Environmental crisis in Pakistan: corruption, carbon emissions and capitalism

Pakistan is being rocked by freak weather events and environmental crises. This article discusses the impact of these disasters, their causes, the failure of the state and the capitalist system to deal with them, and the way forward.


The recent monsoon rainfall in Pakistan exposed the corruption and impotence of the regime in all provinces of the country. The city of Karachi – considered the most developed in Pakistan, owing to vast industrialisation and high commercial activity – was totally flooded, as were all major urban centres. August rainfall in Karachi averages at 68mm. This year, it was 587.5mm, as reported by the country’s meteorological authority – the highest in the last 90 years.

Extreme weather events in Pakistan are not a recent phenomenon, but a trend observed over several years due to global climate change impacting the country. However, there are additional, localised environmental impacts from heavy industrial emissions and irresponsible waste disposal.

Torrential rainfall and the destruction it causes

After flowing through Karachi, the rainwater remained stagnant for many days. A video has gone viral showing a man diving from the third floor of his house and swimming in the flooded street. Canoes and boats are filling the streets instead of cars. Some people have compared Karachi to Venice. Over three days in August, 90 people died as a result of these monsoon rains in Karachi alone. A similar situation was observed in Lahore. Although Lahore experiences rain disasters quite often in its poor neighbourhoods, this year’s rain was especially severe. Other industrial cities like Faisalabad Gujranwala, Sialkot and Rawalpindi were also affected.

These downpours acutely affect poor, working-class areas, where houses are shoddily built, often using cheap construction materials. In a lot of urban areas, mud is used to construct walls instead of cement. In tall buildings with numerous flats, landlords use low-quality materials. Karachi experienced numerous building collapses in the rain, killing and injuring hundreds of people.

This year, the monsoon rains were qualitatively different from the past. The destruction extended to upper-middle-class neighbourhoods, who also protested against the government. The burgers (as the petit-bourgeoisie is usually called in Pakistan) organised protests in front of government offices. A middle-aged woman burger reportedly shouted that “we are not the people of Surjani town (a poor neighbourhood of Karachi), we are the people of the Defence Housing Area (a more affluent neighbourhood). How dare the government ignore us?” This middle-class anger also demonstrates class hatred against the big bourgeoisie, amidst a total failure of the system.

Meanwhile, the poor and working-class people know that the government will never listen to them, even if they protest. Furthermore, aside from the continuous betrayals of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP: the main workers’ party) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM: a secular liberal party), who have been leading the province for many decades, they are also corrupt to the core. All funds meant to maintain public infrastructure – including roads, canals, sewerage and environmental protections – are drained into the pockets of politicians and bureaucrats.

The response of the state

Imran Khan Image public domainThe corrupt state has proved incapable of dealing with environmental crises / Image: public domain

The state, as usual, totally ignored the catastrophe brought about by the monsoon rain. State officials and bureaucrats ran away from their offices and disappeared to escape the wrath of the public. They know that it is impossible for them to do anything for the people in these hard times, given the limited resources available and the corrupt state bureaucracy.

Recently, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced a package of about one trillion rupees (6 billion USD) to support the Karachi Uplift Plan. This sounded like good news for the corrupt politicians and government bureaucrats, but the Pakistan Army Chief beat them to the punch by claiming the army would be rebuilding Karachi, thus laying hands on the loot contained in this ‘support package’. Later on, it was revealed that there is no money of this sum available within the central government, and it was just a hollow promise – in other words, business as usual.

This did not stop the Army Chief however, who started his campaign to ‘rebuild’ Karachi by meeting business leaders and negotiating compensations for their losses. To the poor, he announced their homes would be bulldozed to extend canals and rivers, where poor neighbourhoods are often founded due to the cheap land.

Extreme weather events

With floods in Karachi and Lahore, avalanches in the northern regions and Kashmir, droughts in the Sindh areas and high summer temperatures in Sindh and Balochistan, extreme weather is engulfing Pakistan, with the number of such events increasing every year.

