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DAWN - Editorial; January 24, 2008

January 24, 2008

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Beyond child mortality

NO matter what the government does to sell a positive image of Pakistan to a doubting international community, the country’s socio-economic indicators — particularly those pertaining to children who constitute 44 per cent of the population — will continue to reflect its skewed priorities. Unicef’s latest report on the ‘state of the world’s children’ is not exactly an eye-opener, for it is no secret that Pakistan has failed to protect its children from the ravages of disease and malnutrition. But it does underscore the paradox of the situation — that a nation which frequently flaunts its nuclear prowess as a demonstration of its concern for national security should not even be able to guarantee health security to its children.

There are, of course, many reasons why Pakistan has slid to a dismal rank of 42 in the U-5MR index, with Afghanistan being the worst in South Asia. Apart from malnutrition, inadequate access to immunisation programmes, poor health services and complications at birth that untrained midwives are unable to prevent, there is also the issue of gender bias. Not only does the preference for male children mean nutritional deprivation for the girl child, it also has a negative impact on maternal health that is crucial to the wellbeing of the unborn infant.

What is a matter of concern though is that despite spending more than 0.5 per cent of GDP — an amount almost equivalent to the total meagre allocation for health — on child and maternal health programmes, progress has been slow. What is impeding better results? Are the budgeted amounts being spent judiciously and honestly? A fair assessment is needed of the programmes and their implementation, because at this rate Pakistan is not going to meet the millennium development goal of reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015.

At the end of the day, one must come back to the initial point of skewed priorities. Last June, Pakistan increased its defence budget by almost 10 per cent — to 3.13 per cent of the GDP. Predictions are that the allocated amount of Rs275bn will increase in the years ahead as the military continues to battle a never-ending stream of Islamic militants and shores up other defences. It is tragic that the emphasis on defence has diverted the government’s attention from the social sectors which have a direct impact on the quality of life of the people, especially children. If young lives have to be saved, the focus must be on the status of women in Pakistan. Educated and healthy women, who space their children, bear and rear healthy babies who grow up to be productive adults who contribute to the progress of the nation. By investing in its people, the government can show it cares about them. This could prove to be the most effective way of battling militancy that, more than religious indoctrination, has its roots in poverty and growing social discontent.

Will rationing flour help?

THE caretaker government has announced its intention to revive the ration card system, which was abandoned almost 20 years ago, for providing essential food items at subsidised rates to the poor and the vulnerable who form over 45 per cent of the country’s total population. The ‘deserving’ people would be issued cards to purchase food items like wheat flour, sugar, pulses, ghee, etc from state-owned utility stores at lower than their market prices. The proposal to revive the ration cards signifies acknowledgment of the fact that all the schemes initiated in the recent past to make subsidised food available to the poor — either through the limited network of utility stores or any other apparatus or method — have failed to produce any tangible difference in their lives. It also implies realisation on the part of the government that the recent spate of inflation has put food outside the reach of the poor and they need to be protected, lest official efforts to fight poverty fall apart.

As the contours of the proposed subsidy programme are yet to be made public, it would be too early to comment on its merits and demerits. But the chances of the scheme working efficiently and delivering the goods appear quite slim if the new format is also developed and implemented on the same patterns on which the previous one was based in the 1970s and 1980s for providing cheaper sugar and flour to deserving people. A study of the ration shops carried out in 1986-87 before the food rationing system was wrapped up showed that 80 per cent of the total subsidy amount was pocketed by a racket of food department officials, and only 20 per cent of the subsidy would reach those for whom it was intended. Various other past experiences undertaken to indirectly support the poor at different points in time have failed, and instead opened the floodgates of corruption. No amount of surveillance could plug the leakages because of a corrupt bureaucracy.

Though the government’s concern for the poor is commendable, it should avoid repeating the follies of the past. The poor and vulnerable segments of the population need to be protected against food inflation now, but it should be done by providing direct subsidy, as food vouchers, to them. A much better way of supporting the poor would be to devise a modern ‘social security mechanism’ under the umbrella of the Baitul Maal. Unless such a system is evolved the government should forget about protecting the poor from starvation.

