A Meeting Report
Venue: National Commission on Human Rights, Karachi
The Knowledge Forum (TKF) organized a learning and experience sharing meeting with climate activists to discuss the climate movement of Karachi at the Sindh chapter of the National Commission on Human Rights on December 21, 2021. The meeting was conducted to assess the impact of climate change and environmental pollution on citizens, the role of climate justice movements in the city, the need for collaborative practices within the climate activism circle, civil society, non-governmental organizations, participants of climate movements, government, and other relevant stakeholders. TKF also aimed to understand and initiate an open-ended documentation process of the various movements in their struggle against climate injustice.
The meeting was moderated by Zeenia Shaukat, the Director of TKF and attended by TKF’s team, climate change and environmental experts, urban planners, journalists, climate justice and environmental activists, representatives of various climate movements, government representatives, representatives of the European Climate Fund and their partners.
After a round of introduction at the meeting, the discussion was initiated by understanding core climate issues and how the recent climate movements, particularly in Karachi, have been engaged in highlighting climate injustice.
Adil Ayub of Climate Action Pakistan and Karachi Bachao Tehreek shared that the climate movement is a multipolar entity in Pakistan, hence it is inaccurate to deem it one. He added that most of the climate discourse is driven by NGOs, environmental groups and experts, and youth activists which do not necessarily brand themselves to be specifically pursuing climate activism. Adil admitted that the local climate movement lacks consensus among relevant groups and activists.
“There are constant shifts, negotiations, and different groups are trying to define the climate movement and issues in Pakistan differently,” he said.
Sharing his views on intersectionality, origins of political organizing, and challenges faced by the movement, Adil said that both the climate marches held in 2019 and 2021 helped make Pakistan relevant in the global climate justice discourse.
“The march from 2019 responded to the global call and there was immense momentum, as the strike took place globally and turned into a large media spectacle,” he said and added that the march which took place in 2021 garnered the attention of the provincial administration, which is why those at the helm of the event were met with force and resistance by Sindh Police.
Adil further shared that the marches cannot be deemed unsuccessful, as they managed to bring most climate justice groups, individuals, and experts to the same table. However, the movement is still fragmented and not fully representative of the communities it was being initiated for. Therefore, there is a need for robust efforts and relevant language to ensure long-term and effective change.
“It is important to bring everyone together, develop a shared manifesto and use appropriate climate justice language because it takes the movement on the global platform. It is important to bring them under the same banner using the right language to address climate injustice and turn it into a broad movement,” he said.
Adil also added that communities that are the most affected by climate change have been turned into externalities and face state violence following mega development projects in the city.
“We see both federal and provincial governments launching these huge disastrous projects for a clean green Pakistan. For example, the announcement of the Karachi Coastal Comprehensive Development Zone in Machar Colony was made without taking in consideration the residents and marine ecology of the area. The strategy implemented on Gujjar Nala and Orangi Nala demolitions also garnered resistance from communities that faced state violence. When affectees of profit-generating projects come together, it becomes a huge threat to the state, which is why you see the disproportionate response,” he spoke during the meeting.
Muhammad Toheed, an urban planner and representative of the Karachi Urban Lab, also spoke about the need for engaging and bringing affected communities living in informal settlements to the forefront to assess the impact of climate change and tackle climate injustice. He insisted that while urban forests and plantation drives are most needed to reduce environmental pollution in impoverished areas, we see those thriving in posh localities instead. He added that the issue is largely discussed within the educated class and lack of awareness is rampant across communities.
“Climate change is something that is affecting our lives, but we mainly find the educated class discuss this issue. Mostly it is individuals from the elite to the middle class that understand it, but even they do not participate in the discourse as much as they should. For instance, in the recent climate march, the number of participants was very limited. Even students do not take the issue seriously,” he said.
Toheed also shared that while communities on the ground are aware of the impact of climate change on their lives, they are unable to specify the cause behind these changes or participate in a movement resulting in gaps and disconnect with relevant groups and stakeholders.
