Our native lemmings

December 11, 2011

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LEMMINGS are small rodents of the Arctic areas that experience population explosions when food is plentiful.

Periodically, lemmings migrate in large groups when population densities peak. They swim across bodies of water in search of new habitats and many drown if the distance is great, thus practising self-destruction. In some respects, this emulates human behaviour.

In a New York Times blog op-ed piece entitled ‘Marching off the cliff’, Noam Chomsky, emeritus professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, analyses the immoral lagging of the US on climate issues.

“To gain perspective on what’s happening in the world, it’s sometimes useful to adopt the stance of intelligent extraterrestrial observers viewing the strange doings on Earth. They would be watching in wonder as the richest and most powerful country in world history now leads the lemmings cheerfully off the cliff.”

Chomsky concludes: “The hypothetical extraterrestrial observers can be pardoned if they conclude that we seem to be infected by some kind of lethal insanity.”

The mid-2011 report of Islamabad’s SDPI’s (Sustainable Development Policy Institute), ‘Institutional Arrangements for Climate Change in Pakistan’, recommends: “As a country particularly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, Pakistan cannot afford to ignore the threat it poses to its economy and socio-political stability. To date, despite overwhelming evidence of this threat, Pakistan’s response has been poor. “Put simply, the issue of climate change is not captured in the country’s overall economic planning. Integrating climate change concerns in our national economic strategies necessitates both a national climate change policy and institutional arrangements for implementing it.”

Specifically, SDPI proposes that “the [2005] Prime Minister’s Committee on Climate Change (PMCCC), which has remained moribund, be revitalised.

“The proposed PMCCC should now be institutionalised as an apex body through a legislative mandate to integrate the effects of climate change and responses to them in the overall national planning and economic policymaking.

“Underneath PMCCC, there is a need to create a robust institutional set-up both at the federal and provincial levels.”

While Pakistan officially pays lip service to global conventions and UN efforts, sending delegations to international conferences and negotiations, promulgating environmental laws and establishing EPAs, conducting climate-related studies, setting up core groups and task forces, indulging in a general hoo-hah, the practical changes in government policies or actions on the ground are virtually non-existent. We just cannot be bothered — even though we are running out of time.

The US (GDP per capita $47,200) can afford to be blasé, but it is not comprehensible in a poor climate-sensitive country (GDP per capita $2,000): the Global Climate Risk Index 2012, released in Durban recently, has Pakistan as the worst sufferer from extreme weather events in 2010. Pakistanis cannot afford to be lemmings.

We are already inundated with the downsides of climate change: intense rainfall and flooding in 2010 and 2011; increasing glacier melt in the Himalayas — the 2008 Karakoram Highway block; higher temperatures in the summer and winter; sea-level rises (about 1.1mm per year) causing saltwater intrusion with coastal zone and marine ecosystem damage; looming water scarcity and stress, with droughts; resource wars; escalating crime and terrorism in urban areas.

For instance, details of two environmental foibles in Sindh. A nine-acre playground on Karachi’s University Road was planned in the early 1970s as a part of the Gulshan-i-Iqbal Scheme: it was to be a hockey stadium.

In violation of laws that prohibit amenity space conversions, illegal subdivisions/allotments were subsequently made: residential apartments were constructed on 1.5 acres, a petrol-pump space allotted on a corner, and a Sunday bazaar established over the remainder. In 2008, a two-acre piece was lopped off for a U-turn flyover.

The Sindh Building Control Authority (SBCA) recently captured the remainder of the playground, and proposes to build thereon a 28-floor head-office building (with a helipad on the roof).

If government agencies charged with safeguarding the built environment of the city (including the municipal master-plan and land departments) appear to indulge in land-grabbing and illicit conversions, who is going to stop political criminals from doing the same?

The SBCA has also revived an old scam. In 2002, apparently with the assistance of the then governor and the patronage of the Association of Builders and Developers (ABAD), it promulgated a ‘one-time regularisation of illegal buildings’ ordinance that magically converted ‘what-was-wrong’ into ‘what-is-right’.

The beneficiaries of this deception were various corrupt politicians, ministers, bureaucrats and building officials who made much unofficial monies, intimidating and threatening small developers and house-owners with demolition action.

Unfortunately, the official billions promised by ABAD never materialised as most of the major builders paid only the first 25 per cent instalment of the penalty (thus ensuring their exemption from demolition) and defaulted on the rest.

Promises to punish the guilty builders and colluding officials evaporated. With bogus ‘structural stability certificates’ churned out by ‘briefcase engineers/architects’, some (7,418 according to the website, while 8,620 are hanging fire) hazardous low-rise and high-rise buildings, which could collapse in the next serious earthquake, were regularised.

A month ago, PPP’s Agha Siraj Durrani, chief executive of SBCA, floated another ‘one-time’ regularisation ploy, this time for the whole of Sindh, including Karachi. SBCA officials will now proceed to extract their pounds of flesh.

No building will be found dangerous enough to demolish — and no solution will be implemented to the overcrowding and the overstressing of utilities (water, sewerage, electricity, gas) or infrastructure (roads, garbage-collection, schools, hospitals, social amenities) — thus encouraging increasing degradation of the environment.

Does hope lie with Imran Khan? It seems that the PTI, cognisant of the critical role of the environment and the havoc that will be wreaked by climate change, has commissioned a well-known advocacy group of Karachi to help draft the environmental section of its manifesto. Bravo!

arfc@cyber.net.pk