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Pakistan's former climate change minister says big polluters need to pay up

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

By now, you've probably heard about the devastating flooding that's ravaging Pakistan. That country has experienced weeks of heavy rains due to an unprecedented monsoon season. About a third of the country is under water. At least 1,100 people have died since June, and roughly half a million people have had to flee their homes. And the rains are expected to continue. The extreme weather has brought renewed attention to the effects of climate change, and it's also shifted focus on how countries should adapt to the rapid and unpredictable extreme weather. To learn more about this, we called Malik Amin Aslam Khan. Starting in 2018 until earlier this year, he served as Pakistan's minister for climate change, where he began the work of developing Pakistan's plan to adapt to climate change. And he's with us now. Mr. Minister, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

MALIK AMIN ASLAM KHAN: Thank you very much for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: So before we jump into Pakistan's future plans, I'd like to ask about the current crisis. I mean, Pakistan experiences a monsoon season every year, but this year is uniquely devastating. Why is that?

ASLAM KHAN: Well, you know, this year we've seen a monster monsoon hit Pakistan. This was something which has gone totally beyond anything that was predicted in Pakistan. It's a totally - a freak event. But it's followed a wave of, you know, climate change disasters. It started in early May, when we were hit by the first wave, which was a heat wave, which was, again, unprecedented. We had the hottest place on earth in Pakistan for two weeks, and it hit a major part of Pakistan. And that got followed by another wave of, you know, glacial melts occurring in the north because of the heat. And because - again, because of the heat, we've had the, you know, monstrous monsoon rains. And they have created a flood in their own right. The water is standing everywhere, 3 to 4 feet of water.

And now the deluge of water, which is coming from the north, is going to hit the same area, you know, this evening or tomorrow morning. We have almost more than, you know, 33 million people who are displaced - you know, climate refugees in their own homeland. And they are out in the open. Mosquitoes are now rampant over there. We are fearing a dengue pandemic to occur. So it's a crisis which is creating, you know, new anomalies every day. It's a huge, humongous crisis for a country like Pakistan, which is already, you know, cash-strapped because it's on that border. So it's really beyond our capacity and beyond the adaptation measures that we could have taken to, you know, live with this phenomenon.

MARTIN: Well, tell me about that because you started serving in that role in 2018, and you started developing a plan for the country to adapt to climate change. Tell me, what were some of your major aims? What were some of the plans that you started to develop and lay out?

ASLAM KHAN: Well, you know, we had a simple philosophy that we had decided that we are not going to fight nature. It's not a fight that we can win. We have to make nature an ally of our adaptation strategy. And we built our whole strategy around that - around nature-based solutions. So we were planting, you know, 10 billion trees in Pakistan, trees which keep the - you know, the mudslides and the landslides in place when rain happens. So that was one part of it. The other part was to start expanding our wilderness and protected areas. The third pillar of our nature-based solution strategy was our plan to divert these flood waters into wetland areas which are natural wetlands. It would not only restore the wetlands but also, you know, recharge the groundwater aquifer in Pakistan, which is needed. So all these strategies were in place, and we were working on these.

But as I said, you know, this is beyond adaptation. You know, no matter what we do in Pakistan, this huge deluge of water, which is seven times the normal monsoonal rain like this, hitting Pakistan, it's almost unadaptable a situation as far as the country is concerned. This is damages, these are losses that we have to bear. You know, the infrastructure has been destroyed. About 200 bridges have been destroyed. Ten million homes in Pakistan have been destroyed. So it's humongous, you know, by all proportions. And it hasn't ended as yet. You know, the worst is yet to come. And, you know, the ironic part of this whole tragedy is that it is hitting a population which has got probably the lowest carbon footprint in the world. And it is really a case of extreme climate injustice that Pakistan is caught in right at the moment.

MARTIN: I take your point that this is a global problem, that climate - that these climate changes are not - they're certainly not the responsibility of the people who are most affected by it in this region. I so completely take your point about that. But you also have had strong words for Pakistan's leadership and blaming them for inaction. You recently wrote an op-ed for the Pakistan paper The News International. You wrote, quote, "The lethargic and mostly absent relief and response measures to this predicted disaster have laid bare the apathetic state of governance systems in Pakistan, all leading to human misery at an unprecedented scale." Why do you think that is, that the response has been so inadequate?

ASLAM KHAN: Well, you know, firstly, because, as I said above, normal rains were predicted. So what was the responsibility of the government was to set up early warning systems so that at least the human - you know, the first wave of human deaths can be averted. That is something, I think, which needs to be improved. Secondly, I think what has to be done in the medium term - and the government has to start doing that - is to have climate-compatible infrastructure. And I think these two things are very important. But, you know, having said that, you know, it's a problem which is not our own creation. We are, you know, on the wrong side of climate injustice in this case. But at the same time, it's a problem that we will have to face in the future.

But at the same time, I think the economic losses that occur because of this - that is where I think that we need the carbon polluters to pay up. You know, this is a war that we are standing on the forefront of. And it is something that, as I said, is not of our own making. I think the world needs to wake up to this reality. It's a disaster. It's going to gate-crash into all the countries of the world unless we wake up and we start creating plans and then financing those plans for countries like Pakistan. It is something which is really going to engulf the whole world.

MARTIN: That was Malik Amin Aslam Khan. He is Pakistan's former minister for climate change. He joined us via Skype from Islamabad. Minister Khan, thank you so much for your time and for sharing your expertise. And of course, our thoughts are with you and your fellow citizens as you navigate this tragedy, this disaster.

ASLAM KHAN: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF DCS LEFTY AND OLDA'S "THE FINER THINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.