More than two dozen national and international researchers and policy experts in the country participated in a roundtable discussion, to highlight the impact of climate change on the health and well-being of vulnerable Pakistani communities.
The discussion was convened by the Institute for Global Health and Development, IGHD, an interdisciplinary research unit at the Aga Khan University.
While painting a worrying picture of the challenges faced by Pakistan - which ranks among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change according to Global Climate Risk Index 2021 - the participants also suggested steps to increase the country’s capacity to respond. They sought to address questions regarding interventions, building resilience, planning processes and networking during the discussion.
The Special Advisor to the Prime Minister on National Health, Dr Faisal Sultan recommended the integration of the provincial population departments, a move, he said, that has already been initiated. “A rapidly growing population has a major impact on the food and water supply, urbanization, air and water pollution, and a rising number of infectious diseases,” he asserted. Dr Sultan also stressed on the importance of reducing dependency on fossil fuels and stated that the federal ministries for health and climate change were making efforts to phase out fossil fuel subsidies by 2025.
The relevance of a collective approach to what is a global challenge was underscored by other participants as well. Dr Abid Suleri, Executive Director at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, emphasised the need to break silos among ministries and departments and between the federal and provincial governments.
Founding Director, IGHD Dr Zulfiqar A. Bhutta, who chaired the discussion, pointed out, “There is sufficient data to prove that stunting and wasting is prevalent in all socioeconomic classes, and is increasing due to climate change.” Agriculture is under pressure, he said, and a key indicator is unchanging or declining crop production in the country between 2011 and 2018 because of erratic weather patterns. Household food insecurity is among the factors impeding healthy development in school-age children. A ray of hope came from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province where stunting rates have fallen by 2.5 percent over the past decade, thanks chiefly to women’s economic empowerment and better access to health services and family planning.
With an eye to bringing together the various strands of the debate on climate change and health, speakers also dwelt on challenges that need greater study. For instance, Major-General Dr Aamer Khan, Executive Director at the National Institute of Health in Islamabad, talked about how climate change has impacted and will continue to impact the health and well-being of communities affected by climate change-induced disasters.
Discussants also spoke of the outcome of field studies. A critical point in this context was made at the start of the roundtable discussion by Dr Jai Das, Assistant Director, IGHD, who spoke of the need to directly engage with the community in tackling the health challenges confronting them. Dr Das gave the example of one such effort to galvanize a community in rural Sindh into taking action against the prevalence of childhood diarrhea and pneumonia.
The link between climate change and health was also highlighted by environment consultant Maha Qasim, who said that health and climate actions by the relevant ministries had stalled after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. She recalled the National Health Action Plan which focused on building resilience within the health system, creating awareness among the stakeholders and chalking out a disaster management plan. These efforts, she observed, now needed to be revived.
In her closing remarks, Lt-Gen Dr Nigar Johar Khan called attention to the importance of extending research agendas to grassroots organizations, government and industry to facilitate learning on all sides.
The IGHD is now set to launch the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Pakistan, which will be the national node of a United Nations global initiative.