The world's highest temperature since the start of the 20th century (53.5 degrees centigrade) was recorded in Turbat in 2017. The famous heatwave in May 2019 that spread across the subcontinent also killed many people in Pakistan. Most people who died from extreme heat were poor and working class. Workers are not provided with any leave from work in the case of extreme heat, and nor are they provided adequately drinking water. As a result, most of them are dehydrated, and can suffer from medical complications that lead to death.

According to the latest figures, the proportion of workers who will die annually due to extreme heat in Pakistan is set to increase by around 200 per 100,000, as compared to an average global increase of 73. A researcher from the University of California said that: “The data show that poor communities don’t have the means to adapt, so they end up dying from warming at much higher rates.” This is entirely true: it is only the rich who can adapt to adverse weather conditions, while the poor suffer the effects of climate change.

The pollution menace

Pakistan smog Image RazPakistan's biggest cities are seriously polluted / Image: Raz

The recent WHO data puts Pakistan’s air quality at an unsafe level. Pakistan’s annual mean concentration of PM2.5 is 58 µg/m3, exceeding the recommended maximum of 10 µg/m3. In a list of top five most-polluted cities, two are in Pakistan: the industrial cities of Gujranwala and Faisalabad. Lahore, the second-largest metropolis and industrial city, is also at number 12.

With the recent opening of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC: a series of massive infrastructure projects funded by China), emissions from vehicles have increased tenfold. Furthermore, new, downstream manufacturing industries are being set up across the country in major industrial hubs and cities, adding to the industrial pollution. Industries are deregulated in Pakistan, and are free to pollute air and water unchecked by any government agency. Furthermore, the inability of the government to invest in public transport, yet extending state car financing schemes to the people, has pushed up the number of vehicles on roads. Almost all of these are heavily polluting, as there is no standardised inspection or testing system in place.

The issue of smog has also become significant in Pakistan, particularly in the Punjab region. Farmers (in the absence of any suitable farm clearing systems or machinery) burn their left-over crops to prepare the field for the next season. This creates massive smog that resides in neighbouring villages, towns and cities. During a smog, a day of breathing the air is akin to smoking 200 to 300 cigarettes. Last year, a number of people died, and many were hospitalised because of smog that spread around the major cities in Lahore, Gujranwala and Faisalabad.

Fossil fuel dependency

Pakistan is heavily dependent on fossil fuel to cater for its energy needs. 30 percent of the country’s imports are fossil fuels. All the government’s efforts to decarbonise the energy sector are in vain. Whenever any government body starts a clean energy programme, it becomes bogged down in corruption and immediately halted. Most of the electricity generated in Pakistan uses fossil fuel resources. All logistical and transport vehicles – including trains, busses and trucks – are running on heavy pollution grade fuels.

Petrol and other fuels sold throughout the country’s gas stations are adulterated with cheap kerosene. Gas stations are usually subcontracted to local capitalists. To increase profits, they mix the low-grade kerosene oil with petrol and diesel. This practice not only decreases fuel efficiency but also increases toxic pollution through vehicle exhausts and has a detrimental impact on vehicle engine wear. There are occasional spot checks in gas stations by the state authorities or by the agents of multinational oil companies. However, under conditions of rampant corruption, the inspectors never bother to report any adulterations. Cases are only reported when the bribe money is either insufficient or unpaid.

For many decades, no investment was made to modernise or decarbonise the rail infrastructure and train engines, resulting in massive emissions. Furthermore, the country’s logistic and supply chain system is heavily dependent upon trucks and tankers on roads. The vast majority of trucks and tankers running in the country are in appalling condition, with a low level of maintenance, thereby heavily polluting the environment. The case is similar with vehicles used in the construction of roads and buildings.

Three-wheeler rickshaws, which are used as a taxi service in urban areas, are not only contributing to air pollution, but also noise pollution. Although the government has taken steps to replace petrol or gas three-wheeler rickshaws with electric ones, many are still running on fossil fuels. And with the introduction of services such as Uber in major cities across the country, the roads are jam packed with polluting vehicles, neutralising all previous efforts to electrify the three-wheelers.

