Pakistan and Climate Adaptation

As of 2022, over 33 million people in Pakistan have been internally displaced due to floods, which have increased in frequency and intensity due to climate change. With a population of nearly 240 million, Pakistan emits less than 1% of global greenhouse gases. However, the country is the “eighth most vulnerable nation to the climate crisis, according to the Global Climate Risk Index.” The multilateral system, with U.S. leadership, must not allow the vulnerability of countries like Pakistan to climate-related disasters to go unaddressed. U.S.-Pakistan collaboration on climate adaptation in Pakistan can serve as a model for cooperation on future issues such as food security and relations in South Asia, particularly relations with countries with growing influence, such as India. Working together on climate also exemplifies that the U.S.-Pakistan relationship does not need to be solely military-focused. 

It is an opportune time for the Biden administration to diversify its relationship with Pakistan, given that the departure of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has lessened the intense focus on security cooperation.  Moreover, India’s reluctance to stand firmly with the U.S. on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have served as a reminder for U.S. policy makers of the need to continue maintaining a diverse set of partnerships in South Asia. This is an opportunity for U.S. and Pakistani policy makers to think more broadly about new areas of cooperation with Pakistan, which are important to both countries.  Climate adaptation is an obvious one. 

U.S.-Pakistan cooperation on climate adaptability in Pakistan needs to consider a range of factors:  

1. Finding models for local adaptability will be more practical than trying to change governance at the national level in Pakistan. The public sector in Pakistan is highly politicized, which exacerbates the government’s efforts to provide basic services like clean drinking water, unpolluted air, healthcare, education, and to treat wastewater. The provision of these services is further threatened further by climate change, which can lead to droughts, flooding, displacement, and an increased need for medical attention due to climate-related disasters. Moreover, while the U.S. needs to seek a general agreement with the government in Islamabad on the priority of climate adaptability and will require its support to pursue an effective programming strategy, the focus of the implementation ought to be at the local level. the identification of strategic and operational priorities for adaptation in each division, district/sub-national level may result in more meaningful outcomes than pursuing a national strategy that requires the federal government to push out plans and programs in an environment rife with a political federal-provincial disconnect. In addition, the priorities for climate adaptability at the sub-national level could be different and sometimes more challenging than at the provincial or national level. Lastly, Pakistan needs to develop a vulnerability map/index to identify the most at-risk regions where climate adaptation measures should be targeted in the first instance.  The mapping exercise can also help identify areas where infrastructure should be reinforced to withstand extreme weather events and highlight potential areas for the development of green infrastructure. 

2. Community-level capacity building will be essential for the effective implementation of disaster preparedness measures and to sustain climate adaptation efforts.  Training can include how to use flood-resistant technologies and how to plant weather-resilient crops and seeds (e.g., cotton, wheat, rapeseed). However, it is necessary to recognize that the development of these technologies can be extremely expensive for low-income countries like Pakistan. Thus, focusing efforts on technology transfers and targeted financing for adaptation measures may prove more cost-effective. Farmers in low-income countries may not even be aware of technologies like weather-resilient crops, and thus public advocacy, awareness, and training on how to use these technologies are essential.  

Individuals at the community level have a more in-depth understanding of the frequency and impact of climate-related catastrophes on their livelihoods, and as such, their insights into how technologies can best be used in their communities should also be incorporated into any training. The integration of climate adaptation technologies must be guided by hard data, particularly on issues like hazardous air quality.  

COP27 in November 2022 recognized community-led initiatives for climate change adaptation, where Bangladesh’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Shahab Uddin also endorsed the Global Commission on Adaptation’s “Principles for Locally Led Adaptation Action”. This recognition of community-led climate adaptation initiatives at a global convening like COP27 displays a degree of international support for these measures, which could aid Pakistan in securing outside financing for such efforts. External financial support came in the shape of over $9 billion in pledges to Pakistan from international partners at the International Conference on Climate Resilient Pakistan hosted by Pakistan and the United Nations in Geneva on January 9, 2023, in response to the historic flooding.  

