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On sustainability

January 30, 2019

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The writer was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lums.
The writer was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lums.

THE more I read about sustainability the more I am puzzled by what it reveals and what it hides. At one level, this is a new buzzword in the global discourse that all sorts of shysters are milking for what it is worth while distracting the gullible into futile avenues and dubious career paths.

Take the endless refrain about sustainable cities. Every day one reads a scare-laden screed about how our major cities are unsustainable. But what exactly does that mean? Lahore has been around for many centuries — Al Biruni referred to it in the 11th century and Xuangzang identified it in 630 CE. Delhi is even older — its history goes back to 50 BCE. Despite their survival through all sorts of calamities and troubled times, we are being told that they are not sustainable anymore. What exactly has changed?

Many of the writers refer to a falling water table and extrapolate it to imply that cities would die for lack of water. Add to this inane statement that very soon water would start selling at the price of gold.

Why should we place any credence in such claims? There are cities in the desert-like Phoenix and Riyadh that continue to source water. It also stands to reason that as water becomes scarce its price would rise forcing both a curtailing of demand and innovations in supply. In all probability, almost all used water would be recycled and made fit for drinking when conditions warrant. This is already happening in many cities including Singapore, a small island serving a sizable population.

What is intriguing is our selective use of the concept of sustainability.

As for those hyperventilating about water at the price of gold, they are of the same ilk as those crying hoarse about Pakistan’s overpopulation being the cause of its poverty. These wiseacres are quite oblivious to their next-door neighbour with six times the population yet growing at twice Pakistan’s rate for the last quarter of a century and now spoken of as an emerging global power. Nor have they ever reflected on the fact that Pakistan’s population was halved when it ‘lost’ Bangladesh but its economic growth failed to take off like a rocket from the unintended ‘benefit’. The population babble serves only as a convenient smokescreen to camouflage a history of atrocious self-serving governance.

Three-fourths of the earth’s surface is covered with water and so its price can never rise above that of desalinated water plus the cost of transporting it to wherever it is needed. And there is no reason that water cannot be transported over long distances. If an oil pipeline can run from Tajikistan all the way to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan, surely so can a water pipeline from Gwadar to Lahore. Of course, the water would be more expensive than it is now but it would be nowhere near the price of gold. The price would even decline over time with the increasing use of solar energy. Once again, many cities already use desalinated water. In fact there was once a plan for DHA Karachi to set up its own plant but like most schemes in Pakistan that too was most likely the victim of a scam.

The bottom line is that we would be much better off focusing on concrete issues — like ensuring that the water presently supplied is clean — instead of hand-waving about vague and poorly thought through spectres of sustainability. It is undoubtedly true that cities in South Asia are poorly managed and can do with a great deal of improvement but poor management is nowhere the same thing as unsustainability.

But what intrigues me much more is our amazingly selective use of the concept of sustainability. While everyone and their aunts are free to pontificate about the sustainability of cities, and of the world for that matter, we are in a very different ballgame if we shift the discussion to the level of countries when there is no conceptual difference except that of scale. If we can talk of the sustainability of Lahore and be con­­sidered enlightened citizens, why do we suddenly become anti-national traitors if we talk of the sustainability of Pakistan?

Consider that there are many more credible reasons to talk of the latter. The Pakistan that was created in 1947 did not prove sustainable as the events of 1971 showed. Perhaps this might have been avoided had we been allowed to freely discuss the issues of its sustainability. Are we continuing the folly by stifling discussion given all the issues in Balochistan along with those of rising fundamentalism, intolerance and populism?

What this suggests is that the concept of sustainability is a highly politicised one. We are free to shout it ad nauseam where it makes no difference but whisper it at our own risk when it threatens the interests of the powers that be.

The writer was dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Lums.

Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2019