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Q&A: Ali Tauqeer Sheikh

by Umair Rasheed

Ali Tauqeer Sheikh is the Chief Executive Officer of the Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan, an organization engaged in research and policy advocacy on sustainable development.  Sheikh has previously served as an advisor to the Asian Development Bank, European Commission, International Development Research Center, International Fund for Agricultural Development, Japan International Cooperation Agency, Packard Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, The Asia Foundation and the United Nations Development Program. His areas of interest include the poverty-environment nexus, climate vulnerabilities and equitable development. MIT Technology Review sat down with him to discuss the various climate change challenges the country faces and how to best address them.

How do you assess the National Climate Change Policy in terms of dealing with major risks faced by a developing country like Pakistan?

Pakistan formulated a climate change policy several years ago. The circumstances have changed since then, internally as well as externally. Internally, since the policy was passed in 2013, we have made advances in devolution of powers related to environment, water and disaster management to provinces under the 18th constitutional amendment. Externally, we have had the Shanghai Pact, the 2016 Paris agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for 2030.

Therefore, the policy requires revisiting to assess areas where changes ought to be made. The existing policy is very comprehensive and broad in scope, covering a whole range of issues. However, it does not give us a smaller set of activities that can be prioritized.  The implementation framework developed after the policy’s approval also contains very large number of activities.

I suggest that we should work along four directions. Firstly, most provinces have already started drafting their own policies, which are at different stages of development. The approval of these policies needs to be expedited. Secondly, we need sector-specific implementation plans for agriculture, irrigation, urban development, etc. Thirdly, the Parliament had approved [in 2016] an intended nationally determined contribution (NDC) as part of global efforts against climate change. Like other countries, we have to now submit a revised NDC document to the international bodies. And finally, we need to align our national agenda and commitments with the SDGs that relate to climate change.

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Once these processes are kicked off, it will give us space to think of revisions to be incorporated into the national-level climate change policy.

How will the construction of mega dams affect the health of the Indus delta?  According to reports, the construction of dams for irrigation and power chokes off much of the fresh water supply to the delta.

The construction of every infrastructure project upstream is bound to affect downstream flows, whether its done by India or within the country in upper riparian provinces. So the question is how do we ensure that new projects help us address fundamental concerns such as river flows between seasons, but at the same time give us sufficient surface water flows at environmentally sustainable levels for the Indus delta’s health.

Unfortunately, the delta has been dying because we have been unable to ensure adequate flow of water all year round. Reduced flows and diminishing mangroves have already led to loss of thousands of acres of land to sea water intrusion.

We must beware that in addition to larger reservoirs and dams, there is also a need in this country for construction of a chain of smaller dams that can use surface water to regenerate our ecosystems, including wetlands and recharging of groundwater levels. These are complex issues that require systematic handling, resource allocation, and technology, but this conversation has just started in the country.

Again, let me reiterate that larger dams address only a part of our problem and are not a solution in and of themselves. Think of increased river flows because of receding glaciers. Estimates suggest that this will lead to excess water by about 10 percent annually from now up to 2050. We don’t have a system to capture and use this water for productive activities, including for the maintenance of the Indus delta.

Sedimentation is another issue. Any flow of water is bound to bring large amounts of sedimentation that reduces the life of physical infrastructure like dams. A chain of smaller dams upstream can ensure that when water reaches a large dam, it does not carry a huge amount of sediments. We will also need to acquire a technology to suck or lift sedimentation from larger dams to increase their lives. It’s expensive but we will have to find a way to get it.

How do you assess the state of conservation efforts for the mangrove forests in Sindh and Balochistan? How can these efforts be improved?

The mangrove ecosystem confronts three simultaneous problems. The first is universal and is seen in most coastal cities across the globe. It is encroachments made into the mangroves due to development demands as human settlements expand along coast lines. Second is specific to our region and concerns out-migration of families from hamlets along the delta for livelihood needs. These families are now providing the urban labour force in nearby cities. The third aspect concerns loss of biodiversity. From a time when there were a dozen or so mangrove species, we have been left with only a single type of mangrove.

Very few efforts have been undertaken by the government to address the depleting reserves of mangroves, and unfortunately, those few efforts have also mostly been directed at generating hype in the media, rather than addressing the issue itself.

Please elaborate on the usefulness or limitations of the new government’s “Green Growth initiative,” which includes the mass afforestation “Billion Tree Tsunami” project.

The biggest contribution of the initiative has been to draw attention towards an important aspect of our ecology. We need to have more area under forest cover. The number (of trees planted) is less important as far as I’m concerned, it is more important that a conversation has started in the country about the need for more plantation, and people are being engaged in the process of plantation. Having said that, I believe that we will improve our understanding of the process as we repeat it several times. For instance, we still need to figure out how best to avoid invasive and imported species, and to promote indigenous species instead.

Furthermore, plantation itself is the easier part. Protection of these plantations will be much harder, so we need some sort of a rewards system at the national level to ensure that plantations remain protected. The private sector could also be engaged in the process. In short, there are many elements of governance and management of the ecosystem that we still need to work out to achieve the intended results of such initiatives.

While mafias have a huge role in timber smuggling, ‘illegal’ tree cutting is also done by ordinary citizens. What environmentally-friendly initiatives must be prioritized to balance the needs of these citizens with efforts to counter climate change impacts?

For each tree that the community cuts for its fuel needs, there are several hundred that are cut by organized rackets. It shows that the scale of smuggling far outweighs the community’s role in the matter.

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I can think of three areas needing urgent attention. First, we don’t have a coherent policy for timber import and export. Once a policy is on the table, we can then talk about its implementation. Two, we don’t have access to technologies to reduce use of timber in construction and related activities. Finally, we have to address the energy needs of the poor who rely on forest wood through renewable sources.  What is needed is to provide these communities with good incentives to let them transition from wood to renewable energy. The private sector can be engaged for this task.

The import of electronic, medical and plastic waste continues in Pakistan even though the country is signatory to Basel convention. Can you share some international best practices on sustainably dealing with such waste products?

We have examples like the Netherlands, where waste is being converted into energy through a very clean process. In Pakistan, we are irresponsible when it comes to this sector because it involves large scale child labor and environmental standards are very weak.

We have several markets for second-hand goods which contribute to this problem. From the ship breaking industry in Sindh and Balochistan to electronic and computer waste markets in major cities like Lahore and Karachi and markets of plastic waste materials, there are several such places inside the country.

Import of such waste is in violation of some of Pakistan’s international commitments, and this needs to be discouraged. Additionally, we need to develop standards to be enforced and build  strong environmental regulatory and oversight mechanisms.

Based on your research and policy experience, how do you assess the efficacy of carbon pricing, storage and capture technologies for developing countries like Pakistan?

Carbon capture and storage involves cutting edge technologies. A lot of research is happening on these technologies across the globe. We certainly need to stay abreast on these developments. I understand that we do have facilities available inside the country that can help undertake storage (when needed), but at the moment, this must remain at the theoretical level, because Pakistan faces several other issues concerning the environment and climate change that need to be prioritized.

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