The dormant ministry of climate change and KP’s billion trees

“If you plant trees, we have discovered, by the river banks it sustains the rivers. But most importantly, the glaciers that are melting in the mountains and one of the biggest reasons is because there has been a massive deforestation. So, this billion tree project is very significant for our future.” (Imran Khan)

IUCN praised the efforts of the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) for restoring 350,000 hectares of forests and degraded land under the “Billion Tree Tsunami” project. A brainchild of Imran Khan, the project began in 2015 and is expected to be completed by the end of 2017. When you consider the fact that the project has reached 89% completion but has already surpassed the Bonn Challenge commitment of 348,400 hectares, one cannot help commending the feat achieved. However, instead of following in the footsteps of the KP government, rival governments and the ex-first lady of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party have slammed the project, audited by WWF-Pakistan, as bogus. Considering the international recognition that the project has received, the remarks of the naysayers appear to be denials at best, and excuses at worst.

Speaking of excuses, one must notice the fact that the Ministry of Climate Change has been absent from the hoo-ha that has been created. The ministry has been absent from everywhere, lately, just as all other ministries, since the advent of the Panama case. However, one cannot help but wonder about the dormancy of the Ministry of Climate Change at a time when the Green Climate Fund has approved a grant of $37.5 million for the risk reduction of Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) in the northern part of Pakistan. Why is it that at a time of such urgency, the ministry appears to be nothing more than a mere showpiece? Maybe because it probably is.

The KP government was able to make provisions for the Billion Tree Tsunami within their provincial budget and on the back of generous donations; however, that will not always be the case, especially for a developing country like Pakistan. Pakistan is the seventh most exposed country to the climate’s whim and the need to mobilise climate finance is dire. Yet, the Ministry of Climate Change doesn’t look at all stressed, considering the usual remarks and comments of the minister.

One of the biggest reasons for the ministry’s inefficiency is the fact that it is politicised. Climate change is serious and requires extensive knowledge and expertise to be understood and tackled. It’s baffling that the minister, Mushahidullah Khan, neither has the background nor the relevant education in the science of climate change. Imagine a lawyer doing a scientist’s job, for that is exactly what is happening here. It’s evident that his appointment is, purely, for political reasons as nothing else can justify it. Is there no one in Pakistan who understands the biggest threat to Pakistan better than Mr Mushahidullah? I very much doubt it. The donors of climate finance will, certainly, recognise this fact as well.

The ministry has been inefficient, arguably since its inception, and has nothing to show except for a website with broken links, empty promises and ambiguous projects. One might argue in favor of the ministry by saying that their efforts for getting the grant are commendable, but, in my opinion, it brings into light a great failure on part of the ministry. The fact that they managed to secure a small portion of the funds that were meant to be utilised by countries like Pakistan might be termed as grand—depending upon the lens that one has got on—but the point of concern is that if one peeks into the project’s intricacies and descriptions, one would realise that the Ministry of Climate Change Pakistan does not have access to the funds, directly at least. The funds will be given out to United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry will be responsible for the execution of the project merely. The reason is that none of the accredited entities in the GCF are from Pakistan, neither private nor government. What this means is that Pakistan cannot have direct access to the development funds and will be dependent upon the cooperation of international entities, such as UNDP, if it wishes to make use of the climate funds. Pakistan should take a note in this regard from Ethiopia, India, Peru and Rwanda if it wishes to get a better part of the development funds, for the sake of its survival.

On the bright side of things, it might be a positive for Pakistan that the country will not have direct access to the funds. I say this because the biggest curse for Pakistan, for a good part of the last three decades or so, has been corruption. Almost all of the major politicians and leaders in the era have had unanswered allegations of corruption levelled against them. In the last nine years, especially, development projects without allegations of corruption or kickbacks have been seldom. Considering the track record of the current government, the severe allegations against them and the recent discoveries of the Panama JIT, I think it’s for the best that UNDP shall be responsible for the transparent implementation of the GLOF project, no matter how unfortunate that might be.

The yearly occurrences of heat waves and floods have made them run of the mill for Pakistan—a routine matter—and the people have learned to live with them, much like how they’ve learned to live with various social plagues that haunt them daily. The ultimate result of the yearly floods, however, might be on display by the year 2060, for the National Institute of Oceanography, in 2015, predicted that three of the coastal cities of Pakistan—Karachi, Thatta and Badin—will be completely engulfed by the persistent rising of the Arabian Sea. When you add the risk of famine to the list, it becomes clear that climate change has put the very survival of Pakistan at stake. The Federal government—taking cue from the climate threat or their opposition in KP—launched the Green Pakistan Programme according to which, a budget of Rs 1 billion has been pledged for the plantation of two million tress across the country. The proposal appears formidable on paper, but considering the recently reported mega corruption in the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park and a history of the false promises that the people of Pakistan have been fed, one would be best served by reserving their judgment and keeping a skeptical eye on the matters.

The way forward would be to, first of all, depoliticise the ministry by making it a performance-based service rather than a reward for the ruling party’s loyalists. A case can even be made for a joint team—consisting of members from departments such as Climate Change, Finance and Foreign Affairs—to deal with the matters. Climate finance is serious and Pakistan needs to utilise all of the expertise it can muster up.

Considering the world of today, where finance is mandatory with almost everything, Pakistan needs to step up its climate finance game. Getting a national body accredited with the GCF might be a good place to start in this regard. Being a member of the 24-member board of the GCF, Pakistan may very well be the voice of the voiceless, representing the third world. By effectively getting the points of interest, of the countries who are most vulnerable to climate change across Pakistan has a chance to leave behind a legacy for all times to come. However, before we daydream about international stature, there is a dire need for in-house straightening.

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