Think before you eat

WE are what we eat and that applies equally to the poultry and cattle which we in turn consume. An investigative report published in this paper on Wednesday makes for reading so disturbing that some may be put off their food and prompted to revise their menus forthwith. The blood meal and meat-rendering units located on the outskirts of Karachi are completely unregulated and operate under the most appallingly unhygienic conditions. The pollution they cause is merely the tip of the problem. Far more worrisome is the fact that animal waste from slaughterhouses and the carcasses of livestock that may have died of disease apparently go towards the production of chicken and cattle feed which may also include the cooked remnants of dead dogs, cats and birds. Chicken feed relies for the most part on fish meal for the protein component, but this too is being produced from ‘waste’ fish caught in highly polluted creeks and estuaries. Additional contaminants are then added to the fish meal for good measure. That is what battery chickens — and we — consume on a regular basis. No amount of cooking can get rid of these toxins. Bacteria, yes, but not heavy metals and other poisons. The report also highlights the unsanitary, unregulated and ad hoc bases on which Karachi’s official slaughterhouse is run.

Consider for a moment that chickens, cows and buffaloes are not meat-eaters by nature. It has long been established that bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, is linked to the practice (now abandoned in the West) of rearing cattle on feed that contains the remains of dead animals of the same species. BSE can be passed on to humans who eat the meat of infected cattle, a process that ends in a horrifically painful death. What we could have on our hands is a public health disaster in the making and it is high time the authorities woke from their stupor and made an effort to regulate the feed industry.

Crippling our coastal lifeline

By Najma Sadeque


IF fish and other marine life could speak their minds, they would condemn humans as the dirtiest life forms on earth and a threat to all life — notwithstanding claims to ‘civilisation’.

They wouldn’t be far wrong. Unknown to most, 80 per cent of the sewage produced by the world’s six billion humans, plus as much industrial and agro-chemical waste, pour into the oceans in unbroken, continuous streams. This process has been going on ever since modern engineering began to provide cities with drainage systems sans treatment to remove harmful pathogens before releasing wastes into the environment.

What the continued practice of ocean dumping does is to simply carry the effluent produced on land out to sea, and then expect it to somehow miraculously clean itself up! It is an expensive way of making our living space even more unhygienic.

The vastness of the ocean misled people into believing they could take liberties with it. After all, 72 per cent of the earth’s surface — some 140 million square miles — is covered by ocean. But then, humans invented large-scale production which in turn created mass-scale waste all of which cannot be recycled safely or at the same pace.

Despite the world becoming more health-conscious during the twentieth century, and preventive and healthcare systems being installed by most governments, it is astounding that many continue to turn a blind eye to the befouling of coastal waters.

Distasteful though it may be, to understand the magnitude of the problem, one has to envisage — even if for just a moment — the outpouring of sewage of 16 million people of Karachi city alone into coastal waters via drains and rivers on a daily basis. That’s not all. There is also highly toxic waste that cannot be neutralised by nature. It comes from several hundred thousand factories and service industries, big and small, as well as from upriver, containing hundreds and thousands of gallons of oils, heavy metals, organic pollutants, radioactive substances and chemicals.

The shallow waters where all this pours out is the habitat of mangrove forests which constitute breeding grounds and nursery for most fish and shellfish species. For marine life, it means having their habitat continuously flooded with refuse around the clock. It is the same water in which coastal dwellers are forced to wash and which causes various chronic, waterborne infections and diseases. It is also the same water from which fish and shrimp are caught for local consumption as well as the export market.

It is for this reason that the European Union, Pakistan’s main seafood destination, laid down conditions for accepting our marine exports: Pakistan has experienced earlier bans. Most people have failed to conceive that fish need clean water as much as humans do. But nothing is being done for cleaning up the coastal water itself — a responsibility of both state and local governments and industry.

Half our seafood exports are caught on the Sindh coast. Most seafood exported from Pakistan is shrimp. For shrimp and 90 per cent of all marine life, mangroves are indispensable. Pakistan’s mangrove forests were once the sixth largest in the world, covering 650,000 acres of the Indus delta. Today, because of overwhelming pollution and mismanagement, there are only 80,000 acres of mangroves left.

It is not that fisherfolk and coastal residents don’t know what’s happening or that they are not suffering. But nobody ever seriously listens to them. What is inexplicable is that even planners and local bodies are either inured to dirt or are able to ignore it as long as it doesn’t appear in their own backyard. Accumulations of slime reach a point when they poison the waters so that oxygen can no longer penetrate and all marine life dies out. The consequence is ‘dead zones’ where no fish can live, and they vary from a few square miles to hundreds of square miles, murky and evil-looking.

While the breaking down and recycling of organic waste into benign form is part of nature’s cyclical processes, the ocean was never designed for absorbing unlimited human waste, chemicals and heavy metals. The volumes that are dumped constitute an overload of nutrients that accumulate and lead to excessive growth of algae, ultimately destroying the sensitive mangrove environment and marine nurseries.

