IN Pakistan, during the last one decade, we have been witnessing an increase in unpredictable extreme weather events, including floods, heavy rainfall, droughts, smog, and heatwaves and cold waves. Together, they have resulted in the loss of thousands of lives and caused damage worth billions. In the flash floods of 2010 alone, over 2,000 people died. Some 20 million were displaced. About 5m acres of standing crops were damaged. ADB and World Bank estimated $9.7bn in damage to infrastructure, farms and homes. Reconstruction costs were estimated at $6bn.

Such calamities have played havoc with large metropolises and urban settlements everywhere, bringing them into sharp focus.

Some 4bn people, accounting for over half the world population, live in cities; it is estimated that by 2050, two-thirds will be living in urban areas. Increasingly living in urban areas, present-day Pakistan’s population also rose to 207.7m in 2017 from 33m in 1947. Such rapid urbanisation has brought about huge challenges — increased air pollution, growing numbers of slum inhabitants, inadequate basic services and infrastructure, and haphazard planning, making cities vulnerable to disasters.

In Pakistan, large cities are at risk owing to poor infrastructure. Megacities like Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Peshawar have experienced serious episodes of urban flooding and heatwaves in the past few years. The 2010 deluge was followed by more floods, and deadly heatwaves in 2015, killing over 3,000. According to the Federal Flood Commission, present-day Pakistan suffered cumulative financial losses of over $38bn from 1950 to 2015. Of this, $19bn were incurred during 2010-15.

Urban spaces must counter climate change.

Human loss and property damage could have been lessened had we respected nature. Even today, we ignore environmental degradation and its dire impact on society and the economy. While we cannot avert natural disasters and extreme weather events, we can significantly reduce their impact through sustainable development that meets present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability aims to minimise losses through building a climate-resilient infrastructure.

It is cities, which empower societies as hubs of industrial and commercial activities. A study shows that Pakistani cities contribute nearly 80pc to GDP. However, the current state of urban areas is very poor, not only in service provision, but also in terms of infrastructure, mobility and environment.

According to the International Growth Centre, a think tank, Pakistan ranks eighth among the top 10 countries that between them are responsible for 60pc of the world’s substandard housing; this enhances the country’s vulnerability to natural calamities. Moreover, Karachi ranks second lowest in South Asia and sixth lowest in the world in terms of liveablity. The big challenge for our policymakers is to transform the way we build and manage our urban spaces. Building safe, sustainable and disaster-resilient cities should be the focus, which means “ensuring access to safe and affordable housing and upgrading slum settlements”. Besides we should be investing “in public transport, creating green public spaces and improving urban planning and management in a way that is both participatory and inclusive”.

The concept of safe, smart, resilient and inclusive cities is vague in our development planning. Eying electoral gains, governments — both federal and provincial — are more concerned about fancy urban infrastructure than the environment.

Pakistan Vision 2025 underlines the concept of smart cities for sustainable urban development, sees opportunities for better living standards for all Pakis­tanis irrespective of faith, ethnicity, region etc, ie inclusive growth. It aims at transforming our urban areas into eco-friendly sustainable cities through improved city governance, effective urban planning for vertical expansion, an efficient mobility infrastructure and better security. Despite such a comprehensive vision, questions of implementation are unanswered.

Solutions will depend on effectively implementing Vision 2025 while also complying with Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals which aims to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. In fact, Pakistan was the first country to adopt the 17 SDGs as its own national development agenda.

A strong institutional framework is needed, especially a public-private partnership involving the government and property dealers and builders to work towards resilient cities. But rural development should not be compromised in the name of urban planning. A parallel comprehensive rural development planning should be in place — for feeding the cities, we need a resilient rural sector.

Ghamz e Ali Siyal is an urban planning and development researcher at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI).

Raja Taimur Hassan is a public policy and political analyst associated with SDPI

Twitter: @taimur__.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2018

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