Imran Khalid talks about the environmental degradation caused by the humans since time immemorial. The governments have not taken the issue of climate crisis seriously enough and the quality of air and water continues to deteriorate in Pakistan.
Today, in the midst of a global pandemic, the world celebrates the 50th Earth Day. In 1970, twenty million people came out on the streets across the United States to bring attention to the degrading environment. It was the brainchild of Gaylord Nelson, an American Senator who believed that a groundswell of support was needed to address this fast growing challenge. This was the time of significant upheaval as the Vietnam War was at its peak, the cold war divided the world and environmental degradation was beginning to show its effect as rivers caught fire.
50 years on, although the situation in the United States has significantly improved, thanks to various initiatives that came about in part due to Earth Day, the world at large, continues to face the perils of a degrading environment. For countries like Pakistan, our environmental problems are multi fold.
Not only do we continue to degrade our environment but we are also victimized by the climate crisis. The industrial age has brought forth an era of global warming the likes of which have never been seen in our recent history. It threatens to tear apart the fabric of human society in ways we could rarely have imagined. And while the climate crisis is not of our own making, the environmental degradation has our fingerprints all over it. I have no doubt that it is the greatest threat to humanity, environmental or otherwise. Yet, the effects of the climate crisis will be magnified if we don’t address the basic tenets of our environmental well-being.
Let’s begin with water. While we tend to think about water mostly in terms of its availability and the media portrays it as a storage problem, we have ignored the degrading water quality in the natural streams, rivers and wetlands. Less than 1% of our municipal wastewater is treated before reaching our water bodies.
In a similar vein, our industries continue to dump their untreated hazardous waste in the open. This also means that our groundwater is also increasingly at risk from pollution. As the climate crisis becomes amplified it will place greater stress on our water resources.
Moreover, our cities, towns, villages and communities have become dumping grounds for solid waste. With virtually no planned landfill sites to speak of, the standard operating procedure has been to find dumping grounds outside the cities including Islamabad the federal capital, until they are needed for further urban expansion, in which case a new dumping ground is acquired.
Even infectious hospital waste is dumped alongside municipal waste, despite having the necessary laws. In places the municipal authorities are not able to pick up the waste, it is burned on site, sending toxic emissions in the air. The never ending dump and burn cycle is a hidden health crisis in the making.
Speaking of air quality, the social media has recently been swamped by photographs that with sights long unseen due to the polluted air. The air across the world is definitely cleaner especially as the key culprit of air pollution, vehicular emissions have virtually been eliminated due to the global lockdown. But as soon as the pandemic ends, we will be back to business.
Our dependence on poor quality fuel for our transport sector, lack of pollution prevention technologies in factories, dependence on archaic brick kilns and open burning will ensure that the new normal of blue skies and breathable air amidst the pandemic will be short lived.
More than anything, environmental degradation is a social justice issue. If you have the means, you’ll buy clean drinking water and set up an air purifier in your home. If you have the means you’ll ensure that your waste is picked up, regardless of its destination. It is our most vulnerable who continue to stand in lines even during a pandemic to gain access to clean drinking water from filtration plants. And then there are those who make do with whatever they can get their hands on since they don’t have the means to get to a filtration plant.
Never mind the fact that they live in walking distances to government run golf courses and parks where the pastures are green and water plentiful. The concept of clean air might be a riddle for them as they are used to the dirty air that comes from the burning of waste around their communities. Social justice is also central to the climate crisis as it affects those without the means necessary to deal with floods, heatwaves and droughts.
Be it the migrants from rural Sindh moving to Karachi as their clean drinking water sources get inundated with seawater or displaced populations from floods in Southern Punjab, it is invariably the poor who are most affected.
So where’s the rub, someone might ask. If I am giving a talk, it is usually at this time that I launch into a long list of the laws and plans and mechanisms that have been ‘promulgated’ (a fancy word that is equally representative of the ineffectiveness of that legal structure that it pretends to promote).
I won’t get into that except to say that for a country whose first environmental institutions were set up in the early 80s and which has the necessary legal instruments to support those institutions, our performance to address our environmental challenges has been woeful. Next, I like to delve into the vagaries of the 18th amendment and all that they entail. And while that is pertinent, I’ll forgo this too, for our problem runs much deeper.
It all comes down our perception of ‘development,’ ‘growth’ and ‘security.’ These words are part of the lingua franca that constitutes our plans and policies. Address them and we’ll be fine, or so goes the theory.
There is something to be said about one of the largest countries in the world, which also happens to be a nuclear power and can’t provide clean drinking water to its population, take care of the people when they are sick and protect them during the health emergency. Unless and until there is a realization amongst the decision making elites in the country that human security and all that it entails in terms of education, healthcare, environment and socioeconomic welfare are key to a sustainable and secure future, we will continue to suffer the inanities of development planning that is presumably our bread and butter.
Soon after the Earth Day in 1970, Joni Mitchell came out with her song “Big Yellow Taxi” which has become an anthem of sorts for the environmental movement. The lyrics have never been more resonant:
“Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
‘Till it’s gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot”
So 50 years from now, as the world approaches the 100th anniversary of the Earth Day, will it be a celebration of the moment that taught the world the importance of respecting and preserving our environmental heritage or will it be a morose reflection on what could’ve been. The choice is still ours.
This article was originally published at: https://nayadaur.tv/2020/04/paved-paradise-our-race-to-the-bottom/
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.