PAKISTAN’s policy since inception has been to fast-track economic growth, even if it entails deterioration of the natural environment. Our policymakers seem to have internalised a myth: the country has to choose between environment and development. This false belief has given them licence to strip the country of its natural assets — water, air, land, forests, deserts, mountains and coastlines — instead of using them as natural capital. This policy can neither deliver inclusive and sustainable development nor can it provide a healthy, liveable environment to our people. Our leaders must learn to utter both words in one breath and consider them two sides of the same coin.
The disregard for environmental consideration started with president Ayub Khan’s two-track development policy that focused on i) industrialisation and ii) the green revolution. Both were transformative actions for the traditional economy and set national benchmarks for economic growth for decades to come. This success was, however, propelled by a battery of direct and indirect subsidies and tools like licences and permits, tax rebates and exemptions, concessional credits, subsidised inputs, and price controls. Successive governments have used similar instruments. At no point have the environmental costs of such development been calculated. In fact, each successive government has added layers of complexity to the dilemma.
The disregard for environmental degradation stemmed probably from innocence at the beginning, when environmental knowledge was at a rudimentary level. With time, however, it became a conscious policy choice. It was eventually explicitly aligned with the global discourse raging at the time, dominated by Nobel laureate Simon Kuznet’s famous Kuznet Curve. With the help of an inverted curve, Kuznet demonstrated that inequality begins to taper once per capita income increases to a certain level. This ‘trickle-down’ effect has, however, so far remained elusive in Pakistan.
Stakeholders have been reduced to mere spectators witnessing the depletion of natural resources.
As the environmental cost of economic development became more visible, Gene Grossman and Elen Kruger took this debate forward in the mid-1990s and presented what is now known as the Environmental Kuznet Curve, arguing that economic growth eventually sets right the environmental impact of the early stages of economic development. The dominant assumption was that environmental concerns can wait, to be addressed once economic development reaches a certain level. Available evidence and empirical studies have long questioned this argument, but policymakers in Pakistan have continued to follow the expired prescription. Environmental costs continue to consistently be dismissed as externalities and, to date, no policy tools in the country are used to calculate the hidden costs to the economy and society. The country’s ecosystems are stretched at the seams but the mythical per capita income levels are nowhere in sight.
President Ayub, in the process of consolidating his power, had centralised planning and development. President Zia went a step ahead and, thanks to Dr Mahbub ul Haq, found a way of controlling parliamentarians through their favourite development schemes. It worked because parliamentarians were less interested in environmental or other governance issues and far more in winning government support for their preferred schemes. This further centralised local environment and development agendas and hollowed out democracy. The planning process became hostage to small and disparate schemes and the country lost the direction of its development planning. Development became subservient to political machinations — a practice that all political governments since the early 1990s have found all too attractive to discontinue.
Another blow came from president Musharraf, who constitutionalised the Defence Housing Authority in 2002 with an act of parliament. A new nexus appeared that has been detrimental for the foundation of the country’s environment: land use. The influence of land speculators increased tremendously, and shamlaats, or communal lands, witnessed the proverbial ‘tragedy of the commons’ whereby fertile lands were converted into housing societies. From green belts and ancestral graveyards to forest lands and riverbeds — traditional hotbeds of biodiversity — nothing was spared by the tsunami of land-use change. This has reduced stakeholders to mere spectators witnessing the depletion of their natural resource assets.
This process of trivialising the centrality of a healthy environment for human and economic well-being is the single most important reason for the weakening of environmental institutions. No wonder, countless development schemes have over time become sources of climate vulnerability for communities across the country. The construction of multistorey buildings in parks, nullahs and parking lots has become a monument of maladaptation. The annual cost of environmental degradation was estimated in the Pakistan Economic Survey in 2013-14 at over Rs365 billion, based on five key sources of environmental costs: i) water, sanitation and hygiene, ii) soil erosion and salinisation, iii) indoor and urban air pollution, iv) lead exposure, and v) rangeland degradation and deforestation. There are no recent estimates of environmental damages on these heads.
A degraded physical environment increases the magnitude of damages caused by climate-induced disasters. The World Bank’s Country Environmental Analysis in 2019 estimated an average cost of $23bn per year from air and water pollution, inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene, and toxic waste and soil contamination. Estimates vary on the costs that Pakistan incurs on account of climate-induced disasters, but some estimates suggest that climate change is responsible for an annual economic loss of $1.3-1.9bn, equivalent to 0.5 to 0.7 per cent of GDP.
What can be done in this free-for-all that has created such environmental chaos? Clearly, the policy of ignoring the environmental costs of development is misplaced and has disastrous consequences. There are many interesting pathways that can be taken, but first, the country’s political leaders and policymakers need to comprehend the gravity of Pakistan’s environmental challenge.
As in the political context, a grand national consensus is needed: a Magna Carta to shift financial resources and decision-making powers from the present power centres to district-level governments. Invoking the argument of weak capacities or prevalence of corruption at local levels will come first from those who do not wish to relinquish their power. The 18th Amendment and the evolving local government laws in the provinces provide us with a sufficient basis for a consensus to move forward. We spent the last 75 years in weakening local institutions. Let’s spend the next 75 years building and strengthening them.
The writer is an expert on climate change and development.
Published in Dawn, August 14th, 2022