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A self-made disaster

November 16, 2017

Email

AS the rain clouds are slow in offering relief, vast numbers of people in the country continue to experience disruptions in normal life due to the fog and smog. It is doubtful if the federal and provincial governments have fully comprehended the causes and consequences of the phenomena for which nature alone cannot be blamed.

While smog has posed grave threats to the health of a large section of the population, those who must work in the open regardless of the environmental hazards bear the brunt. Meanwhile, curtailment of the people’s mobility has played havoc with the economy. The cancellation of flights from and to Lahore, Faisalabad and Multan airports and the delays in flights operated by both domestic and international airlines, plus the adverse impact on work schedules caused by delays in train and road journeys, have resulted in a colossal loss of man-hours. Several hundred factories were closed and the duration of load-shedding increased. The cost to the economy might run into billions of rupees.

The first reaction of the authorities to environmental degradation was to blame the neighbouring country for filling our atmosphere with smoke while anybody driving along the motorway from Islamabad to Lahore could have seen crop residue being burnt across a large area. As usual, our own contribution to the creation of the serious problem began to be realised much later.

Our own contribution to the creation of a serious environmental problem was realised much later.

As has been pointed out in this paper, air pollution in Pakistan, particularly in Lahore, has been going on for years. Winter after winter we have been watching a great column of particles hanging over Lahore at dusk. Punjab’s Environmental Protection Department has been concentrating only on the monitoring of air pollution although its ineffectiveness, as well as the non-serious approach adopted, can be judged from the fact that some of the monitoring equipment imported has been lying in unopened boxes. Later on, the EPD rightly gave some credit to the Punjab government for efforts to reduce dangerous emissions from motor vehicles and factories.

The hazards to people’s heath became extremely grave when particle readings in Lahore’s air touched 880 (against the permissible 35-40) on Nov 8, warranting a declaration of emergency (closing down of schools, etc.) which was never done. The situation again became unbearable on Nov 12.

However, in addition to the factors mentioned above, it is necessary to take into account the increase in environmental degradation caused by deforestation and neglect of agriculture.

Pakistan needs to extend its forest area to prevent carbon gases from escaping into the atmosphere, which is essential for reducing the effect of pollutants being released into the atmosphere all the time. But what is being done to forests was graphically demonstrated recently by photographs of huge quantities of timber from Gilgit-Baltistan flowing down a river. The latest Economic Survey approvingly notes a substantial rise in revenue from increased production of timber in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2016-2017, without acknowledging the damage to ecology done by the indiscriminate, and often illegal, felling of trees.

The authorities cannot forget that the cutting down of each tree for any purpose — to widen roads in cities, for constructing motorways or for outlandish projects like Lahore’s Orange Line — not only causes damage to the ecology, but also reduces the country’s ability to meet the challenges of climate change.

The state’s neglect of the country’s forest cover has a long history.

Nearly 10 years ago, the Planning Commission prepared a five-year Rs13 billion project to substantially increase the forest cover. The plan was duly approved by Ecnec (Executive Committee of the National Economic Council) and formally launched. For some reason, the project was abandoned with the change of government. The government would do well to retrieve the files from its junkyard and consider the possibilities of reviving the afforestation plan as early as possible.

It is impossible to deny the large contribution to environmental degradation made by the neglect of agriculture though it still accounts for 19.5 per cent of GDP and employs 42.3pc of the civil labour force (a conservative estimate given in the Economic Survey). Although some progress in agriculture due to higher crop output in 2016-2017 has been claimed, the fact remains that livestock accounts for 53.8pc of the agriculture sector’s input; livestock’s contribution to GDP at 11pc clearly indicates a smaller one by the farming sector.

An expansion of the farming sector by bringing cultivable wastelands under cropping or by turning deserts into pastures will significantly improve Pakistan’s capacity to sustain a healthy ecology and enable it to overcome the grim challenge that climate change is posing.

A sound project for raising farming sector’s output, called biosaline agriculture — raising certain crops in saline conditions — was launched a decade ago, and it attracted international attention. Quite a few countries acknowledged Pakistan’s lead in this area. A pilot project was carried out but this plan too was shelved following a change of government. The scheme offers possibilities of developing vast tracts of barren land in all provinces into pasture, to begin with, according to Dr Kausar Malik, former head of the Agriculture Research Council and former member of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Planning Commission — and an authority on the subject.

Unfortunately, successive governments in Pakistan have failed to discharge their responsibility towards promoting and modernising agriculture. We need a major breakthrough in this sector through land reforms and improved agriculture development strategies. This is necessary to rescue the 58pc of the people of the country who were found food insecure in a 2011 survey — and their number may have gone up.

This is also necessary to reduce losses due to fog and smog, to meet the threat of climate change and, above all, to fight the mother of all ills ie poverty.

Published in Dawn, November 16th, 2017