November 16, 2015 / 7:48 AM / 2 years ago

Farmer sues Pakistan’s government to demand action on climate change

A farmer is silhouetted against the setting sun after he finished threshing amber rice during a harvest at a field on the outskirts of Lahore November 19, 2013.Mohsin Raza/Files

LAHORE, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Asghar Leghari had had enough. The farmer was tired of watching his family fight against the unpredictable weather that threatened their crops in Rahim Yar Khan District, in Pakistan’s South Punjab region.

He was also disheartened by the fates of many small-scale farmers around him, whose struggles with weather shifts have ended in poverty. And he was angry at Pakistan’s seeming inability to protect its people against the devastating effects of climate change.

So Leghari decided there was only one thing to do: he took the government to court.

In August, Leghari, 25, filed a petition with the Lahore High Court claiming that the government of Pakistan was violating his fundamental rights by neglecting to tackle the impacts of climate change.

Quoting the objectives of the country’s 2012 National Climate Change Policy, he accused leaders of failing “to ensure water, food and energy security… in the face of the challenges posed by climate change.”

In response, Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah ordered the formation of a Climate Change Commission to push forward the policies the government promised.

That commission, made up of officials from key ministries – including the Ministry of Climate Change and the Ministry of Water and Power – as well as heads of other government departments and international organisations, has now begun meeting.

Climate change “appears to be the most serious threat facing Pakistan,” the judge said.

"PUBLIC INTEREST" LAWSUIT

Leghari, who is studying law in Lahore, said his family relies on the income it gets from its more than 500-acre sugarcane farm in Rahimyar Khan.

But water scarcity and temperature changes in the Punjab region are stressing crops and making it impossible for some farmers to continue to make a living.

Leghari said he felt it was time to hold the nation’s leaders accountable.

"My petition aimed to compel the concerned departments and ministries to take action and consider climate change an important issue before it is too late,” he said.

He believes government action on the problem has been negligible, even though the nation has had a climate change policy and framework in place for over three years.

"The circumstances that merited the filing of this petition do not affect only me, but are endemic,” Leghari said. The case "does not deal with an individual grievance, but seeks to address a larger public interest matter.”

WATER SHORTAGES

The law student said his family farm has struggled in particular with access to water as supplies dry up and rainfall becomes more unpredictable.

According to the Ministry of Climate Change, in 1950, water availability in Pakistan stood at 5,300 cubic metres per person per year. By 2011, that figure had dropped to under 1,000 cubic metres and is still shrinking.

Leghari’s petition argued that the government is obligated to implement the policies it laid out in 2012, including practical steps needed to adapt to the effects of climate change and to limit the country’s own emissions that contribute to the problem.

Those include things like promoting crop irrigation practices that waste less water and new crop varieties that require less water, and urging farmers to use biogas and manure digesters to generate green energy and reduce methane emissions.

Leghari said he isn’t demanding compensation. What he wants from the government, he said, is action on the broader problem.

"Direct relief would be insufficient in scope to compensate me or other farmers against future grievances,” he said. “Climate change is an issue that is here to stay if adequate measures are not taken.”

"RAY OF HOPE"

In response to Leghari’s petition, Sajjad Ahmad, joint secretary of the Ministry of Climate Change, told Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper that the government has put policies in place but many have not been implemented.

Leghari’s advocate in court, Mansoor Usman Awan, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that government departments that might be required to act on climate change – including agriculture and forestry, irrigation, water and power and the Federal Flood Commission – had failed to deliver effective adaptation and mitigation measures.

The new commission hopes to begin changing that.

Hameed Naqi, director general of WWP-Pakistan, one member of the commission, said that even if the group manages to implement only the priority actions set out in the 2012 National Climate Policy – most of which are aimed at protecting the nation’s fast-dwindling forests – that would make huge strides toward addressing the country’s climate and environmental problems.

"The judge is pushing the government departments to take action,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The commission is a ray of hope for us.”

Leghari said he hopes the judge’s order will be the start of a broader public effort to demand action on climate change and push the country to meet the goals it has set for itself.

The court has “jump-started the process,” he said. Now, “hopefully this will result in positive change for everyone.”

Reporting by Anam Gill; editing by Jumana Farouky and Laurie Goering

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