3. There is a lack of scientific data available for the implementation of climate adaptation measures. Systematic data to evaluate the effects of climate change in Pakistan remains limited, particularly regarding increasingly severe weather events in the region and the effectiveness of past climate adaptation measures. The collection of this data is crucial to guide local government officials on what kinds of climate adaptation measures are already being pursued and in which parts of Pakistan. Once appropriate measures are identified, these can be integrated into other development efforts such as those addressing food and water security and sustainable urban and rural public infrastructure.  

The issues facing Pakistan regarding data collection on climate adaptation are seen across the globe. Gathering data on the effectiveness of these measures is difficult given that climate-related hazards and weather events constantly change conditions and thus the baseline against which improvement can be measured is hard to quantify. A globally recognized definition of climate adaptation is also lacking, meaning that the kinds of activities classified under these measures are unclear and thus funding may not reach critical initiatives. The absence of standardized monitoring and evaluation frameworks for the progress of climate adaptation measures places an additional burden on countries’ governments to create these frameworks, many of which, like Pakistan, have limited time and resources, and face governance issues and bureaucratic roadblocks. In fact, the London School of Economics conducted research which found that, “over 60% of the countries that have developed a National Adaptation Plan do not systematically assess it.” 

Given the aforementioned factors, the U.S. and Pakistan should collaborate on taking the following practical steps in the following 1-3 years to help ensure the success of climate adaptation measures in Pakistan: 

  1. Identify and partner with Pakistani research institutes and universities for research on appropriate and practical climate resistance technologies for Pakistan. 

  2. Identify a modest number of local communities in Pakistan that are interested in and prepared to design/implement climate adaptability measures, and commit to supporting their efforts through financial, technical, and other assistance. 

  3. Work with the private sector in Pakistan to identify specific climate adaptivity investment opportunities and incentivize U.S. investment in these projects.  

  4. Work with international financial institutions and other donors to ensure that data collection needs are being addressed. 

  5. Review the budgets of USAID and other U.S. economic development agencies to ensure climate adaptability is prioritized. A few particularly relevant areas for the U.S. and Pakistan to cooperate on financing include investments in clean/green energy, reforestation, public transport, and infrastructure. It would be wise for the U.S. to pursue investments in these areas under the wider umbrella of climate adaptation efforts, as this could cultivate greater regional cooperation, given that managing the effects of climate change is a common goal.  

Climate adaptation and governance challenges evident in Pakistan are endemic in the South Asia region, with Pakistan serving as a microcosm of the immense human and ecological suffering that will ensue if global powers like the United States do not actively pursue collaboration with Pakistan to address these pressing concerns. The U.S. has vested interests in Pakistan due to its regional location making it a potential bridge between West, Central, and South Asia, and the opportunity for America to regain its reputation as a serious and credible partner truly concerned about the well-being and priorities of citizens across the globe, a reputation which suffered from the many compromises the US made in the war on terror in Afghanistan and other countries.   Pakistan for its part needs to work on eliminating causes of misgovernance and lack of transparency and accountability in spending. Pakistan received a 28/100 on Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index” (0 being highly corrupt and 100 very clean), ranking the country among the 40 most corrupt nations out of the 180 countries analyzed. By comparison, Pakistan’s neighbors scored the following: India (40/100); Afghanistan (16/100); Iran (25/100); Tajikistan (25/100); Uzbekistan (28/100); China (45/100).  Whether or not climate adaptation measures are appropriately implemented and sustained will depend in many ways on the quality of governance and transparency in program selection and implementation. The United States would be wise to work closely with Pakistan to design effective programs to improve governance, transparency, and accountability in tandem with climate adaptation measures. 

Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development
Robin L. Raphel
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development
Mooed Yusuf
Scholar, Author, former National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister of Pakistan