Flood-hit Pakistan is seeking priority access to climate-change aid, challenging the United Nations’ definition of the neediest countries. Rina Saeed Khan reports.
As Pakistan struggles to recover from recent devastating floods, it is pushing for recognition in United Nations climate negotiations as one of those nations judged to be most vulnerable to climate change and in need of funding to cope.
This summer's flooding, caused by unprecedented monsoon rainfall, has drawn international attention to the damaging effects of climate change in the region, with the United Nations describing it as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster in recent years.
“Climate change, with all its severity and unpredictability, has become a reality for 170 million Pakistanis. The present situation in Pakistan reconfirms our extreme vulnerability to the adverse impacts of climate change,” foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureishi told the UN General Assembly in September.
He said the crisis strengthened the case for “a fair and equitable outcome” from talks on a new deal to tackle global warming, inching along under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Within that process, pressure is growing for a wider definition of countries that are regarded as “particularly vulnerable” to climate change – currently confined to the world's least developed nations, small island developing states threatened by rising sea levels and African countries affected by floods and droughts.
This excludes a number of developing countries like Pakistan, which are proposing a redefinition on the grounds they are also likely to be hit hard by global warming.
“We have discussed this issue with a number of countries such as Colombia, Guatemala, Argentina, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Philippines, and they all agree,” said Farrukh Iqbal Khan, Pakistan's lead negotiator at the UN talks.
The question of exactly which nations are regarded as especially vulnerable has become more important because they are likely to be first in line for funding to help them cope with the effects of global warming. “I feel the main motivation behind this is indeed based on expectations of using these definitions to allocate funding for adaptation,” said Saleemul Huq, a senior fellow in climate change at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).
Pakistan negotiator Khan said the issue has put some governments off backing the Copenhagen Accord, the non-binding agreement stitched together by a small group of countries at last December's UN climate talks and now supported by more than 120 nations. The accord commits wealthy nations to providing “new and additional” funding to the tune of US$30 billion (201 billion yuan) for the period 2010 to 2012 to help poorer countries tackle climate change, although the architecture for disbursing the money is not yet in place. It states that funding for adaptation to climate change “will be prioritised for the most vulnerable developing countries, such as the least developed countries, small island developing states and Africa.”
According to Khan, this confuses matters even further, because the term “most vulnerable” is an “undefined and vague concept introduced in the Copenhagen Accord”, whereas the UNFCCC uses only the phrase “particularly vulnerable”.
Most experts agree that terms like “vulnerability” and “resilience” have been used in the climate negotiations without a clear, shared definition.
The UNFCCC’s Adaptation Fund, which has just started disbursing money for projects in poor countries, is now trying to come up with criteria that take vulnerability into account “in a manner that will be acceptable to all”, according to IIED's Huq.
For crisis-hit Pakistan, it’s about much more than arcane wrangling over terminology.
Even before this year’s floods, Pakistan hosted an event at the Copenhagen summit to draw attention to the risks it faces from a warmer planet, including more variable monsoon rains, receding Himalayan glaciers, decreased capacity of water reservoirs and extreme weather events.
But turnout was poor, and Pakistan’s voice was drowned out by other countries also suffering the effects of climate change, such as Bangladesh and small-island states.
Pakistan is now seeking to strengthen its case at the next UN climate conference in Mexico from November 29 to December 10, where it will push for vulnerability to be judged according to physical attributes rather than limited to a specific set of countries.
Its proposed definition of “particularly vulnerable developing countries” for future UN climate agreements adds “developing country parties with coastal areas, tropical and mountainous glaciers and fragile ecosystems, as well as countries facing monsoon variability and frequent intense summer heat waves”. It also wants taken into account “the needs of countries affected by drought, desertification, floods and sea level and temperature rise in Africa and Asia”.
But Pakistan's negotiators face an uphill task.
In its 2007 benchmark report, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change highlighted the complex and subjective nature of determining vulnerability, pointing to the role of factors besides science, including social systems. For example, Bangladesh and the Netherlands face the same risk from rising sea levels, but the poorer South Asian nation is more vulnerable because of its lower level of development and more fragile socio-economic conditions. In addition, scientists don’t know for sure how fast the earth’s climate will change and have more work to do on categorising the worst-case scenarios.
But many experts agree with Pakistan that the country’s worst floods on record should serve as a wake-up call to ensure vulnerable nations that need help get it fast. “The Pakistan [floods] tragedy highlights the immense need for financing for developing countries to cope with extreme weather events, an increasing number of which are caused by climate change,” said Martin Khor, executive director of the South Centre, a developing-country think tank. (Editor's note: as of October 13, the Asian Development Bank and World Bank estimate that the summer flooding in Pakistan caused US$9.5 billion worth of damage to the country's infrastructure, agriculture and other sectors.)
Rina Saeed Khan is a Lahore-based freelance journalist who specialises in climate-change issues.
This article was first published by Reuters AlertNet.
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