Industrial waste and the poisoning of rivers

Lake pollution Image Biswarup GangulyLake and river pollution is a menace in Pakistan that poisons people and the environment alike / Image: Biswarup Ganguly

Apart from air pollution, Pakistan is also famous for polluting its rivers. Almost all factories dispose of their untreated wet waste in canals and rivers. One report states that only 8 percent of the total public wastewater and 1 percent of industrial waste is treated before it is thrown into rivers.

Hardly any environmental laws are followed by the manufacturing industry. Polluted rivers are poisoning people from rural communities, who use water from canals and rivers for their daily needs, including drinking. Rivers have become toxic: filled with carcinogens, and beyond safe limits for metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium etc. Almost all river fish are toxic and contain carcinogens and dangerous chemicals, which ultimately end up in the human food chain.

Textiles is one of the largest manufacturing sectors in Pakistan, and there are significant outflows of wet waste from textile factories, particularly for dyeing and printing. Due to the high cost of installing and operating waste treatment plants, the factories do not bother setting them up. In cases where there are treatment plants installed, they are often kept non-operational as their purpose is to show international buyers how seriously the bosses take the environment.

Leather tanning is also among the most-polluting sectors in Pakistan. Tannery chemicals are manufactured in Europe but used in developing countries. They are highly toxic and have caused cancer among tannery workers, and as well as in the local neighbourhoods that are exposed to the waste products discharging from the factories.

Poisonous agriculture sprays are another menace. Numerous cancers, and lung and liver diseases are widespread in agricultural villages in Punjab and Sindh. The government is incapable of controlling the spray of poisonous pesticides in farms. Almost all of these pesticides are from multinational companies such as Bayer, Sandoz, BASF, Clariant, ICI and Syngenta.

With the advent of the CPEC, a lot of factories are being set up around urban cities, disregarding all environmental regulations. This has pushed up air and water pollution in all major urban centres and surroundings beyond safe limits. There has been a mushrooming of polluting factories, to which the government turns a blind eye.

Drought and water scarcity in Pakistan: the profiteering water mafia

Drought affects the southern parts of Pakistan, especially in the Sindh and Balochistan provinces. Hundreds of people die due to drought, and thousands become sick due to dehydration and malnutrition. The government doesn’t build water infrastructure in towns and villages, meaning people in drought-affected provinces are heavily reliant upon the private tanker mafia who operate with impunity. They sell water at a high price to towns and urban neighbourhoods. Only the middle-class and wealthy people can afford to buy water from tankers for their daily use. The poor have to travel long distances to fetch water.

The people of Karachi, despite living in a coastal city, are constantly threatened with water scarcity, and the local water tanker mafia is turning over billions of rupees. State officials and politicians are involved in this heinous business, which is further discouraging investment in the water supply infrastructure.

The bottled water mafia is another problem the country has faced in the last two decades. Multinational companies that have invested in this space are making astronomical profits out of plain water. According to a report by the Ministry of Science and Technology, 12 brands of bottled water are considered unsafe to drink. They contain dangerous and toxic chemicals that damage human organs such as the kidneys and liver. There are still a lot of bottled water brands operating in Pakistan outside the law. Rather than installing clean drinking water plants throughout the country and ensuring every house has access to clean water, the government decided to develop its own bottled water brand and sell it to the people.

Failure of the state

The state is failing on all fronts in ensuring a clean environment in Pakistan. On coming to power, the current prime minister announced that 10 billion trees would be planted in the country. However, just two years later, the project was riddled with corruption. Illegal logging is rife in the northern areas. Places considered forests decades ago are now deserted. Already, the country is branded “forest poor” by the WWF, meaning trees cover less than 6 percent of the country. Illegal loggers in the timber mafia are operating with impunity in cahoots with local police, the army and politicians, contributing to massive deforestation. According to a 2019 World Bank report, Pakistan loses 27,000 hectares of forest area annually. A reforestation drive under a corrupt regime that is incapable of controlling illegal logging is fruitless. The timber mafia will go to any lengths to cut trees to boost their profits. The state cannot provide sustainable energy resources to homes, and as a result, people are still using wood for cooking fires.

