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Farmer Demands Climate Change Action By Suing Pakistani Government

A farmer uses his bull to prepare the ground for rice plantation in Lahore.
A farmer uses his bull to prepare the ground for rice plantation in Lahore.

Lahore farmer Asghar Leghari had watched his family fight the unpredictable weather that threatened their crops year after year, and he’d had enough.

He also saw many other small-scale farmers around him in the Rahim Yar Khan district, in Pakistan’s South Punjab region, face similar fates, and was angered at the country’s inability, or unwillingness, to protect its people from the devastating effects of climate change.

Leghari decided there was only one thing to do: He took the government to court.

In August, Leghari, 25, filed a petition with the Lahore High Court claiming the government of Pakistan was violating his fundamental rights by neglecting to tackle the impacts of climate change.

Quoting the objectives of the country’s 2012 National Climate Change Policy, he accused leaders of failing “to ensure water, food and energy security … in the face of the challenges posed by climate change.”

In response, Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah ordered the formation of a Climate Change Commission to push forward the policies the government promised. Climate change “appears to be the most serious threat facing Pakistan,” the judge said.

Made up of officials from key ministries -- including the Climate Change and Water and Power ministries -- as well as heads of other government departments and international organizations, that commission has now begun meeting.

Leghari, who is a law student in Lahore, said his family relies on the income from its sugarcane farm of more than 500 acres in Rahimyar Khan. But farmers are finding it increasingly hard to eke out a living from their crops when faced with water scarcity and temperature changes.

Leghari said he felt it was time to hold the nation’s leaders accountable. "My petition aimed to compel the concerned departments and ministries to take action and consider climate change an important issue before it is too late,” he said.

He pointed out that despite the fact that Pakistan has had a climate change policy and framework in place for more than three years, there has been little government action.

"The circumstances that merited the filing of this petition do not affect only me, but are endemic,” Leghari said. The case "does not deal with an individual grievance, but seeks to address a larger public interest matter.”

According to the Climate Change Ministry, water availability in Pakistan in 1950 stood at 5,300 cubic meters per person per year. By 2011, that figure had dropped to under 1,000 cubic meters and is still shrinking.

Leghari’s petition maintained the government is obligated to implement the policies it laid out in 2012, including practical steps needed to adapt to the effects of climate change and to limit the country’s own emissions.

These include things like promoting crop irrigation practices that waste less water and new crop varieties that require less water, and persuading farmers to use biogas and manure digesters to generate green energy and reduce methane emissions.

Leghari said he isn’t looking for compensation but rather action on the broader issue.

"Direct relief would be insufficient in scope to compensate me or other farmers against future grievances,” he said. “Climate change is an issue that is here to stay if adequate measures are not taken.”

In response to Leghari’s petition, Sajjad Ahmad, joint secretary of the Climate Change Ministry, told Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper that the government has put policies in place but many have not been implemented.

Leghari’s advocate in court, Mansoor Usman Awan, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that government departments that might be required to act on climate change -- including agriculture and forestry, irrigation, water, and power and the Federal Flood Commission -- had failed to deliver effective adaptation and mitigation measures.

The new commission hopes to start changing that.

According to Hameed Naqi, director general of WWP-Pakistan, a member of the commission, even if the group manages to implement only the priority actions set out by the 2012 National Climate Policy -- which mostly aim at protecting the nation’s shrinking forests -- that would make huge strides toward addressing the country’s climate and environmental problems.

"The judge is pushing the government departments to take action,” he said. “The commission is a ray of hope for us.”

Reporting by Anam Gill for Reuters