“Communities understand climate change due to extreme weather changes, but they don’t have the time to specify or connect with a movement like this due to several reasons, mainly their livelihood and uncertainty in terms of land tenure. On the surface, especially on social media, it seemed like the Climate March would be an effective event. But from what we saw on the ground were merely 1000 people. There should have been at least 2000 people, but that was not the case because were not able to reach out to people the way we should have. As an activist working on the ground, I feel some gaps were left,” he said while speaking at the meeting.
Zahid Farooq of Urban Resource Centre emphasized the need for collaboration between stakeholders such as civil society, climate activists, environmental experts, communities and the government to tackle climate injustice. He accused massive urban development projects as the reason behind an increase in extreme weather changes but insisted that dialogue is the only way to initiate long-lasting and impactful change.
“We need to see how Karachi is surviving. Massive infrastructure development projects in areas where there is no greenery such as the Lyari Expressway can be seen sandwiched between mounds of sand. We are not against development projects, but environmental protection should be considered when devising such plans,” he opined.
When speaking about the impact of the climate movement Zahid added that the gap between activists and the government must be filled to enforce change and work for the communities.
“There is a gap between activists working on environmental issues and relevant government departments. Activists want the government to take guidance from them on these matters due to which the government is not even ready to initiate dialogue. Therefore, one must keep the window of dialogue open in order to work in collaboration with the government, instead of boycotting them,” he said.
He further stated that a march is of no use if it provokes conflict, rather than highlighting issues. Activists need to keep repeating their point of debate and find spaces for it.
“We have a lot of open spaces in the city, for that we need to sit and talk with the government. We need to identify the government’s role in establishing urban forests, what the civil society and other departments can do in this regard. When we continue pressurizing them, things will work out… It is important to prioritize the communities and their issues in a way that it goes towards resolution, instead of pushing toward conflict,” Farooq said.
Farooq also added that climate-related issues including water scarcity should be a priority for everyone and repair of water treatment plants should be done to deal with the water crisis.
“Karachi’s water supply is 550 MGD currently from Hub and Indus as sources. Not even a single gallon gets treated. We had three treatment plants and none of these plants is functional anymore,” he stated, adding that the city’s entire waste now flows into the sea and damages marine ecology.
Basil Andrews, an environmental journalist and activist, during the meeting, shared his views about the state of climate change in Pakistan, efforts of the government, the climate movement and the marches that have been held in the past two years.
“I agree that the movement is fragmented. There’s no singular notion as to what exactly are we aiming for. We are not ready to ask the hard questions in terms of why are we still investing in fossil fuels. We are invested in coal, LNG plants, and thermal gas fire plants. This government does not have a clear direction to what energy goals are in for the future” he said.
When speaking about the climate movement, Basil shared that it is transpiring into a space where everyone gets to have a say on the table.
“There are also these particular knowledge gaps that also exist within these conversations or discourses that we’re having because, as Toheed said, students aren’t really as invested as they should be when we look at the data and statistics, and how it’s playing out now,” he added.
When adding to the discussion on activists being anti-development, Basil added that activists don’t despise development, but demand it to be sustainable.
“We have to look at whether development is synonymous with adding more cars to the road or how the banking sector puts in more money into auto financing. Why can’t that capital be used to fund in the energy sector in the form of renewables? It cannot be completely sourced from renewables, but it has to be mixed in terms of how these instruments can help communities to find ways to deal with it on their own. When we talk about politics of development, it also has to be seen from a very people-centric angle to assess the kind of realities that exist on the ground,” he suggested.
Mehmood Alam Khalid of Farozaan spoke about the need for media to include the climate and environment beat in its entirety, rather than adopting a tokenized approach to cover stories.
“In Pakistan’s print media, there is no beat for the environment or climate change. They link it with health because it’s mostly the health reporter who covers climate change stories,” he said. When talking about the role of media in Tharparkar’s anti-coal movement, Khalid added that while most from the media and journalist fraternity highlighted the struggle from the frontline, some local journalists later turned subservient and took bribes to remain tightlipped.
