Rida Rashid lost five members of her extended family to the super floods that ravaged Pakistan this summer.
The 19-year-old climate activist from capital city Islamabad had justice on her mind when she arrived at the COP27 summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt earlier this month. Pakistan served as one of the co-chairs of the global climate conference – a fitting accolade for her country which was at the epicenter of the climate crisis this year, with record-breaking heatwaves, melting glaciers and devastating floods.
The super floods that killed her family and more than 1,700 people in Pakistan, just a few weeks before the COP27 summit, played a vital role in bringing the issue of “loss and damage” onto the summit agenda, after decades of resistance from Global North countries.
“If, hypothetically speaking, $10 million is coming to Pakistan through the proposed loss and damage finance facility, how do we make sure the funds are reaching vulnerable communities? I want to push the government and hold them accountable,” Rashid told VICE World News.
From the get-go, Pakistan’s demands at the summit hinged on the creation of a loss and damage finance facility that directly addresses unavoidable climate change catastrophes that developing countries are particularly vulnerable to.
The summit closed on November 20, after several deliberations, with an agreement to provide loss and damage funding to vulnerable countries hit by climate disasters. The exact amount of the fund and the mechanism of distribution is still unclear but the details of the fund will be decided by a “transitional committee” in March 2023.
“This [fund] is not about accepting charity,” said Pakistan’s climate minister, Sherry Rehman as the summit came to a close Sunday morning. “This is a down payment on investment in our futures, and in climate justice.”
Pakistani activists who attended COP27 say the government – and the climate ministry led by Sherry Rehman in particular – has held a strong position throughout the summit, holding fort for countries most affected by the climate crisis, and instrumental in pushing forward loss and damage as an agenda item. “Pakistan’s previous stance at COPs has usually been, we’re a small greenhouse gas emitter and we have some successful afforestation initiatives; please support us and give us money, that is it,” said Pakistani environmental lawyer and activist, Ahmad Rafay Alam. “However, this year, because of the floods, we were handed the baton for loss and damage and we ran with it.”
“The climate minister [Sherry Rehman] conducted herself very well and negotiated through the night, and so it certainly is a diplomatic success, but it won’t manifest itself into anything meaningful today or even next year. We are going to have to see how the loss and damage facility moves,” added Alam. “We have to be skeptical of the process. It still has to deliver many things. It is a promise of some sorts, a down payment on the promise of climate justice.”
While appreciating the climate ministry’s work at the summit, climate activists and experts VICE World News spoke with are demanding more accountability from the government after COP27 winds up and the delegation from the climate ministry returns home. They also fear that allocation of funds under the loss and damage finance facility may take months. For a country on the brink of food insecurity following devastating floods, this could be too little, too late.
“We demand a swift allocation of funds, and when funds are [eventually] allocated, we want the government to spend them on flood rehabilitation and reconstruction immediately,” said Farooq Tariq, an activist associated with the Pakistan Kissan Rabita Committee, an organization for landless peasants and farmers in the province of Punjab. “We demand that peasants and farmers are paid half a million rupees immediately, to compensate for the devastating losses incurred as a consequence of the floods this year.”
Tariq, who participated in this year’s COP and whose protest against fossil fuels outside the summit’s venue in Sharm el Shaikh went viral on Twitter last week, also believes that this year’s COP has taken a softer position on fossil fuel use, which, according to him, is a significant setback, a concern echoed by Nameerah Hameed, engagement advisor at Climate Outreach.
“The fund for loss and damage is something to celebrate, but it is not the answer to combating climate change; we really needed pledges for the phasedown of all fossil fuels, which failed to make the deal,” Hameed told VICE World News. “What people fail to realize is that phasing out fossil fuels and funding loss and damage run hand in hand, because a failure to phasedown fossil fuels will lead to even more demand for funding to deal with the consequences of emissions. This is a colossal failure which will undercut progress on the loss and damage finance facility.”
