The Kerry-Lugar distraction- Ahmad Rafay Alam

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The Kerry-Lugar Bill has become the black-hole of Pakistani political debate. Its din of conflicting rhetoric and opinion drowns out everything else — even good sense. Sovereignty, which reference to any nearby encyclopedia will tell you, is a quality possessed by a sovereign, of having supreme and complete control over a territory. In light of the KLB (it’s even got its own acronym), we seem to have got this concept mixed with ghairat. While all this is most amusing, it is no substitute for meaningful debate about the future of this country.

Many others have offered their expert opinion on the new American administration’s attempt to change how and who it funds in this Islamic Republic. It’s mildly surprising how so much of the debate has remained centered on the idea that Pakistan’s “sovereignty” will be irrevocably tarnished. This is an old debate that has its antecedents in our characteristic dependency on the United States and paranoid concern of what others think of us. I’m surprised that the debate hasn’t moved beyond the hackneyed jingoism we’ve been forced to read and hear these past few weeks. I’m surprised that so little of the debate has dealt with the reality that it’s basically the folks whose names have been left off the payroll who are hopping mad at being passed over. But that just proves that KLB is a massive black hole of political de

While the bill debate goes on consuming all the air in the room, the real challenges this country faces remain unaddressed. We are a country of nearly 170 million mostly poor and illiterate people that is facing an energy crisis, a population explosion and potential water scarcity.

Environmental degradation already costs the economy at least one billion rupees a day and kills hundreds of thousands of us a year. And soon we will be forced to play one of the worst hands nature has ever dealt man — climate change and the water scarcity, food shortages, population migrations, increased incidents of disease and natural disaster it will bring. To this equation, add the variables religious extremism, militancy and terrorism.

And here we are, with this Kerry-Lugar Bill debate, talking of nothing but whether or not it is acceptable for Pakistan to be a beggar and a chooser. I would think that saner counsel (“get whatever you can get and be thankful”) should prevail.

In the next 10 years, it is estimated that rural to urban migrations will transform our rustic rural people into an urban people. It’s estimated that, by 2050, as many as 65 per cent of Pakistanis will live in cities. The failure of population stabilisation policies means that by then, there will be nearly 300 million Pakistanis. Three challenges immediately come to the fore.

First, where are we going to get the electricity? We’ve got a woefully inadequate installed capacity somewhere in excess of 20,000MW, nearly 25 per cent of which is wasted in an efficient distribution and transmission system (a day ago, I read that, “because of forced closures, fuel shortages and some scheduled closures”, the PEPCO system is only generating 11,750MW). The planning commission estimates that, by 2030, Pakistan will need approximately 164,000MW of electricity to meet it demands. Of course, at the moment, such an amount seems impossible and if efforts don’t start now to increase installed capacity, improve line-losses and think up ways of jumping to a “smart grid”, our ability to industrialise our economy Second, will there be enough water? About 90 per cent of our water resources are consumed in irrigation, yet unlined canals, water theft and outdated farming practices mean that 40 per cent of this is lost to inefficiency. The remaining 10 per cent of our water resources are consumed as drinking water and for sanitation. Almost all of our water resources are from the glacial melt. At partition, our water resources stood in excess of 5,000 cubic metres per capita. Now, they are fast falling to less than 1,000 cubic metres per capita. The rate at which climate change is affecting the glacial melt have surprised researchers, and it is predicted that, after accelerated melting (which means flooding and lots and lots of silt) our glacial water resources will be depleted. This is set to happen in the next 100 years.

Third, will there be enough food? Climate change, outdated farming practices and depleting water resources will have an effect on food productivity. All of our cash crops are going to be affected by climate change. Of course, there will always be mitigation and adaptation, but even if food production can be maintained through science and discipline, there is no telling its effect on rural economy and society. Certainly, climate change will contribute to the great desire of people to move from the labour of subsistence farming to the potential offered by the cash economy of an urban area.

Parenthetically, let me again mention that the proposal to lease hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of hectares of arable land to certain Arab is a bad idea that hasn’t been clearly thought out yet. Also, how is it that no one raises the question of sovereignty at the thought that our government was/is to negotiate the lease of such land under the guise of foreign investment? The Lahore High Court (LHC) has done the right thing, while disposing of a petition filed before it by a farmers’ union, by requiring any such negotiation be brought to its notice.

An increase in the number of people in cities will put stress on the availability of housing, sanitation infrastructure, employment opportunities, healthcare facilities, educational institutions, transportation services and recreational space. All these are already stretched beyond capacity, but nobody involved in the windbag debate seems to have an eye on what’s around the corner.

The three challenges highlighted above also overlap in one way or another with the role of the city. The centrality and importance of urban management in the future of Pakistan must not be underestimated.

In the near future, the issues of housing, sanitation, employment, health, education and poverty will all primarily be urban issues. Even issues like energy can be regulated by the size and manner in which our cities are run. The latest sustainable development initiatives are experimenting with “urban farming” to reduce emissions resulting from the transport of produce from the field onto the dinner table. Urban areas produce disproportionately large quantities of the world’s green house gas emissions, and for sure climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies have huge urban components.

At the moment, our cities are managed by junior to mid-level bureaucrats acting on the instructions of provincial governments (though the City District Government of Karachi, it must be said, is the most independent) that have woefully little knowledge of what makes cities tick. At the moment, they are centres of sprawl, congestion and pollution with rapidly growing katchi abadis and slums. Yet, while these challenges seem insurmountable, they are, in fact, completely manageable. Enrique Penalosa, the charismatic former mayor of the Colombian city of Bogota who transformed his city in only three years, told me once that the only thing we need to do to start is a vision of the type of city we want to live in.

Now wouldn’t that be a debate worth having?

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:

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