Sustainability in Pakistan
Sumbal Raja, Clinical Psychologist and Mother of two
Like many in Pakistan, I am no stranger to witnessing human tragedies brought on by environmental disasters such as floods, drought in southern regions of the country and earthquakes. Of these, perhaps the most horrifying, was the 7.4 magnitude earthquake that wreaked havoc in the Northern and Eastern parts of the country in 2005. Though not present in the affected area, the images of collapsing multistoried apartment buildings in the heart of the nation’s capital, trapping hundreds of people under the rubble, brought on a host of emotions in me; abject horror, profound sadness, and seething anger.
Though the tragedy brought the whole nation together to help in rescue and rehabilitation, it also galvanized people to push the Government to put the required measures in place so that such a catastrophe does not happen again.
For me, it was a wake-up call, and I started to learn more about the environmental challenges that a developing country like mine is facing.
My search introduced me to the sustainability doctrine and made me realise how far behind we, as a country, were in securing our natural resources for our future generations. It seems I was not the only one to have made that realization. Public opinion created conservation groups as well as activists demanding legislation to limit environmental degradation. Over the years, despite the enormity of the challenges and scarcity of resources (financial and technological), Pakistan has made considerable headways towards sustainability.
Before I elaborate on these initiatives and successes, let me briefly touch upon the challenges we face due to our geographical location and our status as a third-world country. Pakistan is ranked fifth among the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020. Scientists have long since warned of Pakistan’s susceptibility to unpredictable weather along with other effects of climate change such as rising temperatures, glacial melting, unusual rain patterns, drought, and sea intrusion. In the twenty years leading up to 2018, Pakistan withstood 152 extreme weather events suffering financial losses of up to USD 3.8 billion, not to mention the human cost incurred in the form of loss of life and property and relocation. Our problems are not limited to weather hazards but also include water pollution, soil erosion, shortage of water, deforestation and poor air quality, to name a few.
Far from being daunted by the task, the successive governments in Pakistan have made diligent efforts to address environmental challenges, which were growing more complex by the day. Requisite policies have been announced, necessary legislation has been passed, and public sector initiatives have taken effect. Some of the important steps taken by the Government include; giving more power to environmental protection agencies (EPA’s), setting up of National Environment Quality Standards, and National Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (NEECA). Environmental laboratories and environmental courts have also been set up. To demonstrate the commitment and ownership of SDGs, in 2016, Pakistan became the first country to integrate these goals into its National developmental agenda. In 2018, a National SDGs Framework was announced highlighting a plan and strategy to achieve SGDs in Pakistan. Seven SDGs Support Units were constituted to expedite coordination among the stakeholders.
All the efforts bore fruit as the country successfully attained the SDG 13:Climate action, a decade earlier than the 2030 deadline, as shown in a United Nations annual Sustainable Development Report 2020. SDG 13, referred to as ‘Climate Action,’ encourages countries to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” There are specified actions and goals which have to be achieved to qualify for SDG 13 completion. An important requirement for SDG 13 is for countries to adopt and implement national disaster risk reduction strategies in accordance with the UN-specified Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030. Six of the seven indicators used to compute SDG 13 are global indicators, which include data highlighting the national disaster risk reduction strategies; the amount mobilised for addressing climate-financing needs etc.
Pakistan fulfilled all these criteria by launching initiatives like the “Billion Tree Tsunami programme, “Clean and Green initiative, Protected Areas Initiative, and Ecosystem Restoration FUND.
Though attaining SDG13 ahead of time is morale boosting for us, the work is not yet finished. There are more important targets that need to be met, such as:
Like other third-world countries, Pakistan has been battling the effects of unchecked population growth, which ultimately contributes to poverty. A noticeable improvement has been made through key interventions and programmes aimed at poverty alleviation, though we are nowhere near a complete resolution. In the last ten years, poverty headcount has lowered by 26 percent, and multi-dimensional poverty has been reduced by 16 points. Ehsaas (Compassion) programme aimed at poverty alleviation, ensures social protection and supports human capital development. The poorest are being registered through Socio-economic Registry so that they are extended help on a priority basis. Pakistanis are one of the most charitable people, which is evident from the number of charitable NGOs working in health, education and skill training sectors.
Even though our carbon footprint is relatively small, its impact on climate change in Pakistan is enormous and imminent. The only option for us is climate adaptation.
Air pollution is a living nightmare for Pakistanis in general, but recently, smog further deteriorated air quality in Pakistan’s industrial eastern Punjab province. During winters, Lahore and surrounding cities are choked with smoke. Thousands of brick kilns are the root cause of this problem. Recently, the “zigzag” method of kiln production has been introduced to lower smoke levels, and so far, some 33% of kilns have converted to this technology. The 359 industrial units contributing to pollution in and around Lahore are being strictly monitored for emissions and waste management. To improve air quality all over the country, switching to electrical energy is being promoted through an electric vehicle policy, starting with 150 buses powered with electric batteries. After countrywide protests to cut down on fossil fuels, the Government has scrapped two coal power projects and has assured to generate 30% of total electricity through renewable means. Adding the electricity generated through hydro projects, the total power generation through renewable means would be around 66%.
Although the responsibility for agenda setting and providing leadership for sustainability rests with the Government, the role of the private sector and that of individuals is no less significant. In Pakistan, the private sector and a few notables have initiated awareness campaigns, cleaning drives etc. Still, we do realise that individuals must check themselves on acts that harm the environment. On an individual level, there is a heightened awareness to avoid littering, reluctance for excessive use of automobiles, and to instead opt for carpooling or using respectable and efficient public transportation in the cities it’s available in, of using water resources wisely, recycling etc. At the corporate level, there is a growing awareness towards proper waste management and putting a stop to the depletion of forests.
To conclude, there is evidence of serious efforts to attain sustainable growth, but more people need to catch up on this. However, this small number will grow, and a slight ripple will turn into a big wave given time and effort. Personally, there is more reason for me to be hopeful that Pakistan will achieve more sustainability goals in the near future.