Pakistan is ranked 148th out of 178 countries on the Environment Performance Index, which encompasses protection of human health from environmental harm and protection of ecosystems. This shows the imminent threat brought about by environmental degradation which is worsening with time, around the globe.
Some 41 million people have been adversely affected by environmental disasters in the span of seven years, from 2007 to 2014. According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, these disasters include floods, earthquakes, droughts and landslides that render void the immediate possibility of hope for the affected. The mutually reinforcing relationship between inequality, poverty and environmental degradation gives rise to a vicious cycle. Astonishingly, there is a severe lack of awareness regarding this issue and policy implications turn a blind eye to it, which helps neither poverty nor the environment. Consequently, this complex nexus then poses three major questions: how do environmental degradation and poverty accentuate each other, why are the existing policies catering to the two not efficient and, what can be a possible way forward?
Firstly, the torchbearer of development — the neoliberal agenda for poverty eradication has so far been successful in deteriorating the situation, if nothing else. Structural adjustment policies advocated by this agenda have required poor countries to reduce spending on health, education and development while debt repayment and other economic policies are made the priority. Therefore, it can be said that the IMF and the World Bank follow a model that demands the poor nations to lower their standard of living. Pakistan is yet another country characterised by the aftermath of the aforementioned agenda that even though works towards development but is not sustainable in nature.
Secondly, what requires contemplation is the fact that that the rich have been responsible for most of the environmental issues today but the poor have had to bear the brunt of it ever since. Therefore, it makes the rich indebted to the poor because of initiating activities that inflict harm on the environment. However, to cater to it the neoliberal policy recommendations rather do the opposite — whereby inequalities are not reduced and poverty is not eradicated.
What the country needs right now is sustainable human development; development that leads to equitable distribution of resources and outcomes that stay in effect for a long while. In short, it means being a society where human development is the cornerstone of the development policy while there is sustainable use of natural resources that help the economy.
However, the current situation with the absence of proper social security mechanisms and lack of investments in health lead to dire consequences. Taking a glimpse of the oil and gas industry, according to OSALP international, an organisation dealing in health, safety and environment in and out of Pakistan, workers in oil rigs and factories are often left physically impaired. Many workers in these areas are without a finger or two, along with eye and head injuries, whereas in extreme cases workers lose their lives, in accidents such as fires. These workers usually have a number of family members dependent on them and any such accident that impedes the family income serves as a great incapacitating blow to their lives, drawing them further into poverty.
As a result, due to poverty and rising inequalities class structures emerge that lead to stark contrasts in living standards. Even though poverty took a downward turn since 2001, growing inequalities have held the fort to prevent sustainable development. The rich indulge in wasteful use of resources that damages the environment and consequently a depleted environment asks for a larger family in a poor household. The poor therefore have high fertility rates, overusing resources for survival and paving the way for environmental degradation further. This vicious cycle gives rise to poverty as high fertility leads to dwindling resources being distributed among many entitled members — making some better off at the expense of the others.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 21st, 2017.