The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment began on June 5, 1972 and is now a day that stimulates awareness of the environment and brings it into focus and public discussion.
The importance of environmental issues is well known. 2009 was declared ‘The Year of the Environment’ in order to bring the environment into mainstream public discourse. No less an authority than the prime minister of Pakistan has stated that environmental degradation costs the economy Rs1 billion a day.
According to the World Bank Environment Assessment of Pakistan, that’s not the only cost we pay. Indoor air pollution claims at least 20,000 lives a year. Water-related ailments are responsible for another 100,000. This toll on human life and the national economy makes it clear that environmental issues are just as deadly as our current engagement in the war on terror and its blowbacks. The massively disproportionate importance environmental issues get forces one to examine the relative importance given to it in the budget. If there is to be any substantial change in the treatment of environmental concerns, it will come only after we begin questioning whether our military escapades will permit us to continue as is, with defence and debt servicing allocations leaving only small change to be used for public sector development projects.
The Pakistan military establishment’s view on water is of similar concern. Nearly 50 per cent of the workforce is in agriculture. Irrigation accounts for 24 per cent of GDP and 90 per cent of exports. Our vulnerability to changes in our water resources is clear and present. Our main water resource is the Indus Basin, and its waters are divided by the Indus Waters Treaty between India and Pakistan. The treaty binds, limits and defines this water-relationship. The military establishment, however, insists on controlling the manner in which the water relationship plays out. This prevents creative thinking and innovative solutions to the problems now faced by the treaty.
The energy crisis and the related circular debt issue are also of concern. Given the present energy mix and with present dams silting up and increasing gas shortages, our electricity requirements are dependent on expensive furnace oil. As the cost of electricity rises, electricity theft and defaults in electricity dues increase and this in turn exacerbates the circular debt issue.
The energy debate does not address the crucial link between electricity and development. Not only does raising the price of energy raise the price of everything else, it pushes those who can’t afford electricity back into the Stone Age. There can be little hope of meaningful economic development if citizens do not have, in the words of Dr Akmal Hussain, the “minimum material conditions of civilised existence”.
The 18th Amendment has made profound changes in the way the state is structured. The environment is now a subject provincial governments are in charge of. Since the work of the Implementation Commission of the 18th Amendment is not in the public domain, many questions about the mode and manner of devolution remain unanswered. There is little clarity on the role of the Pakistan Environment Protection Council. Who will set and enforce National Environmental Quality Standards? How will the EPAs of the different provinces interact with one another? This has been the ‘Great Debate that Did Not Happen’. Instead, people have criticised the devolution process without appreciating the profound constitutional changes that brought it about.
Climate change was accepted by world leaders at the Conference of Parties at Copenhagen in 2009 to be the “greatest challenge of our time”. It is expected Pakistan will be badly affected. There will be water, food and energy shortages, increase in the numbers and types of epidemic disease, increased disaster risk and consequent human migrations that will affect all Pakistanis. With the subject of the environment now devolved, it is now up to provincial governments to formulate and implement climate change policies.
Now is the time to pick up the gauntlet thrown down by our environment challenges. Inactivity will be a tragic abdication of the primary responsibility: The safety and security of life and property.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 5th, 2011.