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Build, but sustainably

Published Jun 10, 2013 08:12am


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IF Nawaz Sharif’s campaign promises and inaugural address are to be believed, much of this country is going to become a construction site during his tenure.

There are plans for road and rail links connecting Kashgar in China to Gwadar Port, a bullet train from Karachi to Peshawar, hydel projects, pipelines, bus rapid transit systems in multiple cities, roads, bridges and more.

It comes as no surprise that the politician who built Pakistan’s first motorway is reviving infrastructure as a priority. Construction has long been synonymous with progress and modernity in developing countries. A growing economy needs economic infrastructure to sustain it as well as to attract further investment. Given that Sharif’s priority is to reinvigorate Pakistan’s economy, it is only logical that he would start with big plans to build things.

But one word is missing from his discussions about improved infrastructure, and that’s sustainability.

There is a misperception that developing countries need not think about sustainability and environmental responsibility. The argument goes that wealthy countries charged ahead without considering the environmental implications of growth, and that to compete, developing countries need to be equally reckless. But this logic is flawed, not least because poorer countries are likely to suffer the worst consequences of environmental damage going forward.

Despite the inequity, developing countries have to recognise that environmental responsibility is now a globally shared responsibility. A recent report from the Centre for Climate Change Economics and Policy and the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change illustrates this point well in the context of climate change. The report estimates that developing countries will be responsible for 70pc of global carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, and argues that unless they take strong action, climate change will be exacerbated even if developed countries reduce their emissions to zero by that year. In other words, developing countries do not have the luxury to repeat the mistakes of those that went before them.

For Pakistan to benefit from improved infrastructure in the long run, it is essential that sustainability be factored in from the start. This is particularly true given the PML-N’s spotty record for environmental responsibility. Many large infrastructure projects initiated by the Punjab government in recent years — including the Peshawar Road expansion project, the Chandni Chowk flyover, and the Rawalpindi Institute of Cardiology — commenced without the requisite environmental impact assessment. This does not bode well for the future.

One reason why this development-at-any-cost attitude is anathema to sustainability is because it leads to the poor use of resources. Consider, for example, the fact that large infrastructure projects lead to an increased pace of land acquisition by the government. Aside from the pollution and congestion the planned project might cause, acquisition can at the outset force the displacement of a large number of people, thereby stressing resources such as water supply in the areas where they relocate. (This is separate from the fact that rapid land acquisition boosts demand and empowers land mafias, while mass displacements lead to deeper inequality and breed resentments that can lead to violence.)

The urban focus of Sharif’s proposed projects, though entirely sensible, is also problematic from a sustainable development perspective. Large infrastructure projects are likely to drive urbanisation as people arrive in cities to work in construction or related jobs or to avail of the opportunities that new initiatives create. Pakistan is already the fastest urbanising country in South Asia; approximately half the population will be living in cities by 2025. Pakistani planners prefer horizontal growth, which results in endless urban sprawl. Not only does this make service delivery more inefficient and challenging than in vertical high rises, but it also leads to greater environmental stresses, including water scarcity and pollution.

Acknowledging this does not mean shelving infrastructure projects: sustainability does not have to mean paralysis. But it does require the government to think more holistically about economic infrastructure development. For example, to address the environmental consequences of urbanisation resulting from sprawl and overcrowding, provincial governments must simultaneously focus on improved urban planning, equitable land use and efficient resource allocation in cities. Moreover, each proposed project should undergo thorough — and transparent — environmental impact assessments before being given the green light (including those undertaken in conjunction with China, given that country’s growth-first, environment-later stance).

In the short term, the devolution of Pakistan’s environment ministry to the provincial level under the 18th Amendment could stymie efforts to be more environmentally responsible. Provincial-level environment protection agencies have been slow to establish protocols, hire expert staff and pursue violators. There has also been no nationwide exercise to better understand the implications of environmental standards being decided on a province-by-province basis, which could lead to differing standards and thus a lack of coherence at the national level. This will be particularly challenging when it comes to determining environmental quality standards that set limits on gas emissions, liquid effluents, noise pollution, etc. Inter-province projects could receive multiple environmental impact assessments with varied criteria. The bureaucracy and confusion this would entail could deter project planners from being environmentally responsible.

