From the Himalayas in the north to the deserts of Balochistan in the west, to the mangroves of Sindh in the south, Pakistan’snatural diversity is spellbinding, but it is also under threat.
In 2018, only 12 per cent of the country was classed as an environmentally protected area. According to Bloomberg, it was one of the six countries in the world most at risk from climate change. The country had one of the lowest forest covers in the region, with only 5 per cent cover. This was compared to a global average of 31 per cent. This put the country at increased risk from environmental dangers such as flooding, melting glaciers and droughts.
However, change is underway. In 2020, Pakistan’s government launched the ‘Protected Area Initiative’ which aims to increase protected areas such as national parks, wetlands and wildlife reserves to 15 per cent of the country’s total area by 2023. In the last two years, protected area coverage has already increased to 13.9 per cent and further progress looks assured.
Pakistan is following a global trend, according to the United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) flagship report Protected Planet. Since 2010, 21 million km2of protected and conserved areas, or 42 per cent of the global total, has been added.
“Protected areas offer a range of environmental benefits – they safeguard biodiversity by protecting plant and animal habitats; protect against climate change by building resilience to natural disasters and providing carbon storage, and can help maintain food and water security,” said Susan Gardner, Director of UNEP’s Ecosystems division. “Their positive impact also extends to economies as protected areas can drive eco-tourism and create green jobs in developing countries.”
Sustainable Protected Areas
While the growth of protected areas is a welcome development, as the Pakistan government is aware, in order for them to be effective, the areas must be managed and controlled. While globally the target of 17 per cent of land protection has been met (Pakistan is behind the global average), less than 8 per cent, against a target of 10 per cent, of coastal and marine areas have been conserved.
It is key for Pakistan to not only increase the protected areas but to ensure that all areas that are protected are more than just paper parks. By this we mean they are fully functioning with community buy-in and staff to operate and protect them.
Pakistan’s national parks date back to 1972 with the creation of Lal Suhanra, one of South Asia’s largest. Lal Suhanara is now one of Pakistan’s 31 parks which include desert, mountains, wetlands and coastal ecosystems. They are home to a wide array of species including the elusive and endangered snow leopard. However, many had fallen into disrepair and were parks and protected areas only in name. Part of the Protected Area Initiative is to ensure that these valuable environmental areas are operating and functional.
“It is key for Pakistan to not only increase the protected areas but to ensure that all areas that are protected are more than just paper parks. By this we mean they are fully functioning with community buy-in and staff to operate and protect them,” said Dr. Raja Omer, the Deputy Inspector General (Forests) in Pakistan.
In order to do this Pakistan is adding 7000 jobs to manage and work in the parks, a key boost after job losses due to COVID-19. UNEP’s Protected Planet Report 2020 finds that in order to be fully effective, jobs in protected areas must draw from and benefit the local communities and fully embrace women at all levels of planning and implementation.
“These jobs will ensure community buy-in and agency for the protected areas,” said Dr. Omer.
As Pakistan prepares to hold World Environment Day on June 5, in partnership with UNEP, the country continues to make positive progress. Last year Prime Minister Khan announced the creation of nine new National Parks and the rehabilitation of a further six. Pakistan aims to have at least seven of its national parks registered under the IUCN 'Green List of Protected Areas,' the gold standard for conservation.
“We have made good progress and we are confident we will meet our targets,” said Dr. Omer.
The United Nations General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by the UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization, the UN Decade is designed to prevent, halt and reverse the degradation of ecosystems worldwide. The UN Decade will draw together political support, scientific research and finance to scale up restoration with the goal of reviving millions of hectares of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Visit www.decadeonrestoration.org to learn more.