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Protecting the environment-Ahmad Rafay Alam

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:

2 thoughts on “Protecting the environment-Ahmad Rafay Alam”

  1. “Dirt” is not in gigantic Thar Coal deposits (Black Gold) in Sindh to cater needs of country for eight centuries, yes, eight centuries but real “dirt: in in mind and heart of M. Akram Niazi who belongs to Punjab – better known as “Punjabi chauvinist”.


    “Dirty Thar Coal Versus Environment Friendly Kalabagh Dam in Pakistan
    & South Asia”.

    • It is very strange to note that present Government of Pakistan is advocating for Air Polluting Thar Coal Project Versus Environmental Friendly Kalabagh Dam.

    • Kalabagh dam which will increase the water resources of the country is being opposed while Thar coal project, which will consume huge amount of water and will contaminate all water, air and land resources of Pakistan is being advocated by the government.

    • Clean electricity produced by Kalabagh dam will be available to every citizen of the country while Thar coal project will pollute all water, air and land resources of not only of Pakistan but also of neighbouring countries like India and China.

    • Thar coal will effect each and every living organism while environment friendly Kalabagh will not only store water for the cultivation of land , but also will produce clean energy without carbon emmision, by that electricity it will be possible to pump out under ground water which will also increase water resources and will store water for cultivation of land, Kalabagh Dam will increase wet land for fisheries, will increase green land which will be helpful in decreasing environmental carbon dioxide produce by coal and other fuels and will control flooding and erosion of land and will save lives and lands of people.

    • Coal is one of the most polluting sources of energy available, jeopardizing our health and our environment. While Kalabagh Dam will have multiple advantages and will act as clean electricity power house, Sweet water reservoir and floods controller all these things will improve fertility of lands, will reduce poverty and will increase food production.

    The Effects of Coal on the Environment.
    Coal as a source of energy is probably the most environmentally damaging of
    all the traditional sources of energy.
    • One must keep in mind that a typical power coal plant generates 3 million tons of CO2 or 17 tons of carbon per megawatt and draws about 2.3 billion gallons of water per annum from nearby source while on land coal produces mercury which not only renders water useless for human consumption but also for irrigation purpose as well.

    • “Coal Power in a Warming World” by Barbara Freese et al, published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in October 2008 states that “The underground mining of coal is a dangerous profession, and underground and surface mining are both highly damaging to landscapes, water supplies, and ecosystems”.

    • The Natural Resources Defense Council paper entitled “Coal in a Changing Climate”, issued in February 2007 claims that “Coal mining—and particularly surface or strip mining—poses one of the most significant threats to terrestrial habitats in the United States.”

    • Figures from “Key World Energy Statistics: 2008″ show that coal is responsible for 42% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.

    • “Coal in a Changing Climate” shows that coal produces large amounts of airborne toxic chemicals, including sulfur dioxide, mercury, nitrous oxides, arsenic and lead.

    • Coal is a highly polluting energy source. It emits much more carbon per unit of energy than oil, and natural gas. CO2 represents the major portion of greenhouse gases. It is, therefore, one of the leading contributors to climate change.

    • From mine to sky, from extraction to combustion — coal pollutes every step of the way. The huge environmental and social costs associated with coal usage make it an expensive option for developing countries.

    • Coal mining is responsible for acid drainage from coal mines, polluting rivers and streams, to the release of mercury and other toxins when it is burned, as well as climate-destroying gases and fine particulates that wreak havoc on human health, COAL is unquestionably, a DIRTY BUSINESS.

    South Asia.

    On one side China and India are planning to curb the Carbon emission by curbing the use of oil, coal and other fossil fuels, and Bangladesh and Maldives are crying for taking measures against rise of seas due to global warming and melting of glaciers and on other side Government of Pakistan is planning to use Thar coal which will not only cause global warming but also pollute the whole environment of South Asia but in fact will endanger the life of 3 Billion peoples living in China, India, Kashmir, Northern areas, NWFP, PUNJAB and Sindh, as the direction of smoke and dangerous gases will be from east to north west of Pakistan. And people of these areas will suffer from respiratory diseases such as Asthma, Bronchitis, Cardiovascular diseases and cancer, and people of these areas will suffer from dangers and adverse effects of smoking without smoking the cigarettes.

