Just a few days before the World Environment Day, the Punjab government has announced a scheme to grant the land reserved as forests and protected by law for agricultural purposes. With less than 5 per cent of Pakistan’s surface having forest cover, this new initiative is like a slap in the face of the environmentally conscious.
Tomorrow, the 5th of June, is World Environment Day. On this day in 1972 the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment – one of the first big international events recognising the importance of the environment in the global discourse – began. The point of having a World Environment Day is to focus public and political attention on the issues of environment and development and to draw public action to combat the immense challenges these issues bring to the table.
What, then, are these challenges?
According to the Environment Assessment of Pakistan carried out by the World Bank and published in 2007, “The urgency of addressing Pakistan’s environmental problems has probably never been greater. Conservative estimates…suggest that environmental degradation costs the country at least 6 per cent of GDP or about Rs365 billion per year” (that’s a billion Rupees a day). These costs fall disproportionately on the poor. The report identifies that half of this damage stems from illness and premature mortality caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution; some 30 per cent of the damage comes from illness and diseases spread by inadequate water supply and quality, sanitation and hygiene. The remaining damage stems from reduced agricultural productivity due to soil degradation.
A sceptical journalist (journalists should be sceptical, not cynical) recently asked me how this damage was calculated. Briefly, if someone falls ill and can’t work, they compromise their incomes (a loss) and, equally, if the labour in a factory or business is routinely ill, productivity is compromised (a loss). These are the losses the report put as “conservative estimate”. What the report doesn’t dwell upon is the loss of life occasioned by the pollution. To put it into context, we suffer an environmental catastrophe, in human and economic terms, that is larger than the 2005 earthquake. And we do so every year.
Over and above the crippling loss and damage is the spectre of climate change. The world’s climate is being affected by greenhouse gases produced by human activity and consumption. While the sea level may not rise and sink Karachi, Pakistan is and will be hit hard by the effects of climate change. In the long term, as the Himalayan glaciers melt, there will be increased incidents of flooding and, then, little or no water for irrigation purposes. Water scarcity will further compromise food production and, as a result, rural livelihood. Every other Pakistani works in the agricultural sector (which contributes to about 60 per cent of the economy). Any detriment to rural livelihood will add to rural-urban migration and, from there, to issues regarding housing, sanitation, healthcare and educational facilities, job opportunities and recreational facilities, all of which are stressed already.
I’ll point out here that the continued violence in Karachi – one of the scariest things going on in Pakistan at this moment — is, at its very root — a housing issue being fought over by rival political parties representing different ethnic interests. Karachi’s population will increase to well over 20million in the coming years, and if the government doesn’t do anything about it now, get ready to greet urban violence related to climate change in the very near future.
Some suggest that climate change is a problem caused by the developed world and passed on to poorer, less-developed nations. This may be so, as Pakistan’s carbon footprint is negligible compared to the United States, Canada or even Qatar (which is one of the most energy guzzling countries, per capita, in the world). But the cost of environmental degradation and climate change are simply too large to shrug off in such a causal manner.
And what has been the response of the government to the environmental degradation its people suffer? Last year was the National Year of the Environment, but the military operation in Swat and the issue of the IDPs took most of the government’s attention. Last year’s annual development budgets would have you thinking that climate change isn’t even a concern. In addition, nothing has been done to set air quality standards (so there’s literally nothing for environment protection agencies to enforce); the clean drinking water policy is more of a wish list than a plan of action; and we’re doing nothing to ensure food security or reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. In contrast, well-to-do and developed nations readily admit that climate change and environment are the most pressing issues facing the globe.
Meanwhile, the Punjab government is bent upon reducing forest cover and handing out parcels of land to, most probably, political cronies. Forests are carbon sinks that are important tools to mitigate the effects of climate change (someone should inform the chief minister that REDD forest initiatives can actually earn money in terms of Carbon Credits).
At least thirty five per cent of our 180 million Pakistanis live in cities. Within another generation or two, some sixty per cent of at least 250 million Pakistani will shift to or live in them. The stress on habitat resources this will bring is now preparing some for what experts call “new urban poverty”. Unlike rural poverty, which is primarily a development issue, new urban poverty is going to be primarily a health issue. Are we even thinking of preparing for this?
Many people still think that protecting the environment will come at the cost of development and the economy. This is simply not true. It’s not conceivable to ask someone whether they want a job or clean drinking water, for example. Both have to be provided for.
Within twenty years of the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in 1972, the UN hosted, in Rio de Janeiro, a summit on environment and development. That’s a fairly short period of time in which the international community recognised the issues of the environment and linked them with development. Nowadays, these issues are considered as two sides of the same coin.
The level of organisation shown by the international community in coming together and doing something about the environment is a sign for hope. The short period between recognising and responding to the problem is testament to the ingenuity of the human race and proves that the seemingly impossible is impossible. We, in Pakistan, should take lead from the remarkable leaps and bounds made in understanding, awareness and capacity to deal with environmental issues. It isn’t too late to do something about the environment. In fact, now, more than any other time, it is crucial to shoulder our responsibility.
While something like climate change may seem to be something individual efforts cannot even begin to dent, the power of collective action cannot be underestimated. Doing things like turning off extra light, using less water while brushing your teeth etc should be the least every person does to reduce their impact on the earth’s resources. But, beyond that, it’s also our responsibility to grab people by their shirt-collars and explain to them that time is running out but hope and opportunity exist. Happy World Environment Day.
The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning. Email: email@example.com