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A City Under Siege: Unraveling the Glaring Link Between Environmental Degradation and Sociopolitical Turbulence

Monday, July 29, 2019

Anthony D'Souza

Research & Publications Intern

Much of the media concerning climate change have direly emphasized that its most horrendous effects will be borne by some of the world’s most impoverished developing cities, with coastal settlements on the front lines of this siege. Yet, most of these headline-grabbing pieces rarely explore the true complexity of these issues beyond mere sea-level rise and a few other similarly visible or tangible environmental problems. This blog aims to briefly outline the deeper extent of crises threatening these cities by further examining an experience of one particular city. A city where the ravages of global warming are more than just dire warnings—but a clear and present burden on its overwhelmingly underprivileged citizens every day. A city that offers perhaps one of the most holistic case studies to examine the entangled causality between environmental and social issues wrought by climate change. My hometown, Karachi, Pakistan.

While the city’s entrenched sociopolitical issues remain the primary factor crippling its ability to adequately address its growing list of crises, a theme throughout Karachi’s environmental challenges continues to be its ever-burgeoning population. As the nation’s industrial and commercial capital, Karachi has historically pulled in waves of rural migrants from villages across the country seeking better economic conditions, financial stability, and relatively improved standards of living, thus fueling its unchecked expansion to this day. Moreover, a vicious positive feedback loop underpins this dynamic, where the continued expansion of the city increases employment opportunities, and thus encourages migrants to continue to settle in Karachi. Regardless, while the lure of urban opportunities remains the chief pull factor, a powerful push factor has steadily emerged and intensified in recent years. Climate change-induced environmental degradation has resulted in rendering large tracts of Pakistan’s arable farmland as uncultivable and infertile, primarily caused by annually worsening flooding, temperature increases, droughts, and desertification. These extreme conditions have stripped a growing number of rural inhabitants of their livelihoods. As a result, destitute farmers and villagers, now provided with an even greater impetus for migration, have been forced to seek economic refuge within the nation’s largest city—also commonly referred to as ghareebon ki maa (the mother of the poor). The incessant cycle of rural to urban migration is only expected to intensify over upcoming years, with more than one-half of Pakistan’s population projected to be living in cities by the next decade, and Karachi projected to the world’s third most populated city within the next 11 years. 

Even Karachi’s titanic economy, historically touted as its greatest asset, cannot keep up with its overpopulation. Once the nation’s premier provider of skilled jobs and a regional powerhouse for innovation, Karachi’s economic luster has steadily weakened as informal employment now constitutes the largest producer of new jobs within the city, especially for incoming rural migrants. The expansion of basic resources—including fundamentals such as housing, water, electricity, piped sewage, and transport—remains a stagnating enterprise as well, with inept urban planning, poor governance, and entrenched political corruption largely to blame. The fact that the Sindh provincial government assigned Karachi two mayors as of 2019 highlights its difficulties regarding governance. Moreover, food shortages and rising prices have become increasingly commonplace—a direct and inevitable consequence of declining agricultural output due to diminishing reserves of arable land compounded by an ever-depleting rural agricultural labor force. As greater numbers of farmers and villagers migrate to urban centers, the rippling effects of their departure follow close behind.

If the worsening scarcity of basic resources and utilities wasn’t alarming enough, the societal implications of increasing rural in-migration further threatens to destabilize Karachi, whose political dynamics have been historically, and rather violently, defined along ethnic lines since 1947. The city already hosts numerous precedents of ethnic conflict and bloodshed fueled by rapid in-migration, most notably during the Afghan refugee crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. As population continues to increase, not only are residents competing for dwindling basic resources, but they are also in competition with rural migrants from many ethnic backgrounds who harbor vastly different ideologies, lifestyles, and backgrounds. Although historically diverse, Karachi does not share the liberal cosmopolitanism of a New York City or Los Angeles, but rather is a largely ghettoized patchwork of homogeneous ethnic neighborhoods, each enjoying varied supplies of utilities and resources based on affluence. The implications of increased heterogeneity under exacerbating conditions of overpopulation and resource scarcity driven by accelerating environmental degradation thus heralds inevitable sociopolitical violence for an already divided city. Localized civil unrest sparked by food and water scarcity have already washed over some of Karachi’s streets, resulting in further consequences since Karachi’s overall stability remains an area of critical concern for the entire nation. Local economist A.B. Shahid notably commented that, “if one wants to cripple Pakistan's economy, one should do nothing but to get Karachi paralyzed.” Constituting 10% of its host country’s population and providing 40% of its revenue, any volatility within the city almost inevitably brings rippling provincial and nationwide aftershocks. Such social instability and violence could further impoverish the city, where the livelihood of its majority lower-income population depends entirely on day-to-day income, only to be lost during periods of violence and citywide shutdowns. Just another factor in a never-ending cycle of elements fueling discontent. 

And finally, there’s the city’s ghastly climate issues itself. Temperatures have climbed by 2.25°C over the last half-century. The death toll from each year’s intensifying heat wave—itself grossly underrepresented due to the lack of adequate recordkeeping—keeps rising, disproportionately comprised of the city’s homeless. Sea levels are projected to rise up to 60 centimeters by the end of the century, intruding into the city’s aquifers and low-lying coastal areas. With sprawling residential areas of Karachi lying along the seaside, receding coastlines will fuel further competition and conflict for residential property as demand for housing continues to increase due to overpopulation. As reflected by the worsening urban environmental crises—heat waves, tropical cyclones, rising sea levels, decreasing annual rainfall, and harsher drought cycles—the sheer inhabitability of Karachi becomes more critical with each successive year, tugging along with it the propensity for further conflict.

The inadequacy of the local government’s response only serves to worsen each of these interconnected crises. Every environmental issue that has struck Karachi and even those currently plaguing the city have continued to be treated in exactly the same manner and with the same ideology by the city’s leadership as they were 10, 20, or even 50 years ago. There have been largely “cosmetic” plans drafted, band-aid changes proposed, political promises made, and even a Ministry of Climate Change established (and then promptly defunded). However, when it comes down to actually implementing anything of substance, the city remains near-primitive in its adaptation and mitigation strategies—focused solely on “symptoms rather than . . . core issues.” Political apathy, negligence, and corruption are so deeply entrenched within the fabric of the city’s government that even new election cycles offer little to no prospects for substantive progress with regard to environmental challenges.

Thus, while cities like Karachi are often branded as one of the first targets of climate change due to their proximity to rising sea levels, it must be underscored that there are far graver, more rapidly approaching consequences of continued environmental degradation than receding coastlines, especially for those in developing nations. These issues may not be as direct, intuitive, or visible, but most of them are already here and Karachi is just one in an unending list of overpopulated developing coastal cities currently confronting them, caught off-guard in cycles of in-migration and overpopulation, with conflict over depleting resources rising in frequency. Rising sea levels will surely exacerbate these crises over the next century. However, if left unaddressed, the complex sociopolitical aftermath wrought by climate change will crumble the city from within far sooner.