Hell Or High Water

The environmental odds are increasingly turning against Pakistan. Time is running out for the country and the nation as a whole must get serious about making atonement for the damage we have caused to nature around us, writes Syed Muhammad Abubakar

It was indeed a big day to receive the environmental journalist award by Singapore Environment Council (SEC). Being the first Pakistani to receive this award brings pride to Pakistan and also brings to light the opportunities that environment, and in specific, environmental journalism holds.

My career began with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Pakistan and I then got the opportunity to work with Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD) Pakistan and then with South Punjab Forest Company (SPFC). In all these organizations, I realized how important the environment is and especially the difficulties in restoring an ecosystem. Pakistan is experiencing a rapid loss of its ecosystem, given the forest cover has dwindled to mere 1.9%, according to FAO’s Global Forest Resources Assessment report. However thanks to the plantation of over one billion trees in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa through the Billion Trees Tsunami Afforestation Project (BTTAP) and the plan to plant 10 billion trees under the newly initiated Plant for Pakistan programme in the next five years.

Pakistan’s high vulnerability to climate change, as confirmed by German watch, has made it imperative to call for sustainable development that is environmentally friendly and promotes low-carbon development. In this debate of environmental conservation, the component of awareness yet remains low.  Although environment is taught as a subject in in O and A level curriculum, it is largely ignored in government schools. The question that arises here is that why should a citizen be sensitized to protect the environment? The answer is simple, as it’s the environment that we share with everyone and if this environment is polluted, our health, livelihoods and everything will be compromised. Our neighbor India is suffering from the air pollution problem, with a latest report confirming that the residents of Delhi have their lives reduced by 10 years just because of air pollution.

 

Lahore, once known as the City of Gardens, is now a City of Concrete due to horizontal expansion that has bulldozed its way through agricultural land and green zones. The solution to provide reliable housing to an increasing population was vertical expansion, but nobody thought about it

Lahore , once known as the City of Gardens, is now a City of Concrete due to horizontal expansion that has bulldozed its way through agricultural land and green zones. The solution to provide reliable housing to an increasing population lay in in vertical expansion, but nobody thought about it in the past. However the current government has come up with its Naya Pakistan Housing Program which is expected to follow some sustainable codes, including expanding vertically so that less and less green area is converted into concrete. The reason why concrete structures are discouraged is that they trap heat and increase the micro-climate of the city, resulting in uncontrolled heat waves. To keep the cities cool and resilient to heat waves, urban trees have a greater role in sequestering carbon dioxide and other pollutants and combating air pollution. So if Lahore and other cities of Punjab had a healthy urban forest cover, it could have had played a greater role in reducing the level of smog that all of us have had to face over the past few years.

In 2007, urban forest cover was 12,359.71 hectares, in 2010 it was reduced to 7,965.28 hectares and in 2015, it was further reduced to 3,520.32 hectares

A news story that I recently did on the urban forest cover of Lahore assessed satellite images to ascertain how the urban trees decreased over the past few years. In 2007, urban forest cover was 12,359.71 hectares, in 2010 it was reduced to 7,965.28 hectares and in 2015, it was further reduced to 3,520.32 hectares. The role of individuals in combating air pollution can be immense and starts from encouraging cycling to carpooling and having more plants and trees in your backyard. Another issue that everyone is pretty much aware of thanks to previous chief justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar, is the need for water conservation. His effort for conserving water was logical, given Pakistan is among the most water-stressed countries of the world. The per capita surface water availability in Pakistan has reduced from 5,260 cubic metres in 1951 to around 1,000 cubic metres in 2016.

 

This is likely to further drop to about 860 cubic meters by 2025, transiting Pakistan from a water-stressed to a water-scarce country. As the quantity of water across the country declines, the quality is nowhere good enough. A research published in the Journal of Environmental Research revealed that 80% of the Pakistani population drinks unsafe water and that accounts for one thirds of total deaths each year. Lahore is no exception to this and another study from the Science Advances journal has confirmed that in Lahore, over 1,000 persons per square kilometer are at risk from arsenic poisoning. With air that is highly poisonous and water that cannot be consumed, politicians and bureaucrats need to seriously sit together and discuss what kind of Pakistan they wish to see. Do they want a country where the citizens have reduced life expectancy due to air and water pollution or a clean and green Pakistan? The citizens have a special responsibility in this situation, as they should not only be responsible for their actions but also stand up for their environmental rights and demand environmental justice from the government. Access to clean air and water is a fundamental human right which is recognized by the Constitution of Pakistan. It’s hell or high water!

Syed Muhammad Abubakar is a Chevening Scholar pursuing MA International Journalism at Cardiff University, UK. He is the recipient of 2019 Environmental Journalist award and 2015 Young Environmental Journalist award by Singapore Environment Council (SEC). He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached via email at s.m.abubakar@hotmail.com