Zartaj Gul Wazir, Minister of State for Climate Change
Zartaj Gul Wazir, Minister of State for Climate Change, Pakistan Image Credit: Supplied

Her entry in mainstream politics was spectacular. Defeating two veteran politicians, scions of two of the most renowned feudal-political dynasties of South Punjab, the newcomer became the champion of women empowerment for breaking the patriarchal wall that fenced male entitlement so staunchly it was considered an unimaginable domain for women. Zartaj Gul Wazir, then 33, did it.

Winning the National Assembly 191 Dera Ghazi Khan seat in a fiercely patriarchal region, Zartaj’s victory in 2018 was a powerful manifestation of a 21st century Pakistani woman rewriting political rules while remaining steadfast to her personal values and progressive societal standards.

Outspoken, real, strikingly attractive, Zartaj is much more than her looks and her loud, ardent defence of Prime Minister Imran Khan, the hallmark of her TV appearances and public addresses. Lies within her fiery words is her dedication for the work of her ministry and her party’s government, and her commitment to do her best for Pakistan, most of which is rarely talked about amidst the noise about her once-a-year Twitter or TV faux pas.

Zartaj Gul Wazir belongs to that rare group of Pakistani female politicians who has had years of experience of grassroots politics as an active member of the Insaf Student Federation, the youth wing of her party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. She is also the member of the PTI Core Committee and Central Executive Committee, and Central Deputy Information Secretary.

After the 2018 election, one of the nine women in the whole of Pakistan winning on general seats, Zartaj was appointed as Minister of State for Climate Change.

Some of the initiatives of Zartaj’s ministry include ban on plastic bags, efficient stove programme, introduction of ZigZag technology for reduction of pollution, the Ten Billion Trees Tsunami, and the ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

I asked Minister of State Zartaj Gul Wazir a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: What are the biggest challenges climate change has produced for Pakistan?

Minister of State Zartaj Gul Wazir: Pakistan is extremely vulnerabile to climate change. Of particular concern are climate related threats to water, energy, and food security due to Pakistan’s inherent arid climate, which is coupled with the high degree of reliance on water from glacial snowmelt.

The impact of climate change is being felt through the growing intensity and frequency of extreme climatic disastrous events that are increasingly affecting many sectors. There was an increase of 0.6 °C during the past century. Pakistan is the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change globally by virtue of Weather-Related Loss Events in 2018.

The are several critical climate change threats to Pakistan: considerable increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, coupled with erratic monsoon rains causing frequent and intense floods and droughts; projected recession of the Hindu Kush-Karakoram-Himalayan glaciers due to global warming and carbon soot deposits from trans-boundary pollution sources, threatening water inflows into the Indus River System; increased siltation of major dams caused by more frequent and intense floods; rising temperatures resulting in enhanced heat and water-stressed conditions, particularly in arid and semi-arid regions, leading to reduced agricultural productivity; further decrease in the already scanty forest cover, from too rapid change in climatic conditions to allow natural migration of adversely affected plant species; increased intrusion of saline water in the Indus delta, adversely affecting coastal agriculture, mangroves and breeding grounds of fish; threat to coastal areas due to projected sea level rise and increased cyclonic activity due to higher sea surface temperatures; increased stress between upper and lower riparian regions in relation to sharing of water resources; and increased health risks and climate change induced migration.

This year Pakistan hosted the World Environment Day themed the Ecosystem Restoration. What steps have the government taken towards the attainment of this goal?

The Green Economic Stimulus is supporting the objectives of the Ten Billion Trees Tsunami Afforestation Project, which is aimed at mass plantations, setting up of nurseries, protecting natural forests, and promotion of honey, fruits, and olive plantation in Pakistan. Under this package, the Green Nigehabaan initiative will be launched to provide thousands of job opportunities, in the first phase, to Pakistan’s youth and daily wage earners.

The Green Economic Stimulus also promotes the Clean and Green Pakistan Movement, which adopts a holistic approach and aims at reducing and alleviating pollution of air, ground, and water.

