Missing the wood for the trees

Published August 28, 2014
File photo of trees chopped off along a Clifton road.
File photo of trees chopped off along a Clifton road.

KARACHI: If short-sighted, no-holds-barred avarice has its way, the 1,400-plus conocorpus broadleaf trees planted in the triangular three-acre park diagonally opposite Dolmen Mall on Seaview road, in Kehkashan KDA Scheme 5, may soon suffer the same fate as the tens of thousands – possibly many more – trees that have been cut down all across the city to make way for hoardings.

Sources in local government and the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation say that pressure from a provincial minister is being brought to bear upon the city’s administrative bodies to chop down the trees that were planted in 2008 during Mustafa Kamal’s tenure as mayor by the city government’s parks department.

At stake is the environment of the city and its residents’ health which is being bartered away by officials interested solely in the rich pickings from outdoor advertising that has developed into a lucrative underhand business. While the relevant landowning agency itself derives an annual income of only between Rs.45,000 and Rs.500,000 from one billboard, earnings for the officials in landowning agencies who handle outdoor advertising – as well as their political masters in provincial and federal government departments – and the outdoor advertising company range from Rs10 million to Rs20 million, depending upon the location.

Equally complicit, say environmental activists, are the local and multinational companies that allow their products to be advertised on space allocated for public use. “Such companies are violating their corporate social responsibility,” said Amber Alibhai of Shehri, a civil society organisation. “We will take up the matter with the shareholders because these companies are violating the law.”

According to former director general of parks Liaquat Ali Khan, some 1.1 million conocorpus broadleaf trees, an evergreen native to many coastal cities, including those of southern Florida and the West Indies, were planted all over the city between 2008 and 2012. Another expert described the species as ideally suited for Karachi’s climate because it is extremely drought- and pollution-resistant, as well as tolerant of salty air. “We’re not a people that like to expend effort on anything,” he said. “These trees, which grow rapidly, don’t need to be looked after the initial year or so and are very hardy. But unfortunately the public is utterly ignorant of the crucial role trees play in our environment and the media, by its silence, does not help the situation.”

As per the city’s master plan, the area in question is designated as a park in Kehkashan KDA Scheme 5. It is also shown as a park in innumerable KDA maps. According to the Karachi Development Authority (Sindh Amendment) Act, 1994, an amenity plot cannot be converted to any other use. The principle was reiterated in a judgment by a Sindh High Court division bench on Dec 27, 2003 which declared that “no amenity plot shall be converted to or utilised for any other purpose”.

While this law is flouted time and again, evidence of which can be seen in up and coming high rises – residential and commercial – all across the city, not to mention mosques/madressahs, constructed upon what were meant to be parks and recreational areas, the ruthless decimation of the city’s tree cover in recent past also betrays a callous disregard for the long-term environmental impact of such actions.

“We already have far fewer trees compared to Lahore or Islamabad,” said Dr Mohammad Ali Shaikh, ex-DG of the Sindh Environment Protection Agency and current vice chancellor of Sindh Madressatul Islam University. “Cutting trees is discouraged all over the world. If it is unavoidable for carrying out development work, it is said that three trees must be planted in the place of each one that is cut down. Otherwise, we are playing with the mental and physical health of the city’s residents.”

Trees are aptly described as the “lungs” of a city. They absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen into the air through the process of photosynthesis, thus maintaining atmospheric levels of this vital element. According to Canada’s national

environmental agency, Environment Canada, “On average, one tree produces nearly 260 pounds of oxygen each year. Two mature trees can provide enough oxygen for a family of four”.

Trees also attract rainfall by emitting excess water in the form of water vapour through pores on its leaves – a process known as transpiration – which also helps lower temperatures. Moreover, they absorb and block noise and reduce glare. In the words of Mother Nature Network, “Think of them as big, leafy, air-purifying, oxygen-producing, white noise machines.”

However, when interested individuals reportedly net Rs10 million from each hoarding in this high traffic, upmarket area, why should they care what becomes of the health of this city’s residents?

While no one from the KMC or the Sindh government was willing to officially comment on the issue, the current DG of the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency, Naeem Mughal, was also persistently unavailable to offer any statement.

Published in Dawn, August 28th, 2014

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