The Pakistani activist Ayisha Siddiqa tells how her community lives the current climate crisis and talks about her demands and expectations for COP28, which will take place in the United Arab Emirates.
Pakistani activist Ayisha Siddiqa warns of the impact of the climate crisis in her community, where “climate anxiety” is “post-traumatic stress disorder”, and gives an ultimatum to abandon fossil fuels at COP28, which is being hosted by the Emirates, one of major oil producers.
Climate adviser to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, and chosen as one of the women of 2023 by Time magazine, Sidiqqa acknowledges during an interview with EFE that her struggle is marked by the experiences of her childhood as part of a tribal community in Jhang, in central Pakistan.
“For centuries, my family has depended on the Chenab River, which is one of the largest in Pakistan (…) People go fishing, we live on the banks of the river, we build our houses next to the river,” explains the young woman. 24-year-old from Lebanon, where today she is participating in a Climate Justice Camp.
However, everything changed after around 2008 the government began building “hydrochemical” dams in Chenab to try to mitigate the “enormous energy crisis” in the country and reduce power outages that, according to Siddiqa, were prolonged for “hours and hours”.
Farewell to health and livelihood
The activist denounces that the dams leaked “chemical toxins” directly into the water and attributes the appearance of a series of diseases in the area to the contamination of the river, including cancers that “were not a coincidence at the speed with which they were growing”.
Her grandfather suffered from cancer, the village registered a wave of polio, her cousin contracted tetanus “also as a result of toxins in the water” and her uncles appeared to have kidney ailments.
“When we went to the doctor to ask what had happened, they told us that our water is contaminated. And this contamination is recent,” says the also co-founder of the global alliance “Polluters Out.”
The young woman eventually moved to the United States, a decision that allowed her to become the first woman in her family to obtain a higher education and without which, she admits, her career as an environmental defender would have been crushed under the harsh conditions of everyday life.
She says that for a tribe like hers, until a few years ago accustomed to bartering, growing their own food and making their own produce, the rapid transition to a capitalist, market economy is “really, really difficult.”
“This is all very new, making money is something very new (…) And with all the pollution, large-scale poverty also came to the region, because before we could feed ourselves, clothe ourselves and live off the land,” she lamented.
In her opinion, the psychological impact of living always alert should not be overlooked.
“What we call climate anxiety here, for my country, for my people, for my community is post-traumatic stress disorder. When we hear that there is going to be a flood, people cover their entire houses, take everything out, we tell the children to don’t go out; there’s tension in the air, you can feel it,” she says.
COP28, a key “test”
Precisely, just a year ago, Pakistan suffered its worst floods in more than a decade, a disaster that left 1,700 dead, eight million displaced and around 33 million affected in the South Asian country.
It was one of the first times that such a catastrophe was widely linked to climate change, which are not unusual during the monsoon season in any South Asian country and which experts believe are being exacerbated by the effects of global warming.
“The government saw it as an opportunity to make it part of a bigger problem, climate change that is occurring in the world, and thereby bring it back to the debate on resources and that the country needs financial help,” Siddiqa said.
As she says, her “heart hurts” because the suffering of so many people has been taken advantage of for a claim that should have been made a long time ago.
In just three months, the environmental and human rights defender will travel to Dubai to take part in the COP28 climate summit, which this year is being hosted by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), one of the world’s leading oil producers.
For this reason, Guterres’ advisor considers this appointment as an important “test” for civil society and governments.
“Often the diplomatic argument is that we can’t phase out fossil fuels without the fossil fuel industry. Okay, now you have the fossil fuel industry not just at the table, but managing, they have to engage,” Siddika called.
“If that doesn’t happen, I personally don’t know how many more negotiations we can have,” she concluded.