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The challenges ahead

Ahmad Rafay Alam

Mashallah, by the Grace of Allah, the chief justice of Pakistan stands restored to his office. The long march achieved its goal. A Constitutional and political crisis has been averted. Governor’s rule has been withdrawn. The judiciary has restored the mandate of the people of Punjab. The military has not intervened. Our government is democratically elected. The press is free.

Last week, I was asked whether, given all these developments, I felt Pakistan was heading in the right directions. What a bittersweet question. But one thing is for sure: Now that these political issues stand seemingly resolved, can we now get to work? Please.

The two major challenges that face Pakistan are security and the environment. While others may weigh in with their expert opinions regarding the internal and external security of the country, all the while keeping the “geo-strategic importance” in mind, let me talk to you about why the environment matters.

There is more to environmental protection than saving trees and collecting litter. The environment concerns itself, in no particular hierarchy and by no means exhaustively, with the future energy needs and water consumption of this country, the health impacts of pollution on its people, the economic challenges of strict regulations, issues of lifestyle, livelihood, housing, sanitation, employment, education and the potential of sustainable development strategies. At some levels, environmental considerations can even affect the economic policy of this country. Consider just this: imagine how much foreign exchange we could save by not spending it on purchasing petroleum from Saudi Arabia and, instead, concentrated on things like alternative energy and public transport. Or this: that, at this point in time, our single greatest source of electricity aren’t dams. It’s in simple energy conservation.

About half of the energy produced in the world is consumed in constructing and running buildings. New technologies can cut as much as 60% of a building’s energy consumption. It’s beyond understanding why this isn’t being done. Now.

As things stand, Pakistan has the capacity to produce about 20,000MW of electricity. But the nearly 25 percent line losses in transmission and distribution, we wind up with electricity availability in the region of 14,000MW. And we all know this is not enough now. But according to the Planning Commission’s projections, by 2030 Pakistan will need an installed capacity of 164,000MW. If getting to this figure seems impossible, so does the prospect of an industrialised Pakistan.

The story about water is no brighter. Water availability per capita has fallen drastically in the past decades and hovers near critical point. Climate change will exacerbate the problem of water shortages as our rivers will first become inundated with the waters of melting snow and glaciers and later will dry up when these resources are depleted. The main challenge then will be to find water to grow crops and produce enough food to feed ourselves. As things stand, the rivers of this country are used for sewage disposal, so the quality of the water used for irrigation is also becoming more and more contaminated.

For sure, the environment is no longer a discrete issue. As a subject, it can no longer be considered in isolation. It has repercussions in all aspects of how nations, especially desperately poor and unstable developing nations like ours, operate the machinery of state. For sure, the issues are complex and the scale of the problems huge. But this is not the time for status quo. Each and every one of the environment challenges facing Pakistan can be resolved. All it needs is the magical – and scarce – ingredients of vision, discipline and commitment. Now is the time to make bold decisions that can confront the challenges that face us.

Ours is a rapidly growing country of over 160 million. By 2050, it is estimated there will be more than 300 million Pakistanis. Currently, over 35 percent of the population lives in cities. Within the next ten years, this percentage is set to rise to 50 percent and thereafter continue to as high as 65 percent. Now is the time to stop thinking of Pakistan as a rustic, rural and agricultural society. We are fast becoming urbanized.

Last month, the Planning Commission reported that Pakistan’s poverty rate had jumped from 23.9 percent over the last three years to a staggering 37.5 percent. That’s about 60 million Pakistani’s below the poverty line. Poverty is defined as not being able to earn the $2 a day the World Bank thinks you need to feed yourself enough food to provide nourishment to a minimally healthy body. Parenthetically, the experts can weigh in about the “success” of microfinance and poverty alleviation strategies. The truth is they have been, and are, a miserable failure. And the reason people are resisting repayment of their microfinance loans isn’t because they don’t want to repay the money the Good Government Institutions lent them in Perfectly Good Faith. It’s because, after having to sell their chattels, family heirlooms, plants and trees, tractors and, in some cases, land, and after having just pledged the entire crop they are about to harvest next week to moneylenders just to repay the said Good Government Institutions, they simply have nothing left to give. If only this message got through to the Planning Commission and to the governor of the State Bank of Pakistan.

The Punjab Economic Survey published last year estimated that nearly half of the urban population of the most populous province of the country lived in slums, katchi abadis or irregular housing settlements. This figure is lower is cities like Lahore and other cities like Islamabad. In Karachi, urban guru Arif Hasan told me this figure may be as high as 70 percent.

What these statistics point to is the massive demographic change Pakistan and, by extension, Pakistani society is undergoing. The last thing we need at this stage is political infighting, especially when the infighting doesn’t seem to be over something substantial any more.

The environment and the affects of the urbanisation of Pakistan must be put on top priority. We cannot afford to let down the 80 million or so Pakistani who will reach the ages of 18-24 in the next ten years and who will be seeking jobs and opportunities.

Post Script: Governor’s rule has come to an end, but some questions about the decisions made in the period remain unanswered. One of the things that few people took notice of was the governor’s decision to fund the Lahore Grammar School’s participation in a NASA competition in the US.

Students of the elite private school made us all proud by being selected for the finals of NASA’s Space Settlement Competition to be held at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

But how come the governor felt the need to hand over Rs20 million of the public’s money to an elite private school? Surely the proud (and rich) parents of students at the school could have been approached to finance the team. Surely a corporate sponsor could have been found. Surely the school itself could have reached into its pockets.

The governor’s decision to use public funds for the rich is shadowed only by former chief minister of Punjab Pervaiz Elahi who, in 2007, doled out Rs50 million of the people’s money to the utra-elite Lahore Gymkhana. What was truly sad about what happened then is that the members of the club cheered the decision. When Kamal Azfar as governor of Sindh gave public money to the Sindh Club, columnist Ardeshir Cowasjee led the effort to have the money returned.

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: ralam@nexlinx.

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