According to 2018 data, 1.2 million trees were destroyed by forest fires in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) province. Often, these fires are man-made and started to conceal illegal logging. These fires not only kill people and burn houses, but also destroy biodiversity.

The government has formed countless ministries, departments, and special action groups for addressing the environment and climate change, but still the situation is getting worse every year. Greenhouse gas emissions are increasing annually at high levels.

Pakistan emissions Image Government of Pakistan

The capitalists have no interest in curbing environmental degradation in Pakistan. When extreme weather events occur, they and their businesses remain safe. They have air conditioned houses, offices and cars where they spend all of their time. Furthermore, they are well hydrated with drinks and fruits during hot scorching summers, and have central heating to keep themselves warm during cold winters. During heavy rainfall, their houses and localities are safe from floods. Large landowners in Punjab and Sindh are even involved, alongside state officials, in breaking river banks and allowing water to flow toward poor villages. They save their lands in this process at the cost of the lives, houses and valuables of poor people.

Countless NGO and international development organisations are doling out millions of dollars to address the environmental situation in Pakistan. The majority of this money goes into churning out countless, useless climate reports, without presenting any credible solutions.

Some NGOs believe that we can address these issues by appealing to capitalists and the corrupt state. Meanwhile, others are of the view that we should focus on individual and isolated actions to make a gradual impact, and wait for people to follow this example. Slogans emerge such as: “go vegan”, “plant trees in your gardens”, “turn off your engine at the red traffic light”, “don’t leave the taps running” etc. But neither appealing to shameless capitalists and politicians, nor individual actions can save the country from environmental disasters. A small action of a large corporation to destroy the environment can negate individual efforts by thousands of people to save it.

Capitalism, imperialism and the way forward

Environmental and climate catastrophes are killing more people than the coronavirus in Pakistan. According to official estimates, 128,000 are killed annually in Pakistan due to the effects of climate change. However, the real figure is much higher. Under capitalism, large businesses and their stooges in the state apparatus decide the fate of the environment. CEOs decide what is to be produced, and in what quantities, so as to maximise profits, disregarding environmental destruction, even building obsolescence into products to increase sales.

Global statistics show that the top 10 percent of the world’s wealthiest people account for half of greenhouse gas emissions, while the bottom 50 percent of the population account for just a tenth. Emission inequality is inherent within capitalism. Multinational corporations have set up polluting factories and plants in Pakistan. This includes industries such as chemical, food processing, energy, transport and building and construction. These corporations dole out massive bribes to state officials and politicians and are given a blank cheque when it comes to emissions.

Pakistan has the potential to decarbonise its energy sector fully. It has a vast amount of water reservoirs on which hydroelectric dams could be built. The country has the highest number of days of sunshine, which can be harnessed through solar technologies. Furthermore, supplying clean and decarbonised electricity through the grid can further decarbonise other sectors such as transport, household energy, industry, and agriculture. However, the country is heavily importing fossil fuels and burning it inefficiently in households, vehicles, industrial boilers, electricity generators, railway engines, construction machinery and so on.

And there are other scandals besides emissions. For example, a toxic gas leak in an industrial centre of Karachi in February 2020 killed 14 and made hundreds of people sick with long-term complications. A month later, a poisonous chlorine gas leak in the Engro Polymer and Chemicals company in Karachi hospitalised more than 70 people. The capitalists often bribe the media and state authorities to stay silent about incidents such as these.

There are abundant natural resources, and technology and expertise available to resolve all of the problems described above. But the capitalist system is posing a significant barrier. The big, polluting businesses are privately owned, and ordinary people have no power to decide how production is managed.

As long as there is a capitalist system in Pakistan, the problems facing the environment cannot be addressed. We need to overturn the capitalist system of profit production in favour of a rational plan of production, managed by the working class, under a socialist society, to protect and preserve the environment.

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