Khalid also spoke about the need for the climate movement to be more representative of the communities living in the most vulnerable parts of the city and how they should be engaged in effective ways to curb the impact of climate change.
“The impact of climate is not as evident in the Defence Housing Authority (DHA), Clifton or Gulshan-e-Iqbal, as much as it is evident in settlements in the city’s suburbs such as Malir and Orangi Town. An urban forest is grown in places like Clifton or DHA. The marches take place in posh areas of the city. It needs to be understood that if we do not work with these communities on the ground in their areas, how can we expect to bring them closer to the movement,” he opined.
He further shared that campaigning and engaging with social organizations to protect the environment is crucial. His organization will be conducting a convention in January to talk to the communities about relevant issues and have taken 57 organizations on board. Khalid also recommended the need for capacity building of environmentalists and individuals working to tackle climate change.
Aslam Mallah and Mustafa Ali Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF) were also in attendance at the meeting. Talking about their experience of facilitating Tharparkar’s residents and activists in their movement against coal-mining and coal-fired power plants in their region, Aslam Mallah shared that connecting with the community and engaging with them helped strengthen the movement.
“We engaged with the community through mobilization and meetings. We explained to them about the environment, the impact and damage (of environmental pollution). Consequently, a lot of people continue to raise their voice for environmental justice. They realized that the development on the surface was, in fact, damaging the region’s natural habitat and displacing its people,” he said and added that the locals are now engaged via the Thar Samaji Tehreek, an organization established with support from the PFF.
Shujauddin Qureshi of TKF spoke about the role of media in highlighting the struggle for climate justice in Tharparakar.
“While the people of Thar led the climate justice movement from the forefront, the media also played a crucial role, especially Sindhi media. When locals from Thar were on hunger strike at the Islamkot press club for over a year, the media highlighted their ordeals and its positive role brought the movement to the national level,” he said.
Mushtaq Gadi of Tara Foundation endorsed PFF’s efforts in the Thar but also added that the region’s locals were already adept at leading the movement from the frontline.
“When the Gorano Dam was being built, Tharparkar’s people protested against its construction for two years without any external support. They first initiated a protest camp in Karachi and then in Islamkot. Their movement was well-rooted and they understood the issues. The second stage came when the government and other actors tried to weaken their movement. Then PFF’s involvement became the reason for the movement’s resurgence. Therefore, if we look at Thar’s movement in the present context, there are two phases: first was completely led by the community itself and then how other communities learnt from their experiences and worked in collaboration with PFF by implementing rajooni Kath (public tribunals),” he said.
Gadi added that this was a traditional way of adjudication to resolve disputes and conflicts. “But the Thar coal rajooni was an experiment which went beyond the community’s smaller conflicts and looked into larger social issues such as those damaging the environment. It was an experiment that used drama, music, and a collection of testimonies from people. It was a display of ownership by the people of Thar, instead of them seeking support from external sources. Culture holds immense importance in areas like Thar, so you cannot separate activism from culture,” he said when talking about Thar’s connection with movements in the human rights and climate justice realm.
He also shared that the dynamics of every grassroots movement are comprised of their own initiative because their issues revolve around their life, culture, history, and resources. External organizations sometimes play an effective role, sometimes they don’t. Gadi said that research and activism go hand in hand, which supports movements in the long run based on evidence.
Following a discussion on the impact of the climate movement, Gadi added that building the movement has its own strategies and requirements, while policy change has its own dynamics. The two, he specified, are not mutually exclusive.
“This discourse is always associated with the west and deemed an imported agenda, even though climate change is a global discourse. Global powers may not come to a consensus on other issues, but with respect to climate change, they leave their strategic issues and differences aside. To call it an imported or global agenda or deem it a conspiracy is not reasonable. Research must also connect with such a social movement because populist action, serious research, and evidence-based work should be connected,” he said.
Yasir Hussain of Green Pakistan Coalition and Daryalab spoke about his work as an environmental activist and the impact of the climate movement.
