A visual representation of the temperature change in Pakistan from 1901 to 2019
By Fr. Liam O’Callaghan, SSC
When one thinks of the many problems facing Pakistan, environmental concerns are not at the top of the list, but based on my experience and research, they are very high on that list. The recently released Germanwatch Global Climate Risk Index 2020, has Pakistan listed as the fifth most vulnerable country in the world to climate change in the period 1999-2018, though at less than 1%, Pakistan has one of the lowest greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
The rapidly increasing environmental crisis cannot get the attention it needs, in the face of so many other crises facing the country: - sixth highest population in the world at 210 million; at least four decades dealing with religious extremism and it’s fall-out; massive debt - $18 billion current a/c deficit and external debt of $105billion (those figures are from before the Covid-19 crisis!), this has led to 13 bail-outs from the IMF since 1988, the most recent being $6 b. last year.
However, the Germanwatch report starkly warns that the environmental crisis must be understood in the light of the devastating consequences on the economic, social, health situation of people and the country in general as well as the shocking rapid destruction of the natural world in Pakistan. According to the report, during that 20 year period, Pakistan experienced 152 extreme weather events – floods, heatwaves, snowfall, air pollution etc. - leading directly to the deaths of 9,989 people. The economic loss is estimated at $3.8 billion – loss of property, livestock, the cost of clean-up and repair after weather disaster, health care costs etc. And, as Pope Francis reminds us often, the effects are hardest on the poor.
This is the hard reality facing Pakistan today and our missionary work must address this if it is to be relevant at all; this also is the message of Laudato Si’, five years old this month, and the deep inspiration for our environmental work here. This is the first encyclical to specifically focus on the environment, but it is even more than that, as it links environmental concerns with issues of social justice and economic equality. With Laudato Si’, care for creation is now firmly established as one of the cornerstones of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). It is not just addressed to the church only, “I wish to address every person living on the planet…and enter into a dialogue with all people about our common home” (LS 3); this is a powerful impetus to work with people of other faiths on this crucial issue, which we are doing.
Across the diocese of Hyderabad over four years, we have held many seminars and workshops in schools and community groups. We have put emphasis on celebrating Season of Creation, by producing liturgical resources and practical suggestions for parish action. Each year, we are training environmental activists in three schools and two community groups; we have named them Mahool Dost (Friends of the Earth). The idea is to work in more depth with people, so that they will in turn become active in their communities and become agents of change in their families and wider community. We journey with 50 students and three teachers in each school, and both of the 25-member community groups for a year, with training sessions on the current environmental issues and creating together practical events such as community seminars, tree plantation, celebrating international environmental days.
One of the main challenges facing us is the difficulty in convincing others of the importance of this crisis and trying to deal with it. As we saw above, there are so many other pressing issues and often the connection is not made that environmental issues are often the root cause of many problems. The Church is very slow to focus on this issue, despite Laudato Si’ and we often struggle to get church people and parishes to focus on it. Likewise, the Government, is failing to implement and properly fund existing policies. Lack of treatment of industrial, household and agricultural waste, means much of the water supply of the country is unsafe to drink, leading to estimates of 80% of all illnesses being due to this.
The government in 2018 announced a ‘Billion tree tsunami’ which is a plan to plant a billion trees in the country; this is a huge need as tree cover of 1.9% is the lowest in Asia and one of the worst in the world. Lack of tree cover makes the issues of heatwaves, drought, and air pollution much worse. How successful this plan will be is unknown, but it is on-going and at the end of April the Government announced that thousands of workers, who became unemployed because of the Coronavirus lock-down, would be hired to plant trees as part of this plan. This is to be welcomed and hopefully can be expanded.
The Covid-19 pandemic has paralysed life at a global level in a short period, and made us realise the interconnectedness and fragility of the world we live in. The next disaster looming on the horizon is climate change, and the impact on the poor, like now, will be disproportionately high. The UN Secretary General said that the parallel threat of Covid-19 and climate change requires ‘brave, visionary and collaborative leadership’. Climate change experts of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) argue this is a crucial moment to tackle the climate crisis head-on, as well as the pandemic; they argue that dealing with both together requires us to urgently address underlying vulnerabilities – poverty, limited social safety nets, weak health systems and structural gender inequalities. Crucially, they argue the measures should have an explicit focus on the poor and marginalized. Let us hope so.
Fr. Liam O’Callaghan is a priest of the Missionary Society of St. Columban. Fr. Liam was born in Ireland and now lives in Hyderabad, located in the Sindh province of Pakistan, where he works to raise ecological awareness.