The Ministry of Climate Change (MOCC) has already launched the Ecosystems Restoration Initiative (ESRI), an ambitious programme that focuses on nature-based solutions to strengthen Pakistan’s climate change adaptation and mitigation objectives. ESRI will finance afforestation projects such as the Ten Billion Trees Tsunami while focusing on the Recharge Pakistan programme, biodiversity, and land degradation, strengthening the early warning system, introduction of e-vehicles, and promotion of eco-tourism.

What steps has the government taken to clean up Karachi coastline and the sea itself?

Cleaning up of the coastline and keeping the sea clean is of prime importance. Since the passing of the 18th Amendment, environmental management is a provincial issue, and the Sindh government may be asked for a progress update on this issue. However, the federal government is providing all necessary facilitation to Sindh in this regard.

MOCC is also supporting provinces for the ecosystem restoration programme, under which the Sindh government has taken measures to restore mangrove ecosystem along the coastline, under which millions of saplings have been planted and huge parts of mangrove ecosystem have been restored under the ambit of the Ten Billion Trees Tsunami initiative.

What is the update on the government’s efforts to promote the use of solar power? Should the government not make it mandatory to replace gas water heaters with solar powered ones?

Pakistan has immense potential for generating electricity through solar power and has some of the highest values of insulation in the world. To secure sustainable energy and avert the effects of climate change, Pakistan needs to further invest for promotion of solar power.

However, due to huge investment in infrastructure, technology and capacity barriers, the solar energy sector has been facing issues. With the recent policy and financial incentives and availability of cheaper technologies, Pakistan is making a huge shift towards harnessing solar energy. Pakistan has already introduced net metering, which has sparked a huge change for domestic sector. We already have solar power plants in Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan provinces, and Kashmir. Various corporate entities are fast solarising their instalments, including schools, commercial buildings, and small industrial units.

How successful has been the plastic bag ban in Islamabad? Have provinces followed the federal lead?

The plastic industry is huge and employs hundreds of thousands of workers, and hence, the government has adopted a very aggressive but a gradual approach leading to total elimination of plastic bags in Islamabad, to be followed by the rest of the country. Because of the efforts and intensive monitoring, plastic bags have been eliminated from the market. Our government will also be focusing on the complete elimination of single use plastic items gradually.

In continuity, the provinces have geared up to impose the ban, and Punjab has also adopted an intensive strategy to eliminate the use of plastic bags. It is expected that with a careful balance between enforcement and promotion of environmentally friendly alternatives, the whole of Pakistan would completely be free of plastic pollution very soon.

Do you think environmental awareness should be part of the academic curriculum?

Environmental education is extremely important when it comes to protecting the environment and consequently, life on Earth. Yes, raising awareness for environmental issues right from the primary level is very essential, which leads to a behavioural change making us all responsible citizens. I believe that besides formal education, measures like water conservation, waste management, energy conservation, and tree plantation should be taught right from the beginning.

Please note that the environmental education is part of the curriculum on all levels in Pakistan, and Prime Minister Imran Khan’s vision for introducing a uniform syllabus is a major step in this direction. More than 30 universities are offering advance degrees in all allied disciplines to environment.

Climate change is still considered, in general, a “distant problem” and everyone is focused on today. What steps have you taken to change this perception?

Climate change is already very evident, and we witness its impact in our daily life, particularly, in the form of extreme weather events like floods and droughts. The common man can see changes in weather patterns, crop cycle, and increased pest and disease infestations. We have clearly witnessed prolonged summers and short winters, the phenomenon that confirm climate change is real and happening now.

MOCC with the support of its various partners and civil society—from school level to parliamentarians—is organising events——to mainstream the understanding of climate change. Media and activist groups have played a great role in sensitising masses about climate change and how to adapt to the adverse effects that we face in our daily lives. All major initiatives of government have built-in components to increase awareness with respect to climate change.