“People are worried about what they are eating, drinking and how they are growing stuff. This is a disease, death and war. People have grown up in there and now they are looking for other solutions,” he said.
Yasir added that nobody was talking about organizing for climate justice till the 2010s, but after the global call for climate justice, the local movement garnered attention.
“Following covid, the situation accelerated. During the global climate action call in 2019, we were able to engage 33 cities in Pakistan where marches and demonstrations were held on September 19, 2019. Thousands of participants attended across Pakistan’s big cities such as Karachi and Lahore. At Frere Hall, we had 3000 to 4000 people who had a die-in. It is perceived that activists are here today and that they’ll be gone tomorrow. I think we’re past that and we’re here for good,” he said.
Pakistan Maholiati Tahaffuz Movement’s Ahmed Shabbar, who is also the CEO of Garbage Can and founder of The Environmental, said that the climate movement in Pakistan will not progress until and unless it has some form of political pressure involved in the process because otherwise, people do not listen. He quoted an example of the recent successful sit-in in Gwadar initiated by Jamat-e-Islami Baluchistan’s General Secretary and religious scholar Maulana Hidayat-ur-Rehman Baloch.
“It is time that a coalition is formed to move forward as a political movement… All of the discussion we’re doing today links with politics. Our politics are based on environment,” he said.
Shabbar insisted that there is a need for every political party in Pakistan to prioritize the environment and climate, and demanded that departments like the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and Frontier Works Organization (FWO) do their jobs sincerely.
He also spoke about improving Pakistani media’s capacity building initiatives, and how he aims to transform his online platform into a media outlet focused on environmental and climate change stories.
“I don’t understand why Dawn Maholiat or Express Tribune Environment or GEO Climate was not established. I guess we need to pressurize the media to establish specific beats and sections to address environmental issues, instead of the token stories or packages covering the issue. For this, I’m trying to push for The Environmental to become a proper media house and conduct training,” he said while talking about his future plans.
Dr Nuzhat Khan, the Director-General of the National Institute of Oceanography, shared that her suggestion at every forum is to push for business-based solutions.
“We have to be smart enough to find business-based solutions, instead of preaching and making noise… To say that we are developing and we don’t care is not right. We haven’t yet developed, but we need to. Your march and perspective should talk about sustainable development… Self-critique is easy, but it is also our responsibility to portray our country in a positive way. We must talk about how we’re not contributing to climate change and the way we remain vulnerable due to the contributions of others countries instead,” she said.
Dr Khan insisted participants, particularly activists, formally submit complaints to relevant departments to ensure accountability. Mere discussions are not enough.
Chandan Malhi of the National Commission for Human Rights said that environmental issues are severe in Pakistan and have impacted every area including Tharparkar and Karachi.
“For Karachi, we conducted a meeting with Sherry Rehman at NCHR and spoke about the issue, and how NCHR can work effectively in this realm,” he shared.
Irum Ayaz of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society spoke about her organisation’s work to deal with climate change in Pakistan. “Through our project Climate Advocacy and Coordination for Resilient Action, we are working on climate change at three levels: with global movements, at the national level and internally at Red Crescent,” she said.
Asad Farooque, a legal academic associated with the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) and lawyer at Alternative Law Collective, shared that his organization engages in strategic litigation, procedural jurisprudence in Pakistan around the environment, focused on enforcement. The organization aims for more procedural methodological sets of work on the ground, and how to make enforcement more practical and effective.
When speaking about the discussion on climate movement at the meeting, he said, “Policy work, on-the-ground activism, and movement building without understanding the issues thoroughly will always result in failure at public discourse. Getting ahead around the issue as thoroughly as you can and conducting research is imperative to own public discourse. It takes a lot of work to understand the market, how the discourse works, where and in which community it works, and which government offices are associated with it. Arm yourself with the data and knowledge set that convinces people and something you can add to public discourse,” he maintained. Towards the end of the meeting, participants agreed to maintain a close liaison between stakeholders and emphasized the need to employ robust information sharing systems. They also emphasized the need for raising awareness regarding climate change and its negative impact on communities and the city at large.