A lesson needs to be learned from the 200-odd dead zones that have mushroomed around the globe. The largest covers a shocking 9,000 square miles of the Gulf of Mexico which has been receiving decades of waste carried down by the Mississippi River from across much of the US. Unless Pakistan takes its untreated waste problem seriously, it will in time join its ranks. The oceans can take only so much abuse. Karachi needs at least 20 treatment plants to deal with its liquefied wastes. It has only one — which went into operation only last year. The effects of 60 years of coastal pollution can only be imagined.

Today, Pakistan’s fisheries, and the health and lives and livelihoods of over 300,000 fisherfolk and over a million indirectly-dependent coastal dwellers, are threatened. In terms of numbers, this appears to be a negligible fraction of our population of 160 million. But few realise that the negative impacts on the coastal ecosystem are far-reaching enough to severely dent the economy and lives of people residing far inland.

A study of the World Health Organisation and the UN Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection, found that bathing in polluted seas caused around a quarter of a million cases of gastroenteritis and upper respiratory disease every year. Uncooked shellfish is a gourmet dish in the West and Far East, but another 250,000 or more come down with infectious hepatitis annually as a result of consuming sewage-contaminated shellfish. Locals may not eat it here, but prospective importers can reject it. Infectious hepatitis, cholera, typhoid have frequently caused serious epidemics in many coastal areas around the world.

While civil society struggles to elect the right leaders, it is surprising that the coastal system was never made an electoral issue. It is a fundamental issue whether or not people eat fish or want to swim in the ocean. Instead of being a sanctuary for new marine life, coastal waters have become a breeding ground for gastrointestinal diseases that create a chronically diseased population.

Dangerously uninformed about basic biological and oceanic processes, municipalities don’t realise that taking the ocean for granted and self-poisoning through waste can bring a disastrous end to an entire social and economic sector.

Since oceans regulate climate and temperature, and provide water for rain, they could alter our climate drastically, affect the air we breathe, and spread communicable diseases as they work their way inland through human contact and activities.

The process has already begun. Karachi’s great ambitions for coastal tourism and exports won’t go far as the noxious putridity keeps spreading hundreds of miles. Which tourist is going to bathe in visibly polluted waters?

OTHER VOICES - Middle East Press

From charity to change

THE seeds of change can be sown in charitable works. As the remarkable success of the Dubai Cares campaign showed, when a visionary leader with a heart of gold takes the helm, fighting social ills can never be a daunting task.

At a time when the UN is struggling hard to achieve its Millennium Development target of attaining universal primary education by 2015, the charity drive…under the patronage of Shaikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum…ruler of Dubai, has been able to raise a whopping Dh 3.4 billion to help educate one million children in various parts of the world…

Giving a further boost to charity drives in the region, Shaikh Mohammed launched the Arab Foundation for Social Charity during the conference on regional consultations on Arab philanthropy. The foundation will primarily help to unify various charitable ventures in the region.

…It is a fact that over the past few years, there has been an exponential growth in the number of charity organisations including endowments and funds in the Arab world.

According to analysts, with a significant rise in corporate social responsibility programmes, the field of charity in the region, particularly in the UAE, has been of late witnessing a shift from “traditional giving” to “strategic philanthropy”. In other words, the focus is now more on what can be regarded as institutionalising philanthropy that demands the creation of professionally managed foundations to take care of charity drives. And the UAE is evidently at the forefront of this change. — (Jan 22)

Absolute brutality

ISRAELI Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is living in a fool’s paradise if he thinks that the closure of the crossings into Gaza and cutting off of fuel supplies to Gazans will force Hamas resistance fighters to stop firing rockets. And he is politically naïve to believe that these measures will erode support for Hamas among Gazans… Support for Hamas may increase in Gaza and even in the West Bank. In the bargain, Fatah and President Mahmoud Abbas may be marginalised and endanger the new phase of the Middle East peace. It is possible that if parliamentary elections are held in Palestine in the next few weeks, Hamas may get a bigger majority than last time. What will democratic Israel do then? And what about the American reaction?

Most Gazans are living in the dark. Food is becoming scarce. In a few days, the territory will run out of medical supplies. And about 40 people have been killed by the Israelis in the past week. More need not be said about the worsening situation. In the coming days, Gaza may witness a catastrophe. Israel, of course, is not bothered. Olmert has said that if the people of Gaza had no fuel for their cars, they could walk. This statement alone provides ample proof of the Zionists’ utter disdain for the Palestinians.

… EU’s External Affairs Commissioner Benito Ferrero Waldner has accused Israel of “collective punishment” of the 1.5 million people of that territory… Only Egypt can offer urgent help by throwing open its side of the border at the Rafah crossing. Israel may protest, but Egypt has every legal and moral right to ignore the Zionists. — (Jan 22)



© DAWN Group of Newspapers, 2008