    Government of Pakistan is leaving no stone unturned for sinking delta dwellers people of Bangladesh and Island dweller people of Maldives under sea by wasting about 10 Million Acres feet water of River Indus from the catchments area of whole of Pakistan in the sea and is not preserving and storing that water in dams like Kalabagh and Basha, on one side people of Pakistan are suffering from acute wastage of water and electricity and on other side Government is wasting sweet water in the sea which is not only causing sea rise and erosion of coastal land for whole of subcontinent, including Bangladesh and Maldives but is also harmful for saline habitat fishes and saline and sea plants like Mangroves

    Countering Rise in Sea level and Global Warming.

    Global Warming:
    For countering global warming there is need to completely restrict use of coal for any purpose and to minimize other fossils fuels such as oil and gas and use of alternatives resources such as wind, solar and water power by means of dams like Kalabagh and Basha Dams in Pakistan should be encouraged and preferred.

    Rise in Sea Level.
    For countering rise in sea level following measures should be taken to save and to protect from submerging the people of Bangladesh, Maldives and other Island dwellers under sea.

    • All the rain and glaciers water on land should be preserved and stored in reservoirs and dams like Kalabagh and other dams for use on land( For Agriculture, Electricity generation and human consumption) and other purposes so that no water should waste in sea which will ultimately cause the rise in sea level.
    • In Coastal areas use of sea water should be increased as much as possible for Industrial and agricultural purposes.

    • After desalination and Purification Sea water should be use for human consumption as much as possible.

    • Wastage of sweet water and fertile silt in sea should be prevented and should be used for fertilization and irrigation of land and other useful purposes.

    • There should be maximum utilization of sea resources such as exploration of silt and stones from sea towards land and coastal areas.

    • There should be maximum utilization of sea resources such as exploration of sea salts for use as chemicals and other purposes.

    • There should be maximum utilization of sea resources such as sea plants such as algae and fishes to decrease the volume of sea so that rise in sea could be countered by each and every mean available.

    Already Polluted Atmosphere of South Asia.

    South Asia is already suffering from the adverse effects of Brown cloud(Accumulation of Dirty gases in upper atmosphere of Subcontinent and is having negative effects on the health of population of India and Pakistan , Moreover there is already shortage of Ozone gas in the upper atmosphere of South Asia, due to which people of South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka ) are not having perfect healthy bodies as compared to other races of the world, .In view of such a bad condition of atmosphere burning the coal is just like to throw the people of Pakistan into valley of death, where as there already so many poor workers are daily dying in the coal mines of Balouchistan, but no one is having any care about those poor workers.

    There are a number of adverse environmental effects of coal mining and burning, especially the glaciers of the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindukush and Pamir ranges in Gilgit-Baltistan contribute significantly to the stream flow of the Indus Basin. More significantly, during the dry season these glaciers become the system’s only source. Impacts due to climate change on these glaciers have been studied in recent decades and vivid fluctuation of water flow in the Indus River Basin System has been reported.
    Due to flow of toxic gases and smoke from Thar Coal towards North and Western Pakistan, It is the responsibility of Jammu and Kashmir, Northern Areas, NWFP, Punjab and Sindh Governments to review the adverse effects of Thar coal as it is the matter of life and death of the people of these areas. As unhealthy environment due to smoke and toxic gases will destroy the beauty of land of Kashmir and Gilgit and Baltistan and will cause health problems such as cancer, asthma, bronchitis and other respiratory and genetic diseases due to environmental pollution in the people of Punjab, NWFP, Kashmir, Gilgit and Baltistan. Thar coal will destroy the fertility of land and will pollute the water resources of the country.

    It is the responsibility of Governments of China ,India, Bangladesh, Maldives, Kashmir and Provinces of Pakistan to persuade Federal government of Pakistan not to use Dirty coal while many dams may be constructed for generation of clean energy in Pakistan like Kalabagh and Basha Dam, it is necessary as government of Pakistan is wasting its only Indus River sweet water( 10 Million Acres Feet Water )in the sea while on the other side common people of Pakistan are suffering from the thirst and hunger due to shortage of water and electricity.
    Written By:M.AKRAM KHAN NIAZI.
    Karachi, Pakistan.

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