The 2005 earthquake and three continuous years of bad floods caused widespread devastation in Pakistan. The natural calamities are not Pakistan-specific but are witnessed throughout the world – the Fukushima Tsunami, Hurricane Sandy etc. What has gone wrong with the Mother Nature, why it is being so erratic? The rising population, growing industries, pollution, use and abuse of natural resources have all taken their toll on the nature. It is not Mother Nature that is being erratic but us who are showing no mercy towards her.
Humans depend on ecology for water, food and natural resources. These are fundamental concerns for humans. The environment is common to all and cannot be delineated like the political borders. Environment is a collective good that implies sacrificing individual interest for achieving shared benefits. Our global environment is at the mercy of local and national practices. Environmental problems are complex. They need a comprehensive approach and a joint mechanism. There is a need to engrain the thought that national interests can be best met by cooperation and collective action; developing regional framework of cooperation and devising policies and adopting practices at local, national and regional level.
South Asia has seen more than 900 natural disasters since 1970 and their frequency has steadily been rising since then. The natural disasters take a toll on South Asia in various ways – human casualties, damage to properties; human displacement and migration; loss of agricultural productivity; increase in diseases and health hazards.
South Asia stands vulnerable to these natural disasters due to lack of coping and adaptive capacities. Though there are some regional arrangements on cooperation in this regard: these include South Asian Association for Environmental Cooperation; South Asia Cooperative Environment Programme (SACEP); South Asia Environment Outlook (SAEO); SAARC Natural Disaster Rapid Response Mechanism etc. Yet the output is negligible.
The ecological issues have a security dimension to it as well. Climatic changes can lead to intra-state tensions. Due to climatic changes agricultural productivity is affected Decreased agricultural production lead to increased food prices that cause poverty and destabilize weak economies. This destabilization results in collapse of social system and eventually violent conflict in form of ethnic conflict or civil wars.
Competition over scarce natural resources can also lead to inter-state conflict. The most likely source to generate conflict is sharing of water. Water sharing has generated conflicts worldwide along the Nile, Jordan and Euphrates Rivers in Middle East; on Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers in South Asia; and on Rio Grande, Colorado, and Parana Rivers in the Americas. By building dams the upstream states reduce the downstream flow. The most serious threat to security in South Asia is the Indo-Pak conflict over water sharing.
A recent study by Saleem H. Ali on ‘Ecological Cooperation in South Asia: The Way Forward’ suggests enhancing ecological cooperation under the auspices of SAARC. The study asserts that ecological cooperation can help build trust among regional countries that can lead towards resolution of territorial disputes. Among other things, the study suggests invoking environment treaties, broadening knowledge networks, developing communication during crisis and so forth.
The study puts too much faith in SAARC which is inspired by success of other regional bodies. But the question is whether this faith is misplaced. As the author also notes in the study that due to hostility between Pakistan and India, international bodies and even the United States have refrained from pushing them towards cooperation.
Cooperation in South Asia remains hostage to past misgivings and distrust. Now, what should be the modus opernadi? Should cooperation be pursued in hope of building trust or should trust be placed in each other to cooperate. It is similar to famous chicken and egg causality dilemma, figuring out what’s the cause or the consequence. There is no easy answer to this conundrum. Both should be pursued simultaneously. Of course vigilance and bargaining is the key in international relations.
Much can be gained by education of the masses. The awareness about environment issues can help bring a change in attitude of people towards nature. Level of awareness in Pakistan has certainly risen. In a recent Gilani Poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan, it was discovered that Pakistanis are well aware of environmental problems such as shortage of fresh water; automobile emissions, water pollutions; loss of animal and plant species; depletion of natural resources; air pollution and climate change due to Greenhouse effect. The most serious concern of Pakistanis is shortage of fresh water.
One could begin with making small contributions towards nature such as abandoning the use of plastic bags, conservation and hygiene practices etc. These integrated individual efforts can lead towards achieving a bigger goal. These individual efforts will make a meaningful contribution only when they are supervised by the national governments within the larger regional or global framework and devised policies. Reaching a consensus is hard to come by but the price of non-cooperation is high. Concerted efforts at regional level i.e., pooling of resources and knowledge can help save our ecology.