Do or die

WE are living beyond our means and courting environmental, economic and human disaster. That is one of several warnings issued by GEO-4, the United Nations Environmental Programme’s latest Global Environment Outlook report. The planet’s natural resources are being devoured at a rate that is clearly unsustainable. Humanity’s footprint, or environmental demand, is already 1.4 times the earth’s biological capacity and this dire state of affairs will assume catastrophic proportions unless key environmental issues are addressed today, not some time in the future. Human beings played no part in the five mass extinctions the earth has seen so far but the ‘sixth major extinction’ currently under way is patently man-made. To avert the ruin that awaits us under the business-as-usual model, moving the environment ‘from the periphery to the core of decision-making’ must become a priority for those in a position to influence policy. The report states: ‘Environmental policy responses have typically concentrated on reducing pressures or coping with impacts; the focus is now changing to ways of transforming the drivers that create the pressures, including population and economic growth, resource consumption, and social values.’ Put another way, the emphasis must shift from damage control to tackling the root causes of environmental degradation. Merely treating the symptoms, even if that were possible given the rapidity of the patient’s decline, is simply not an option. The holistic approach is in order.

While the report welcomes the recent advances in combating air and water pollution, it stresses that the world is faced with persistent problems — climate change, deterioration of fisheries, the extinction of species — that require urgent remedial action and for which solutions are only just emerging. It has now been established beyond doubt, most famously by the landmark February 2007 report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that human activity is causing global warming. Some of the steps that must be taken to arrest the trend have also been identified, such as capping emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. There is also a consensus among scientists of repute and the governments of many developed countries that the global problem of climate change can only be tackled collectively. Yet some of the biggest polluters like the US and Australia are refusing to come on board and continue to oppose mandatory caps on emissions.

The naysayers contend that they cannot afford to sacrifice economic growth at the altar of environmental protection — as if the two were mutually exclusive. In October 2006, a report presented by economist Sir Nicholas Stern on behalf of the UK government predicted that global warming can shrink the worldwide economy by as much as 20 per cent a year. As such it is fiscally prudent, not detrimental, to tackle climate change by adopting and adhering to emissions caps. Conservation of natural resources also makes perfect economic sense. GEO-4 points out that roughly half of the world’s population derives a living from agriculture, fisheries and forests. As such the non-sustainable use of land, water, trees and aquatic resources ‘can threaten individual livelihoods as well as local, national and international economies’. The causal relationship between environmental degradation and disease is also well established. The human misery aside, it should be obvious that optimum productivity cannot be achieved with an ailing workforce. Development and environmental protection go hand in hand.

A flagging political spirit

APPEARANCES can be deceptive, and it is easy to misinterpret public enthusiasm for political leaders or parties, as witnessed during the PPP’s grand show of Oct 18 in Karachi, as a sign of political participation. While only the holding of fair, transparent and inclusive polls can ascertain the level of motivation of the common citizen, one can agree with HRCP director I.A. Rehman’s remarks at a recent Islamabad conference that the average man in Pakistan is ‘alienated’ from the world of politics. This is hardly surprising when one considers that Pakistan’s journey of 60 years so far has been one that has seen the weakening of democracy by regular bouts of military rule, the undermining of state institutions and the Constitution, and the silencing of political dissenters in the name of national ideology. Add to this the factors of poverty, unemployment, inflation, large income gaps and other socio-economic ills that have deprived the people of even basic services that should have been provided by the state, and it is easy to understand why they are more concerned with survival than politics.

There is, of course, the argument that political ideology can beat the odds imposed by the state, and consistent efforts to raise political awareness among the people will at least give them food for the mind if not for the body. Many a revolution in the Third World has come about as a consequence of such sustenance. But here, the political parties, who should have been at the forefront of the struggle for democracy, have failed the people. The politics of persona has superseded a common vision within their ranks, and barring a couple, hardly any political party has showed its democratic credentials by holding internal elections. Political expediency and personal greed for power and wealth have caused many party leaders to disappoint their supporters and dash their hopes of a better future. True, political mobilisation can be spearheaded by others, as witnessed recently in the lawyers’ movement. But for that, unity and a sense of purpose are needed — two qualities that are missing in a society divided by ethnic, religious and other considerations.

