The case of Pakistan is not different from the other countries of the region when the subject is environment. Unsustainable over-exploitation of natural resources by a fast-increasing population (presently at 100 million) has led to poor living conditions in cities and villages. Rapid urbanisation and indiscriminate exploitation of natural resources by industry are greatly compromising human health, forests, crops and water quality.
Recently, 16 percent of the 200 wells studied in the ex-capital of Rawalpindi and the present capital Islamabad were found to be contaminated with faecal coliform organisms. About 57 percent of the piped water sampled in Rawalpindi was unfit for drinking due to chemical residues.
The city of Lahore, capital of Punjab province, produces 2,000 metric tonnes of solid wastes daily. Large quantities of liquid wastes heavily contaminated with toxic chemicals are discharged untreated into the Ravi river. What is true of Lahore is also true for cities like Karachi, Faisalabad, Hyderabad and Gujranwala. A fertiliser plant in Multan has been discharging highly dangerous pollutants directly into a nearby canal. Elsewhere, there is no monitoring of industrial discharge of lead, mercury, chromium, nickel, celenium, asbestos and vinyl chloride.
Water dirty with wastes, toxics and garbage surely contributes to Pakistan’s high infant mortality rate of over 140 per thousand. After all, about 30 percent of all reported diseases are waterborne, including cholera, typhoid, diarrhea and hepatitis.
With its agro-oriented economy, Pakistan has been emphasising the use of farm chemicals to boost productivity. While the yields have improved, farmers have tended towards the excessive use of pesticides, which can cause irreparable ecological imbalance. In 1984, 20 people died in a village 80 km west of Islamabad of mysterious causes. A subsequent study by the World Health Organisation revealed that they had died of poisoning by Eldrin, one of the “dirty dozen” pesticides which had been widely used at the time against sugarcane and cotton parasites.
At least four Asian nations – Philippines, India, Indonesia and Malaysia -have adopted a system of integrated pest management to protect the environment and secure a balance between the prey and the predators. Pakistan has yet to make a headway in this respect.
SAVING THE TREES
Another important area of environmental concern in Pakistan is its diminishing forest wealth. The suspended sediment load per kilometre of drainage basin in Pakistan is the largest in the world. This is an adequate indicator of the intensity of soil erosion, which has affected as much as 1.2 million hectares of land so far.
Every year, the Department of Forests organises spring and autumn tree plantation campaigns. Theoretically, over 50,000 hectares are planted or regenerated every year by the Department. But most of the new plants and saplings die and vanish within a couple of weeks. Were the department officials and workers more serious about their duties, the Pakistani forests, particularly those in the northern areas, would not have vanished so quickly. The wood-based industry, too, has done severe damage to the already meager forest resources.
It is clear why we have to save the woodlands, and it is not just to maintain environmental balance. Village carpentry is a source of livelihood for thousands of families. Half the annual heating and cooking requirement is met by 21 million cubic metres of fuelwood. Two million cubic metres of building timber is used annually, and 86 million heads of livestock depend upon the degraded rangelands and forest areas for grazing.
Millions of hectares of land have been cleared of all types of vegetation and diverted to agriculture, human settlement, roads and canals. Furthermore, inappropriate farming practices and indiscriminate use of pesticides have aggravated natural as well as manmade problems. The network of canals for irrigation has caused waterlogging, salinity and other allied problems.
It is estimated that Pakistan is losing one percent of its forests annually. This is nothing less than disastrous for a country whose lands under forests is already a paltry five percent. The availability of timber is only 0.13 cubic metres per capita annually (it is 1.6cu.m. in the United States).
There has been some official response to the country’s environmental woes. The Environment and Urban Affairs Division of the Ministry of Housing and Works, for example, has tried to integrate environmental considerations into the economic development process. It has made several recommendations to improve the quality of environment.
A national policy enunciated in 1980 contained several measures to improve the woodlands. In 1983, the Government promulgated the Pakistan Environmental Protection Ordinance, which was followed by the setting up of two authorities at the federal level, the Pakistan Environmental Protection Council and the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency. The Pakistan Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, for its part, has taken initiatives to bring to light the seriousness and magnitude of the problem by establishing special sections in its laboratories in Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar.
The very emergence of these institutions promises a better and healthier environment because they can check, observe, evaluate environmental phenomena and recommend remedies. Yet, coordination has remained a problem. Scant regard is paid to the need for an “integrated approach.” This is a potential barrier, and there remains a vast gap between the experts and academics on the one side and policy makers and the bureaucrats on the other.
A lot more needs to be done, including the provision of adequate funds, training and motivating personnel, improving coordination, and, above all, empowering offices to enable them to carry out their programmes without interference from higher authorities. Environmental administration must not be considered a secondary sector. Environmental thinking must every existing sector of the economy and administration.
I Gul writes for The Frontier Post of Islamabad.