If Sharif is serious about building infrastructure that will serve Pakistan in the long term — and not just legacy projects — he must privilege sustainability. This can be done by creating a national consensus around environmental responsibility and motivating provincial governments to build capacity and facilitate collaboration of environmental bodies. The media should also launch public awareness campaigns about the importance of sustainability and the consequences of building rapidly without environmental insights. Finally, public consultations and outreach among communities likely to be affected by mega-projects is essential; without buy-in at all levels, calls for environmental responsibility will be mere lip service.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

Comments (8) Closed

Aneel Jun 10, 2013 09:39am

Everything else s ok but pray tell me where is the money going to come from.A beggar state can only dream big not DO big...

Tahir Jun 10, 2013 12:27pm

Your concern about environment is valid but in Pakistan there is seldom any big project or development and at this time adding the cost of sustainable design will hinder the development.

Ghazanfar Jun 10, 2013 01:54pm

Good suggestion however given the time frame challenge not sure it can implemented as Govt. would want to move at faster pace. How can a suggested framework agreed and presented to Govt....One can use parliament to put a legislation to incorporate such framework in all projects. However urbanization phenomenon would be difficult to overcome Govt needs new skills and pressure should be built to use the "State Owned Enterprises Revival" methodology to build urban capacity. i.e bringing right skills, knowledge and technology to cater for urbanization challenge.

Ebrhm shakir Jun 10, 2013 10:47pm

you are absolutely right in your opinion. but problem is that nothing will go better without controlling on corruption and other main issues which are hard nut to crack in the way of development. if the politicians are sincere with the country which is not only their sources of bread and butter but may other thing as well... then they should concentrate on literacy ratio and to eliminate corruption from the country because this both evils lead all other evil, without education, people will not able to distinguish right and wrong person whenever they are going to choose the correct leader, and will spend their life just on hope promise hope and only hope and promises,at the same time they will stimulate by some another politician who will use them only for his personal political interest, and when he would achieves their mission he will refuse to recognize any voter and will forget all the promises that he had done with the illiterate and credulous voter. and one another hunter will arise look like a Massiha but.. its all because of illiterate nation. and fact is that the politician never will solve this main issue because they know better that if the people will literate the will no more on the position where they are used to occupancy.

Pathanoo Jun 11, 2013 12:15am

Are you jumping the gun a little, Huma? Putting the cart before the horse. Don't sweat the over construction or the environment damage. I don't think it will get to that point in near future any time soon.

M Aslam Jun 11, 2013 12:53am

@Aneel: There is a will, there is a way. Do you believe in Pakistan, there was 82 billion available to make fraud by Tauqir Sadiq and his patrons. Just think if this money was invested in real electricity projects, how much load shedding was reduced by this time.

M Aslam Jun 11, 2013 12:58am

Mass and rapid transportation always play a big role in sustainability and reduce loads on big cities. The thoughts expressed by the author are very good but at some points are contradictory. It is a good suggestion that all projects shall be evaluated before start.

Abdul Basit Jun 11, 2013 11:53am

I agree completely for going ahead for sustainability. Since most people are of the concern that we are way underdeveloped, and investment in environmental friendly projects would be hindering major development. I can only say that better invest for long term durable "Sustainable" development rather than exploiting limited resources and getting indebted again in the short run soon enough. environmental quality standards need to be revised since it has been more than a decade since 2010 NEQS were published. I think media has the positive influence to emphasize the core issues which are giving rise to superficial issues like loadshedding, food crisis etc which are all linked to environment rather than being skeptical on singular bodies who are although responsible, but Government can obviously take proper mitigations to ensure the "Right Development" not just mere political stunts.