Environment and climate change is a federal and provincial subject in Pakistan. However, growing heat island effects, deteriorating air quality and regular events of urban flooding each year require urban planners and metropolitan authorities to reconsider their infrastructural planning and development patterns, considering efficient climate-resilient strategies.

That’s not possible without empowering local governments to tackle the environmental issues by themselves as well as devolving subsequent functions of environment protection and climate change solutions from provincial governments to local bodies.

A year ago, on February 1, 2022, the Supreme Court, in a judgment, directed the Sindh government to devolve financial, administrative and political powers to the local governments in the province as enshrined in Article 140-A of the constitution. That also understandably entailed the devolution of various functions of the Sindh Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) to local bodies. But the Sindh government is, so far, unmoved and silent on the decentralisation of Sepa.

The Sindh cabinet, on October 31 2022, approved a summary to amend the Sindh Local Government Act (SLGA) 2013 through an ordinance to give more powers to elected representatives, especially the next mayor of Karachi. That was disclosed by the then provincial government`s spokesperson and Karachi Administrator Barrister Murtaza Wahab at a media briefing.

Solutions to better managing the environment lie at the grassroots level

According to him, after the amendments, the next mayor of Karachi would be the chairman of major civic bodies, including the Karachi Development Authority, Karachi Water and Sewerage Board and Solid Waste Management Board. No doubt, water and waste are essential components of environmental management.

But the former administrator did not confirm whether the mayor would also be made responsible for the environment protection body and various land authorities in light of the Supreme Court`s verdict.

There is no denying the apex court didn’t name Sepa in the order. But environmental laws have traditionally been considered superior to other laws, which gives them an overriding effect. According to Section 24 of the law, the environment watchdog has been above all the government tiers. Sepa has overriding powers over other civic agencies, and its jurisdiction extends to even areas like cantonment boards that come under the federal domain.

For example, if the Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA) approves the construction of any building, but Sepa raises objections, the latter will have an overriding effect. Similarly, the cantonment areas in Karachi have separate building bylaws and are not in the domain of the SBCA, but approval from Sepa is also mandatory for them.

Besides, the subject of the environment at the provincial level cannot address local climate change problems. For instance, the Sindh Climate Change Policy 2022 reportedly neglects major environmental challenges being faced by Karachi.

About 9-10bn plastic bags are used every year in Karachi

The document lacks details on the strategies that could help tackle heatwaves, urban flooding, a significant reduction in groundwater levels and the risks posed by the massive increase in concrete and bitumen due to infrastructure development.

In fact, the megacity of 25 million needs an independent Climate Change Policy, mentioning a progressive plan of action to prevent urban flooding and land degradation, as drainage systems have collapsed and the concrete jungle has choked natural rainwater run-off channels here.

The plan also includes creating flood maps, flood modelling, creating spaces that can store rainwater, wetlands restoration, and replacing concrete with permeable surfaces. The city also needs improvement in the green cover, which has been drastically reduced in recent times. Parks, green belts, public spaces and plantation drives at grass-root tiers can play a more aggressive role in improving green cover and air quality in the city.

Furthermore, only an empowered local government, with the support of law enforcement agencies, can undertake the gigantic task of enforcing a decade-old ban on polythene bags in Karachi. Being the largest city in terms of area and population, Karachi also tops the list of cities where nine to 10 billion polythene or plastic bags are used every year.

This widespread use of plastic bags is one of the biggest environmental hazards, taking a heavy toll on the metropolitan’ infrastructure, sewerage system, and municipal services and ultimately leading to coastal pollution.

Similarly, the trend of alternate energy is growing. Its use is now common among residents, and solutions are available at the doorstep by the private sector without any checks and balances. Local bodies can better regulate a policy pertaining to household solar and wind power management.

More significantly, in Pakistan, functional local governments can play a more effective role in emergencies and managing natural disasters, much better than federal or provincial ministries as well as Disaster Management Authorities.

Whether it is organising civil defence, helping evacuate settlements or coordinating relief and rehabilitation work, it is the local representatives who are closer to the people and can better communicate their needs to the federal and provincial governments and donors.

Elected local bodies may be unable to prevent natural disasters, but they can play a constructive part in building resilience to natural calamities because the local leadership is nearer to communities. Besides, it can also engage local traders’ associations, business chambers, non-governmental organisations and civil society better and more efficiently in disaster mitigation. Climate vulnerability is fundamentally a local issue and local government institutions are the most important building block for climate resilience.

The 2022 monsoon disaster and unprecedented weather patterns across the country demand provincial governments to decentralise functions of environment watchdog to local governments or civic land and municipal authorities. Because unless local government institutions are developed, trusted and resourced, neither the scale of devastation can be reduced nor the restoration effectively rehabilitated.

It is appropriate to see the climate change phenomenon from a broader perspective, from oceans and geography to atmosphere and glaciers. But solutions and better implementations lie at the grassroots, where water management, afforestation, land use and waste management can play basic roles in rehabilitating or safeguarding the environment.

M. Wasim is the founder and editor of infocus.pk — a website on the environment and sustainable construction.

He tweets @mwasim37

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 13th, 2023

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