Healthcare for all

THE health of the nation may be dismal but the health of around 18 parliamentarians and government officials is stable thanks to the prime minister using his discretionary powers and lifting the ban on certain public officials’ medical treatment abroad. As a result of this, the government spent Rs65m on treating 18 ‘bigwigs’ in foreign medical institutions. Granted some of the procedures are unavailable in the public sector hospitals in the country but most of the medical treatment could have taken place in private hospitals in Pakistan. That this was not good enough speaks volumes about the officials’ faith in the health sector here. One minister’s heart surgery in the UK was approved for 25,000 pounds while another minister was allocated a whopping 100,000 pounds for one-year treatment in Britain. A parliamentary secretary’s son’s treatment was allocated 50,000 pounds while three children of a deceased secretary of the privatisation commission are being treated in Saudi Arabia for multiple injuries caused in a road accident, for whatever costs. Meanwhile the public per capita health expenditure is a paltry Rs360. Something is terribly wrong with this picture.

How can the prime minister approve huge sums to treat a few individuals when hundreds of millions of people do not have access to the most basic of healthcare in the country? It is said that the sum of Rs65m could have run a tertiary care hospital for one year. Statistics on maternal and child mortality are grim; children should not be dying of diarrhoeal diseases that can be prevented if there is access to clean drinking water. Basic health care units in the rural centres are barely equipped to deal with emergencies, let alone treat anyone for complicated ailments. The ban was a good thing and should stay, exceptions being rare rather than the norm. To do so otherwise would be criminal. The government should be increasing its budgetary allocation to health, not curing a few individuals.

Academia and the energy sector

By Dr M. Asif

OVER the last couple of decades, the global energy scenario has been substantially transformed. Energy demand and supply markets have grown manifold at national and international levels, new technologies have emerged, energy-related challenges have increased and so have prospects.

Universities being human capacity enhancement centres that accomplish the objective through teaching, research and partnership with other stakeholders in society have proactively responded to the progression in the energy sector.

The subject of energy has evolved greatly in universities across the world — energy departments have grown both in number and size, the curriculum has evolved, a greater number of energy engineers and professionals with a wide range of expertise is being produced, research has surged, collaboration with industrial and commercial bodies has been boosted and public awareness has hit new levels.

Particularly in the developed countries, universities are leaders in national energy sustainability frameworks in terms of solution provision, human resource development and policymaking processes. Most universities offer undergraduate, postgraduate and research degree programmes in the core areas of energy. Some countries are incorporating the subject of energy as an essential part of the university curriculum. In Scotland for example, every university is bound to offer at least one programme in the area of energy and sustainability.

Contrary to that, universities in Pakistan have not given due consideration to energy as it is still being treated as a routine and insignificant subject. None of the aforementioned trends have found their way into Pakistani universities. The credentials — a few universities producing power engineers in small numbers and one or two others producing nuclear and petroleum engineers — are far from satisfactory.

The energy-related challenges facing Pakistan are enormous. A severe energy crisis has already dawned upon the country. Along with other stakeholders, universities have a crucial contribution to make. What Pakistan particularly lacks is qualified human resource in the form of energy scientists, engineers and professionals that could analyse energy-related problems facing the country both at the macro and micro levels and synthesise value-engineered solutions.

The energy challenges facing Pakistan — a massive gap between demand and supply, depleting gas reserves, rocketing energy prices, energy security and across the board inefficient use of energy — are too mammoth for the humble energy engineers (both in numbers and variety) our universities currently produce.

It is alarming that there is not a single holistic energy department in any Pakistani university. In order to ensure a sustainable energy scenario for the country, universities need to deliver competent and qualified human resource with expertise in a diverse range of energy areas. Universities must produce experts in the areas of both conventional (hydropower, oil, gas, coal and nuclear) and non-conventional (solar, wind, biomass and wave) energy systems, in energy trading, energy conservation and management, and in energy security and risk assessment.

These experts should be aware of the crucial role of energy in economic, social and environmental development. They should be aware of the global geopolitics of energy. They should have a broad understanding of the science of energy and be aware of the challenges facing local and global energy scenarios and prospects so as to be able to deliver visionary policies to bail the country out of the energy crisis.

There is another dimension to the issue of energy and the below par performance of academia that does not allow the entire blame to be placed on the academia. Universities to some extent have to deliver a product (graduate) that is desirable in the market (industry). Industry in Pakistan has failed to comprehend the essence and scope of this area — mastering in design and development of energy systems (i.e. turbines, engines and generators) and formulating innovative solutions is like asking for too much.

