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Build, but sustainably

June 10, 2013

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.