The World Bank estimates that Pakistan is losing nearly one billion rupees per day because of environmental degradation. Aside from widespread pollution and the toxic contamination of our water bodies from chemical effluents and untreated sewage (which takes its toll on human health), climate change is also starting to hit our agricultural sector with water shortages.

Experts say that global warming helps spread diseases like malaria (we already have a resurgence of Dengue Fever!). There is no doubt today that we neglect our environment to the detriment of our quality of life. So, it is a positive sign to discover that the Government of Pakistan has declared 2009 to be the `National Year of Environment` and plans to host a series of activities throughout the year to engage stakeholders and spread awareness about environmental problems in Pakistan. I hope all this will result in some concrete action plans which can be implemented as soon as possible!

While the Government`s plans to improve urban transport and install renewable energy are welcome, I was quite disappointed to learn of the scheme hatched by the Forest Department. This entails a massive nation-wide effort (involving provincial forest departments and the National Highway Authority) to plant 11 million saplings in one day (around August 14 this year) to break the Guinness World Record, which is currently held by Brazil. Of course, deforestation is a growing problem in the country and certainly it is contributing to climate change, but why not try to save our existing forests through stricter controls (especially from the timber mafia!) than to waste so much money on what is essentially a publicity stunt? As one journalist pointed out, how do we know how many of these saplings will actually survive and grow into trees? Up in Kohistan, thousands of deodar trees which have been cut from centuries old forests lie on the Karakoram Highway waiting to be transported to the large cities of Pakistan. They will be sold for huge profits, all to be pocketed by timber barons. Why does the Forest Department not protect these forests with better surveillance and monitoring? They claim to have access to satellite technology now, so let`s see it being used to save the precious forests we are left with instead of monitoring how many young saplings will grow into trees!

I learnt about this grandiose plan when I attended one of the first events held this year by the Ministry of Environment in Lahore recently. This was a dialogue on the Global Environment Facility (the largest funding mechanism available for environmental protection to which Pakistan also contributes a share). Pakistan, of course, is a signatory to the UN conventions on climate change, biodiversity, desertification, land degradation and Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Shafqat Kakakhel, who has recently retired from the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) and is now on the advisory board set up to support Pakistan`s Ministry of Environment, explained that the declaration of 2009 as the year of environment was “proof of the seriousness of the government to pay deliberate and thoughtful attention to the problems of environmental protection and natural resource management... The government is keen to re-double the efforts in collaboration with stakeholders in the country and UN agencies and partners”.

Perhaps the government should learn from the success of the GEF Small Grants Programme (SGP), which has been operational in Pakistan for more than sixteen years and has been saving endangered species, protecting national parks and bio-diverse areas, and introducing energy efficient products in remote villages with limited funds. Through small grants of around $50,000 given to organisations working at the grass roots level, they have been introducing sustainable development and spreading awareness amongst local communities in order to make them better custodians of their natural resources.

The GEF was created during the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and is a global fund for the environment which is run by a council of 25 countries (we are a member of the council, representing six other countries in the region as well). The GEF has been replenished four times since its inception and Pakistan has received a total of $111 million over the years (this money is an outright grant and not a loan). Of this amount, nearly 53 million dollars has come directly through the GEF and 59 million dollars from co-financing. The money has been used to fund the SGP and other projects addressing climate change, biodiversity, protection of wetlands and desertification. The GEF is implemented through UN agencies like UNDP, UNEP, UNIDO and the Government of Pakistan and well-known NGOs like WWF-Pakistan. There is now a GEF cell in the Ministry of Environment whose capacity needs to be strengthened.

The SGP is implemented by the UNDP in partnerships with community-based organisations. According to Masood Lohar, who currently heads the SGP in Pakistan, “We are currently spending one million dollars a year on various projects. This is one of the highest delivery rates in the 104 countries that are eligible for the GEF funding. The most innovative aspect of the SGP is that we deliberately work in far off areas with local communities. We work directly with the local people.” Recently, in the Matiari area of interior Sindh, the SGP involved the local dacoits who would hide in the riverine forest to join the project to protect the area. The local people have now together helped to re-forest large tracts of this fast disappearing riverine forest! All this was done with very little amount of money once dialogue was initiated and the local community made aware of the benefits of the forest (which provides their livestock with free fodder, and gives them wood for kindling, plus fruit and honey).

My point is that we don`t need mega-projects or ambitious (and expensive) schemes to bring about change. Even limited amounts of money, if spent well, can bring about lasting change — in the end, it is the people who are going to protect their environment and they can do this if they are encouraged and empowered.