Even in its own domain, industry has not been able to ensure the efficient use of energy by applying energy conservation and management practices. Industry has not created a demand for energy engineers and professionals to be met by universities.

Thus in order to bring about a healthy change, industry ought to come forward to help universities not only accommodate energy graduates but also boost research and development activities. At the same time, universities also have to be appreciative of the need to develop a partnership with industry.

There are some new universities in the private sector that are in the process of establishing engineering departments. Having performed well in other areas of social sciences, it was expected of them to entertain the subject of energy when taking the physical sciences on board. But surprisingly, none of them have given any deliberation to it and have opted for traditional subjects that are already being widely taught in the country.

Universities both in the public and private sector have to realise that the subject of energy is as much an applied science as any other. They must enlist energy departments in their priorities and make a meaningful contribution to help the country resolve its energy crisis. The curriculum has to be redesigned. Human resources have to be developed. Research must be initiated and an academic-industrial partnership must be forged.

It is also worth noting that energy is a billion dollar business. Careful estimates indicate that in the short term alone Pakistan needs multibillions invested in the energy sector in order to address the present energy crisis. On a medium- to long-term basis, it is going to require tens of billions of dollars if a sustainable energy future is to be ensured. Logically and fairly, universities can also win handsome business by providing consultancy services to industry.Universities thus in their own and the national interest should rise to the occasion. Recently, the Higher Education Commission introduced some commendable policies to promote research-oriented activities in universities. The HEC should make extra and immediate efforts to establish proactive energy departments in several universities in the country equipped with state of the art resources to get business (education, research and development) underway.

Lastly, for how long will we keep hiring foreign experts to do site surveys, prepare feasibility reports, and provide and install energy systems? Who else can best answer this question but the academia, the industry and the relevant policymakers?

The writer is a lecturer in renewable energy at the Glasgow Caledonian University, UK


OTHER VOICES - Indian Press

Lunar eclipse

CHINA has once again demonstrated its relentless surge in the high technology domain. Barely four years after becoming the third nation to put a man into space, and a few months after it successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon, China…shot off its first lunar probe on Wednesday.

Named after a Chinese goddess, who flew to the moon, Chang’e 1 satellite is designed to circle round the moon for nearly a year. It is the first step in Beijing’s ambitious plans to land a Chinese taikonaut on the moon in 2020. …China’s space programme is not about advancing the scientific knowledge of man. Instead, it signals China’s resolve to build “comprehensive national power” and a determination to contest the US dominance of outer space.

China’s launch of Chang’e 1 has been greeted by the talk of an Asian space race. This is misleading. While Tokyo has joined in earnest the Asian race to land on the moon, India seems an unwilling competitor. … Relative to the national energies … that are being invested by China and Japan, India’s space effort looks, frankly, pitiful.

The problem is not…the lack of scientific talent in India. It is the diminution of political will and the absence of a higher direction for India’s advanced technology programmes. The government has not taken a single credible measure to boost the nation’s space programmes. ISRO is a state organisation. But parameters of ambition have to be set by politicians. Then scientists work with and around it. Surely that’s not asking for the moon from the government? — (Oct 26)

Home truths

BOBBY Jindal. Sunita Williams. Before that Kalpana Sharma. V.S. Naipaul. Salman Rushdie. Monty Panesar. Jhumpa Lahiri. Ashok Amrithraj...All of these are immensely successful in their chosen field of activity.

And all of them have an Indian connection…But going by the gloating in the media and in Indian society…one may…think that their Indianness…is what made them achieve what they did. The question…is how much India contributed to their success and how much…Indians can take pride in that.

Take the case of Bobby Jindal. Except for the fact that he has an Indian name and his parents happened to be born in Punjab, he is no Punjab da puttar, so to speak. He went to Brown…and won the Rhodes scholarship to New College.

Or just ponder over Sunita Williams. Again, beyond her first name, she has little trace of any Gujjuness in her, and so for Gujarat to go into a tizzy…is rather misplaced…

…Of course, to argue that the Bobbies and Rushdies had to go out of India to taste success is totally off the mark. These winners moved out of India not in a show of protest…

But for every Rushdie or a Panesar, India has its own Amit Chowdary or Harbhajan Singh…worthy of celebration… To constantly look westward and successes there…belies an outlook that is totally diffident.

Congrats Bobby and all. We are happy for all of you. But not because there is some stray link to India in you. — (Oct 25)

© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2007



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