Climate Change and its impact on Human Displacement in Pakistan


By: Anoshay Fazal

LL.B (Hons) London, PG Diploma in Law & Development (London)

The current surge of frequent hurricanes and earthquakes and other natural disasters, has persistently forced humans to witness the impact and cost of climate change. Hurricane Irma alone has displaced 181,000 people already. This article will focus on the link between climate change and migration. We will briefly review the international regime before focusing on the climate change policy in Pakistan in light of potential human migration.

 The term ‘climate change’ on the face of it, denotes a change in global and regional climate patterns, with recent debate centering on the carbon footprint caused by human activity. However, it is important to expand on the broader meaning of the term. Climate change, caused by various factors, has far-reaching effects on global geographies and more importantly, humans and their habitats.

As climatologists and scientists have continued to warn us how the climate change phenomenon will make large surfaces of the planet entirely inhabitable, mass human migration is now a reality. This underlying connect between climate change and migration will be evident globally and especially Pakistan as it ranks seventh on the Global Climate Risk Index 2017, amongst the countries most adversely affected by climate change. Pakistan has, for decades, already borne the brunt of refugee populations and combating terrorism, and more recently, natural disasters.

Human migration can take two forms, both cross-border (refugees) and internal displacement. War and conflict is long-term therefore it forces cross-border migration away from the war zones. Refugees are afforded a different form of protection level under international law such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. The definition as  outlined by the 1951 Convention states in S. 1(A): “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.” Therefore the international refugee regime does not yet extend this protection to “climate refugees”. However, there are some soft law instruments that pertain to climate induced displacement, such as the 1998 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the Kampala Convention for the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons (2009) and the Nansen Initiative on Disaster-Induced Cross Border Displacement. The Kampala Convention is a treaty specific to the African Union and focuses on internally displaced persons caused by natural disasters, armed conflict and large-scale development projects. The Convention does not only define an “idp” (internally displaced person), but also specifically addresses climate change and associated state responsibilities for the protection of idps. Furthermore, it encourages the adaptation of national policies for the protection and assistance of displaced persons.

On the other side, the Nansen Initiative is a welcome agenda as a global forum. Initiated by the governments of Switzerland and Norway in 2012, it has carried out a number of sub-regional consultations (including in Southeast Asia and South Asia and the Indian Ocean), which bring to light the different challenges and practices across various regions of the world. These regional reports were discussed at the Global Consultation in 2015 and provided for a further agenda for collaboration at the intergovernmental and international levels.  While both these  instruments have a clear relevance to disasters and climate change and will likely support coordination on an international platform, they are not binding and at best they can be used to draw inference for national policies, provided states wish to do so. Furthermore, they do not take into account the economic aspect of climate induced migration (this will be discussed below in the context of Pakistan).

 The effects of climate change have already been felt across Pakistan, more apparently along coastal areas in the province of Sindh as well as the mountainous terrain in Gilgit-Baltistan. Although natural disasters as a result of climate change seemingly appear to cause populations to temporarily migrate within their countries to more habitable regions, the long-term effects will make certain areas entirely inhabitable. Climate induced migration illustrates different patterns within internal displacement. For instance, those fleeing from coastal areas due to sea intrusion are likely to do so gradually but this displacement is most likely permanent unless that land can be reclaimed , which may take several years. Conversely, those fleeing drastic floods following glacial lake outbursts are likely to flee in emergency situations but will most likely return to their homes eventually once weather situations are more favourable.  Pakistan’s climate change trends have been (though not limited to) in the form of torrential rains and heat stress. The Gilgit-Baltistan region and Chitral have seen drastic weather conditions in the form of flash floods, landslides and torrential rain. The southern part of the country has seen intense heat waves and an increase in temperature Karachi has seen a very fatal heatstroke in 2015. Similarly, Tharparkar has seen drought and famine due to below average rainfall in the 2016 season.

 Very recently, Pakistan has passed its legislation on climate change, the Pakistan Climate Change Act 2017. Although a positive step forward as Pakistan has joined only a handful of countries that have passed climate specific legislation, it needs to be supplemented by a strong enforcement mechanism in order to tackle the impact of climate change. The Act defines climate change in S.2 as ““climate change” means a change in the climate system which is caused by significant changes in the concentration of greenhouse gases as a direct or indirect consequence of human activities and which is in addition to natural climate change that has been observed during a considerable period”. The Act also sets out the establishment of a Climate Change Council and an Authority, both functional organs that will implement the law and policy related to Climate Change.  Although the act covers mitigation and adaptation, the scope appears to be limited. Mitigation is referred to in the context of capping green house gas emissions, in line with the globally applicable Paris Agreement. Although this will achieve the broader aim of stalling climate change and global warming, it does not specifically aim at addressing ground realities unique to Pakistan. Similarly, while the act mentions adaptation, it does not yet outline the sort of adaptive measures required nor outline potential disasters.  

The act does not make note of climate – induced of migration/displacement. Let us now go a step further and look at the human cost of these environmental hazards in terms of displacement. As outlined above, Pakistan is already witnessing flash floods, torrential rain, earthquakes, heat waves and drought across various regions. There has also been a significant shift in the monsoon pattern, with monsoon rains now occurring towards the end of the summer (late August-September). It must be borne in mind, that although Pakistan is now progressing towards a more industrialized and trade-heavy economy, vast areas of the country are still based on agriculture. With sea intrusion, landslides, droughts and heat waves, the environment in several regions will no longer be supportive of agricultural output and this will force people to migrate to other temperate regions.

The end picture, it seems, will result in small areas bearing the burden of large populations. It is pertinent to mention here that climate induced displacement will have a strong negative impact on the economy, with the loss of livelihoods and almost negligible incomes. As things stand currently, the administration cannot be prepared to deal with such displacement, nor is it an option to concentrate large populations in one area.

Therefore, the government, as well the civil society and all other stakeholders, including NGOS and international organisations must work together in order to evaluate and prevent mass displacement that may take the form of permanent migration, focusing on populations and areas exposed to climate impacts.  In order to do this, local administrations and environmental agencies must focus on reclaiming lost land, introducing new agricultural technology and know-how. Secondly, since the 18th amendment, environmental policy has now been delegated to provincial level; therefore, the Climate Change Council should keep in mind the different conditions in the provinces while drafting further instruments.  Provincial governments should be equipped with projects to preserve their natural resources, produce renewable energy and try to keep agricultural land habitable. Furthermore, a policy to target populations at immediate risk of climate change should be formulated for their relocation. Additionally, Pakistan could also draw inference from international guidelines and instruments such as the 2009 Kampala Convention and the Nansen Initiative on Cross Border Displacement. For instance, a federal policy defining internally displaced persons and the legal protection and assistance available to them would be a step forward. Additionally, although the Nansen initiative takes the role of global consultations, there is much to that can be taken away from playing an active role in these consultations and similar framework may be established for consultations amongst the various federal units within Pakistan.

These steps and a comprehensive climate policy with strong oversight and enforcement mechanisms could potentially prevent mass displacement caused by climate change within the country.



The author is associated with Lahore Education and Research Network. She holds LL.B (Hons) and is a PG Laws candidate at University of London International Programme. She does freelance research work. Her research areas include environment, refugees and human rights. This work is the intellectual property of the author who takes full responsibility to ensure the accuracy of the laws quoted and the content referred to in the article. No part of this publication shall be reproduced without prior written permission of the author. 


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