly a testimony to the authority of technical information translating into political action.[1]

The climate change debate, however, as Naomi Klein argues in a recent article, has for far too long been compartmentalized and siloed from other crises we face. This is perhaps one reason why there is continued inaction in many countries. Within this context, this blog highlights the perils associated with technocratic approaches to DRM and climate change diverging from the experiences of riverine communities in Pakistan.

How is climate change understood in Pakistan?
In recent fieldwork in Thatta for a study on social exclusion in disaster risk management (DRM) processes, people from more vulnerable communities, such as the residents of Katcho (riverine areas unprotected by embankments), told us that disasters are part and parcel of other contingencies that they face in everyday life.

This is not to say that people are unaware of climate change. However, instead of technoscientific accounts of climate change, people framed their issues in the context of environmental issues (such as weather patterns and intensities of disasters). They made sense of it through their memories of specific experiences that are a function of existing vulnerabilities due to their geographical location, class, caste/kinship group, land ownership and gender. Each of these dimensions is rooted in historical processes of marginalization that intersect with each other, and the impacts of climate change.

Similarly, paying heed to early warnings issued by the government, based on predictions of rain millimetres and water flows (that originate from the MET department and trickle down to local government/district level authorities), gave way to peoples own sensory experiences related to the physical landscape. Reactions to these warnings were again related to various socioeconomic factors. For example, those who were better off were able to react well in advance, save their belongings and acquire help from relatives to move to safe places. More vulnerable groups and individuals had to wait till the very last minute for rescue due to lack of resources to access vehicles, inability to find a safe space for or evacuation, women’s needs for privacy and seclusion, or immobility due to disability.

Top-down policies
A lack of understanding of these realities result in top-down policies based on a widespread institutional narrative that local communities are ignorant and lack awareness. The recently passed Climate Change Act for example, although an important step towards fulfilling global commitments, has been criticized for (1) being top-down and disconnected from local realities and political context of Pakistan, and (2) lacking direction on how these commitments will be achieved.

We need to develop political spaces that give opportunity for states and citizens to interact with each other and for policy to be context driven. This has implications for greater trust and two-way communication between high level bodies at the top and those who are at the frontlines of the impacts of climate change.   

There are recent examples of improved state-citizen relations due to climate action and DRM policies that pay attention to local issues in tandem with technical approaches. In her research on the post-flood response in 2010, Ayesha Siddiqi notes that the use of digitized citizenship by NADRA to universally address the needs of people opened a new space for state-citizen relations that was based on entitlements and rights, rather than systems of patronage. This developed a new narrative that diverged from the dominant one of the state being absent.

Recently, over a thousand farmers in Sindh marched to demand a water emergency. A few thousand more young people rallied for climate action last Friday across the country. This shows that there is not just an appetite for change but also a willingness to engage with the state for action. Prime Minister Imran Khan also delivered a speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit this week, requesting international coordination and assistance. While he waits, perhaps the Prime Minister can start with a coordinated response by the Pakistani state and an examination of the citizens’ demands.

[1] Demeritt argues that scientific concerns only partially drove this response. The public outrage following damages due to large disasters are part responsible for these actions.