Poorly managed land use and ecosystem services suggest an alarming future for Pakistan

05:57 PM | 28 Oct, 2020

Pakistan is endowed with fertile and diverse lands, from lakes and streams to craggy and lush green mountains to fecund agricultural parcels. This swath of land, however, is not being maintained with sufficient forethought, but instead thoughtlessly, without consideration of possible consequences. 

 My study entitled “Changes in land use and ecosystem services values in Pakistan, 1950-2050,” recently published in the Journal of Environmental Development, has looked at environoeconomic impacts of land management in the country.

Land is the most exploited but poorly managed resource in Pakistan

These analyses present a few flashbacks of 1950 and 2000, with a representation of 2015, and a flash-forward to 2050 that is awaiting all of us. This study specifically stands out for two reasons: first, for its consideration of land use changes at a long temporal scale (100 years) and, second, for depicting four future land uses constructed under Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emission scenarios. Further, the study transforms these land-use changes into monetary values of oft-overlooked but very vital ecosystem services—the benefits provided by nature such as water supply, flood regulation, food security,  heatwave protection, climate services, etc. Doing so, the study shows that there was a significant increase of $86 billion (USD 2017) in the overall value of ecosystem services from 1950 to 2000.

The study finds that in the first 50 years after Pakistan’s inception, land-use changes resulting from damming, scaling up of irrigation, and expanding agricultural areas into deserts led to an increase in the value of ecosystem services. The study states that “Soon after independence, Pakistan started upgrading its irrigation system to divert river water for agricultural uses and initiated the construction of barrages in the 1950s (e.g., the Kotri and Guddu barrages). Many link canals (e.g., the Rasul-Qadirabad, Qadirabad-Bulloki, Bulloki-Suleimanki), siphons (e.g., Mailsi) and large dams (e.g., the Mangla and Tarbela) were constructed after the Indus Water Treaty with India was signed in 1960. As a result, the open water area and irrigation supplies increased rapidly. Similarly, agricultural areas were almost doubled during this time, largely because of the cultivation of barren and desert lands with increased irrigation water supplies.”  

Further down the line, there was a sharp decline of $70 billion in ecosystem services value from 2000 to 2015, mainly due to a reduction in the areas of high-valued ecosystems such as water, forest, grassland and cropland, and their conversion to low-valued land uses (e.g., urban and desert/bare lands). Similarly, compared to the year 2015, the future land-use scenarios for 2050 show a sharp decline in the value, apart from one eco-friendly scenario (B2), due to the conversion of valuable ecosystems (e.g., forest, open water and agricultural) into deserts and urban areas.

 The One Billion Tree Tsunami is having an impact—but not as great as hoped

The Billion Tree Tsunami Afforestation project—a government-led initiative— will increase the overall value of Pakistan's ecosystem services by $3.8 billion per year across 2050 scenarios. However, this addition is minuscule and, hence, will not change the waning trend of ecosystem services in the future. Therefore, either we need a much bigger tsunami or many more tsunamis to counter the catastrophes that will be spawned by future climate and land-use changes.

Climate disasters are already occurring in the country, and the situation will get even worse in the future due to the reduction in climate services. However, the Billion Tree Tsunami and other similar initiatives can be considered as good mitigations, whose urgency is realized by top officials but is less obvious to at local levels.

Climate and water services: what is coming down the pike?

The study further points out the plight of critical services of climate and water separately. The climate services show a continuous decrease across 2000, 2015 and all four future land-use scenarios, consistent with on-going deforestation and reduction in grasslands. On the other hand, water services increased between 1950 and 2000, largely consequent to the construction of dams and irrigation infrastructure. However, for the year 2015 and all four 2050 scenarios, the values of both climate and water services decrease considerably, representing an alarming picture for this already water-stressed and climate-hit country.

 Unlike during its first 50 years, in the future, Pakistan will not be able to carve up desert for agriculture

The study suggests that to meet future food demands, cropland expansion should take place in low-valued areas such as deserts (as was done in the country between 1970 and 2000).  However, any expansion of cropland areas must be concomitant with water availability, which is decreasing in all future scenarios. Consequently, future land-use policies should essentially consider protecting and increasing the nation's forest area, which, in turn, will supplement water availability.

 We only act when problems stand in front of us

Unfortunately, we only act when problems stand in front of us, both nationally and internationally. It would be more cost-effective if policymakers pay heed to scientific predictions/warnings and act to pre-empt catastrophes knocking at our door.

The historic land-use changes presented in the study can be used in developing an optimal land-use scenario that if, implemented, will increase the value of critical ecosystem services in Pakistan. Besides advancing the application of valuation of ecosystem services to future IPCC scenarios in the regional context, this study shows the relevance of these scenarios for land-use planning at the national level and the added value of long-term analyses.

The environmentally bleak future threatening Pakistan can be averted by bringing in sustainable land-use policies, but these can only be designed by looking at the past. Even for smallholder agriculture such as subsistence farming, future land-use changes must be well thought out and not just politically motivated. The study described above can greatly help academia and policymakers alike to reinstitute certain sound measures from the past in determining future direction for land use planning. However, barring sweeping actions on land use management, the country seems to be headed toward climate change, water scarcity, and food insecurity by 2050.

The author is a postdoctoral fellow in the Global Water Futures at the University of Waterloo, Canada, with additional international schooling and collaborations, and can be reached at tariq.aziz@uwaterloo.ca.