Conserving the environment

THIS country’s economy is heavily invested in agriculture. Simultaneously, Pakistan is ranked amongst those ...
Published June 8, 2018

THIS country’s economy is heavily invested in agriculture. Simultaneously, Pakistan is ranked amongst those nations that are at the very cusp of suffering the most adverse effects of climate change, pollution and the stripping of natural resources.

Given this state of affairs, it is remarkable that with an election coming up that shows all signs of being abrasively fought, environmental degradation, ecological conservation and sustainability aren’t receiving much attention from even the major political parties.

There is a whole range of environmental challenges that they must highlight in their manifestos. Urgent issues include deforestation, rampant pollution and a looming water crisis that could result in drought-like conditions.

Already, one can feel the effects: losses in the agriculture sector, hunger and malnutrition, a growing healthcare burden, and the associated pressure on human — and hence national — productivity.

At the time of the last elections, these matters were already a cause for concern and were addressed in dedicated sections of the parties’ 2013 agendas.

Unfortunately, outcomes have been sketchy.

The PML-N promised to insert the “right to food” as a fundamental constitutional right. It could be faulted for not having spelt out how this might be achieved, but that remains a moot point since the insertion was never made.

Similarly, while a federal Ministry of Climate Change was eventually set up, it remains a largely toothless entity involved in saving face in terms of Pakistan’s international environmental commitments.

In Sindh, meanwhile, the PPP’s good intentions of providing “clean drinking water for everyone” can only be summarily dismissed, while sufficient sewage treatment plants remain a dream: indeed, much of Karachi’s waste flows directly into the sea.

The PPP’s 2013 election manifesto promised to “curb the trafficking of endangered species”, but outcomes have been mixed, while the granting of permission to hunt the endangered houbara bustard remains condemnable.

Matters appear somewhat more encouraging in KP, where the PTI made fair progress towards its “billion-tree tsunami”; yet the ideals of zero waste and mass transit systems that would reduce air pollution, for example, have gone unmet.

At a rally at the end of April, PTI chief Imran Khan included the environment in his 11-point agenda and promised to plant 10m trees across the country, if elected.

He also said that the proper cleaning of rivers and canals would be ensured, while an “agricultural emergency” would be imposed to improve the farm sector.

On its part, the PML-N promises food security and improvements in the yields of staple crops to ensure the availability of essential food items for all, at affordable prices, as well as clean drinking water for each citizen — a goal also laid out in its 2013 manifesto, but which was never met although gains were made. The party also refers to the creation of dams and improving water conservancy.

It is essential, therefore, that environmental issues be given more importance by parties contesting the upcoming elections.

By many accounts, these may well be amongst the biggest challenges (outside the political area) facing Pakistan in the coming years.

Amongst the measures desperately needed are commitments in their manifestos to improving ambient air quality especially in urban areas, and slowing down urbanisation.

Similarly, Pakistan’s forest cover stands at a mere 4pc of the total land mass, as against the global standard of 25pc.

But perhaps the first basic point that must be corrected is of policy: power for environmental management was devolved to the provinces under the 18th Amendment; that leaves little scope for the centre to lay down a minimum standard related to environmental factors.

This first step of cohesion on a pressing national concern would be a good show of commitment and could be a point in the 2018 manifestos.

Published in Dawn, June 8th, 2018