“For Pakistan, in particular, this is concerning because 60 percent of our energy and electricity requirements are met by fossil fuels,” Tariq added. “It is strange that the government spoke against fossil fuel usage at COP27, but has given the go-ahead to coal-fired power projects in Thar, Sindh. We need to reduce our dependence on coal, gas and oil.”
Indeed, Pakistan is increasingly reliant on coal-based energy generation. Just a fortnight before COP27, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari inaugurated a 330MW coal power plant in Thar, located in the province of Sindh.
“At this point in time, Pakistan can turn around and say we’ve been in the midst of an energy crisis and it isn’t like we haven’t made efforts. The previous [PTI] government imposed a moratorium on all new power plants with imported coal,” said Alam, the environmental lawyer and activist. “Having said that, as the climate crisis deepens, there will have to be some reflection by the government about the [Thar coal] project and whether to move it forward, or not.”
While Pakistan’s demands at COP27 hinged on the creation of a loss and damage facility, younger activists who attended the summit said the government’s demands were hollow without public engagement, particularly with those who are from vulnerable parts of the country.
Pervez Aly, a 19-year-old climate activist from Gilgit Baltistan, reached Sharm El Shaikh on November 6 and did not know what the climate ministry’s official position at the summit was, even though he contacted them several times.
And this is a systemic problem, Aly told VICE World News, and that the government seldom reaches out to youth when drafting policies. “Sure, we’re young and we don’t have experience, but we can offer suggestions,” he said. “We are working with indigenous people, flood victims, places where the government has not been able to reach.”
On November 8, Aly and three other youth activists were part of a panel at the Pakistan pavilion titled “Pakistan’s future by Pakistan’s future.” They were joined by two elected representatives – a member of parliament, Romina Khurshid Alam, and the Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Youth Affairs, Shaza Fatima Khwaja.
According to Rida Rashid, another nineteen-year-old activist on the panel, tensions flared after the panelists asked Alam, the MNA and Khwaja, the Special Assistant, a question about youth involvement in drafting climate policies, and the need for mechanisms to ensure that funding allocated towards relief and rehabilitation reaches vulnerable populations.
Aly and Rashid told VICE World News that Khwaja, the Special Assistant, was rude beyond measure – at an international venue, to boot.
“She was talking down at us, she was interrupting us, telling us to listen,” Aly said. “It was really excruciating for us to be here representing our country and face the brunt of the government’s inability to communicate with stakeholders in a timely manner. I was in tears.”
The Climate Ministry did not respond to VICE World News’s request for comment on this incident.
Alam, the activist from Lahore, moderated the session and he told VICE World News that the Special Assistant’s behavior was “inexcusable.” “It was beyond the pale. It showed immaturity on her part,” he said. “But as an activist myself, I would like to add that this is how you gain experience. I hope they take this as a learning experience and aren’t too bitter about it, we see this in nearly every conference, where someone gets offended because they haven’t received enough protocol. It was that level of pettiness.”
As the summit wound up last week, activists VICE World News spoke to for this piece are hoping the climate ministry’s demands and pledges will translate into actionable outcomes on ground – better public engagement, which will translate to better public awareness. “A lot of Pakistan’s climate problems are governance related. If we had a better government, or better governance, we would be better adapted and better prepared,” added Alam, the activist and lawyer from Lahore.
For Aly, the young activist from Gilgit Baltistan, this also means better outreach, particularly in vulnerable areas. He told VICE World News about his first memory of water gushing through his village in northern Pakistan – twelve years ago, back in 2010, when Pakistan was hit by catastrophic floods which led to the UN issuing its largest-ever disaster appeal at over $2 billion. “I was nine years old, and no one bothered about us. I still carry these memories with me,” he said. “I am here today [at COP27] because of my own efforts and enthusiasm. No one has helped me, and certainly not the government.”
Rashid, the 19-year-old climate activist from Islamabad, who lost family in the floods, is now back in Pakistan. She says her demands towards the government and quest for accountability stem from a deeply personal place. “Now, more than ever before, I want to know what mechanisms the government has to ensure that funds are reaching affected and vulnerable communities.”