Pakistan must invest in climate resilience to survive, says prime ministerial hopeful Bhutto-Zardari

NURPUR NOON, Pakistan (AP) — Pakistan must invest in climate resilience for its survival, prime ministerial hopeful Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said in a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press.

He said he had been ready to quit the government while he was foreign minister because there were no new climate-resilience projects in the federal budget following devastating floods that killed more than 1,700 people in 2022.

“I was ready to leave,” he said Wednesday, adding it was only after he threatened to leave that some projects were included.

The country is two weeks away from parliamentary elections, but so far only Bhutto-Zardari’s Pakistan People’s Party has made climate adaptability and resilience key pledges in its platform. The AP has requested an interview with his rival, three-time former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, but has not received a response.

Unprecedented downpours, worsened by global warming, washed away homes and schools while displacing hundreds of thousands of people in 2022. An international donors’ conference in Geneva last year pledged billions of dollars, but parts of the country still feel the aftermath.

Bhutto-Zardari, who was foreign minister at the time of the floods, spoke to the AP in Nurpur Noon village in eastern Punjab province. He regretted that climate change and its impact on Pakistan are not a greater part of public and political discourse.

He said more needs to be done to communicate climate change and its impact to Pakistanis -- and urged fellow politicians to take the issue more seriously.

He said he was “shocked, horrified, livid and furious at the callous attitude” of lawmakers for not including climate resilience in the budget after the flooding. He said he didn’t know who would come to Pakistan’s aid if there were floods in the future and the state wasn’t funding such projects itself.

“Pakistan must invest in climate resilience for its survival. Climate change is an existential threat. People will face floods and then perpetual droughts. We have to convince the people of Pakistan of the crisis this is.”

Earlier Wednesday, Bhutto-Zardari addressed an election rally in the nearby agricultural and industrial town of Bhalwal. Some in the crowd held up pictures of his mother, two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated at a rally in 2007.

His grandfather is another former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was executed in 1979 after being deposed in a coup. Zulfikar and Benazir still command loyalty and reverence among the party's supporters.

Although the family has dominated Pakistani politics for decades, Bhutto-Zardari needs to defeat another dynasty, the Sharifs, if he wants to lead the next government.

It's a tough task given that he won his first parliamentary seat in 2018 and only entered the Cabinet after Imran Khan was ousted as prime minister and his successor, Shehbaz Sharif, the brother of Nawaz, gave Bhutto-Zardari the foreign minister role.

But Khan, a former cricketer who contested his first national elections in 2013 and became prime minister in 2018, is missing from this year's fray.

He is in prison following a corruption conviction, bogged down by legal cases, and barred from contesting the Feb. 8 polls, when 266 parliamentary seats are up for grabs with a further 70 reserved for women and minorities.

His power base is spread out in eastern Punjab province and northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, opening up the possibility for Bhutto-Zardari and the Sharifs to snap up any undecided voters.

The three main parties, including Khan's, are fielding about the same number of candidates.

But a national rights group has already said the vote is unlikely to be free and fair because of pre-poll rigging. Bhutto-Zardari played down these concerns, saying that every Pakistani election has had challenges and that this vote has them as well.

He said the challenge this time is the general perception that a political party is being targeted, in a reference to Khan's party, although he didn't identify it by name. In an ideal world, all politicians and political forces would participate in the election, he said. But he alleged that Khan “happily and gleefully” tried to eliminate the opposition while he was prime minister, without providing evidence for the claim.

Bhutto-Zardari suggested that Khan shouldn't complain if he feels he is now on the receiving end of such treatment.

Khan has denounced his legal troubles as a politically motivated plot to keep him out of the picture because of his popularity, and he likes to present himself as an outsider victimized by the military and the political dynasties.

Bhutto-Zardari also alleged that Khan's engagement with Afghanistan's Taliban rulers was a factor in the rise of militant attacks on Pakistan, again without providing evidence.

Pakistan recently faced another threat to its security from a more unexpected source — Iran.

Last week, Iran launched an air strike inside Pakistani territory targeting what it alleged was a militant hideout. Pakistan retaliated less than 48 hours later. The two air strikes killed at least nine people on either side of the border, mostly women and children.

Bhutto-Zardari said he was shocked by Iran's attack because of his extensive engagement with the neighboring country while he was in government. “We had created mechanisms to share concerns with each other. We had such extensive communication,” he said.

He noted that the Pakistani caretaker prime minister had met the Iranian foreign minister on the day of the attack but gave no insights into possible reasons for the apparent breakdown in communication, saying there was “incredible domestic pressure” on Iran.

“The Pakistani response was an important message for everybody,” Bhutto-Zardari said. “Pakistan takes its sovereignty very seriously.”