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Pakistan is one of the world’s most dangerous countries, grappling with terror attacks, poverty, religious extremism and crumbling public services.
But its new government is aiming to tackle a different problem by planting 10 billion trees within five years to fight the effects of global warming by restoring the country’s depleted forests.
As well as releasing more oxygen into the atmosphere, trees can protect Pakistan’s fast-eroding landscape by reducing the risk of floods from melting glaciers in its mountainous north.
Former cricket star Imran Khan won last month's violence-plagued election with a high-profile anti-corruption crusade and a promise to transform a political scene long dominated by entrenched family dynasties. (He also pledged to improve ties with the U.S. but was scathing about Washington's drone campaign against militants along the Afghan border.)
While the environment was not a major election issue, Pakistan is the seventh most vulnerable country to climate change, according to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a Pakistani public policy think tank — even while it is among the least polluting, contributing only 0.2 percent of global emissions.
Khan’s PTI party noted that the impact of rising temperatures, major flooding, prolonged droughts and unpredictable rainfall has already costing the country $6 billion to $14 billion in relief aid and economic recovery.
“It is now imperative to tackle climate change and reverse environmental degradation as Pakistan’s situation will only worsen as the economy grows,” the party said in its manifesto.
Khan’s plan is an extension of his earlier “Billion Tree” reforestation project in which around 865,000 acres of trees were planted in the PTI-controlled Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province from 2014 to 2017.
Pakistan also holds the Guinness World Record for most trees planted in 24 hours, set by the Sindh Forest Department in Thatta in June 2013 when a team of 300 volunteers planted 847,275 trees.
“We have been consumed for so long by so many other challenges such as the war on terror that has engulfed our cities, suicide bombings, public health, that kind of thing,” said Ali Tauqeer Sheikh, founder and CEO of LEAD Pakistan, an environmental think tank. “But it is extremely important also that we ensure we have enough fresh water and that our development does not destroy our own coastline. We have one of the largest deltas in the world, but it is dying because of climate change.”
He added: “Irrespective of the number of trees planted, it is important for our country, which has so many other challenges, to have the lungs to support our environment. We welcome Khan’s promise and we looking forward to holding him to account.”
Some 1,260 Pakistani civilians and soldiers were killed by terrorism in 2017, a figure down from 11,704 in 2009.
But dozens also die every year from ever-more-extreme heat waves and monsoon floods. The number of heat wave days per year has increased nearly fivefold in the last 30 years, and the sea level along the Karachi coast has risen 4 inches in the past century, according to a recent report by climate technology expert Qamar-Uz-Zaman Chaudhry.
In addition, its 5,000 glaciers — many of them in the Himalayas — are retreating faster than in any other part of the world, causing yet more floods and placing huge strain on rivers and fields.
It has also seen rapid deforestation, with trees cleared to make way for urban development and widespread illegal logging.