Our Environment: The Elephant In The Room
In Pakistan, you will often find a lot of discussion and interest for topics such as crime, corruption scandals of various politicians, or even why the cricket team failed to perform, but what doesn’t make it into mainstream discussion is a topic which carries far greater implications for us as whole, a topic which makes no discrimination between any race or religion and affects us all equally, it is none other than the topic of environmental issues.
Recently, the people of Punjab were left coughing, with irritated eyes and finding it hard to breathe, all because of the smog that gripped the province and refused to go away. Not just that, but as per media reports, the smog also caused 610 road accidents in Punjab in just 24 hours, taking the lives of 20 people and leaving 506 injured. It left the major highway in the province closed while the provincial government was left considering whether to shut down schools.
Despite this being considered as the heaviest smog spell in the history of Pakistan, it has been much worse in other countries – one big example which comes to mind is the heavy smog back in 1952 in London which led to the death of at least 4000 people in a four-day vicious spell. I would like to tell you that this is as bad as it can get when you don’t take into account the environment, but I would be wrong. The predicted effects are much worse and shall be discussed later in the article.
When one begins to talk about the environment, the obvious backbones are the environmental laws of Pakistan and familiarity with them is essential for any further discussion.
The main legislation concerning environment includes the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act passed in 1997 (PEPA 1997) on a federal level, and after the 18th Amendment to the Constitution in 2010, which made environment a provincial subject, Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa made their own Environment Protection Acts in 2014, while Balochistan passed it in 2013. Punjab already had an Environmental Protection Act since 1997 (which saw an amendment in 2012). All the provinces adopted the original text of PEPA 1997 with minor changes and additions.
The agencies responsible for environment in Pakistan include the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency established under section (5) of PEPA 1997 and every province’s own agencies (EPAs) respectively after the passage of their respective Acts.
Issues arise as the Local Government Ordinance of 2001 devolves the enforcement of environmental issues to the district level, something which PEPA and subsequent laws are silent upon, resulting in grey areas in law and giving rise to uncertainty. Furthermore, the agencies which are to approve projects from the environmental point of view are financially dependent on the very people whose projects they have to objectively view. This has led to the approvals of the tests they are to carry out under law, namely, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the Initial Environment Examination (IEE), as a mere formality.
However, that’s not where it stops. The carefree attitude towards these very important assessments to safeguard our environment had to turn for the worse. In 2015, the 7.5 kilometers long, Rs 1.5 billion project (competed at Rs 2.3 billion) of signal-free Jail Road, the government forgot to conduct the assessment altogether. The Lahore High Court found – and a point which the Supreme Court later acknowledged as well – that the authorities had commenced work on the project without even having an assessment conducted.
This clearly speaks volumes of how the provincial government was very happy to perform all the other prerequisites to commence a project worth Rs 1.5 billion, stretching 7.5 kilometers into the heart of the provincial capital of Lahore, and yet did not seem to worry at all about the vital environmental assessment which ideally should have played a major part, but was instead forgotten. The above raises a very big question as to how much the mandatory environmental tests matter in the decision-making of the projects which clearly affect the environment.
In another case in 2015 the Environmental Protection Agency came to act against pollution and shut down 3 steel mills in Islamabad, all very good news. However, these very same mills had been closed over the same charges in 2011 as well, but had restarted their operations a few months later without making any changes as EPA failed to ensure compliance via follow-up visitation.
The question which arises is why no one seemed to bother when, for 4 years, in the capital city of Pakistan, these mills kept on causing pollution in Sector I-9. One wonders how much enforcement is taking place in other places of the country if this is the situation prevalent in the capital city. The irony is that these mills were situated only 5 kilometers away from EPA’s head office.
It is worth noting that Balochistan has a department for Environment, Sports and Youth Affairs which is responsible for the Provincial Environmental Protection Agency. The provincial government’s seriousness towards the topic can be assessed from the fact that the environment did not apparently require an independent department, thus got abolished and later landed itself with Sports and Youth Affairs instead.
A section in the aforementioned laws requires an annual environmental report on the state of the environment. Federal EPA’s last report available was from the year 2005 and that too was only a draft. In provincial EPAs, only a report from 2007 was available for Punjab.
The development of law in this crucial area has been slow. Even though a few rules and regulations have been passed, the major legislation passed still remains that from 1997, that is 19 years ago. Some good news in this regard is that the legislature ratified the Paris Agreement on Climate Change 2015, the question however remains as to how far it will be implemented.
From the point of view of current laws, while there are certainly many negative elements, there have been positive elements too where courts have intervened and the EPAs have enforced environmental regulations. However, as far as the the current law is concerned, a lot more effort and reform is still required.
As mentioned before, not worrying about the environment can prove very costly. The floods, the heatwaves and the melting glaciers are all products of the lack of care towards the environment. A report by LEAD Pakistan puts the economic loss from weather-related disasters at $6-10 billion annually. WWF-Pakistan put the loss from 2012 floods alone at $6 billion, equivalent to one percent of Pakistan’s GDP. It is also worth noting that more than 20 million people were affected and 300,000 displaced as a result of the 2010 floods.
An interesting point to note is that if we look at the economic cost of terrorism in Pakistan, experts at UNDP place it around $1 billion annually, while as mentioned above, the economic cost from climate change is around $6-10 billion annually. As such, in terms of economic cost, it can be said that the cost of climate change may be 6 to 10 times more than that of terrorism.
To make matters worse, as per the Pakistan Economic Survey 2014-15, Pakistan is considered to be amongst the countries highly vulnerable to the adverse impacts of climate change, and its 5000 glaciers are on retreat, retreating faster than those in any other part of the world. In the longer run, UN expects Pakistan to be hit the hardest. It expects water shortage, followed by food scarcity, leading to widespread energy shortages, along with the spread of epidemic disease. The ecosystem gradually wastes away and all this results in rural to urban migration, destroying the entire system. All this paints a very scary picture, yet there is hardly any discussion over it. The question is, why not?
It can be said that there is a general lack of awareness regarding environmental issues owing to media silence. They do not attract the same ratings that perhaps other more interesting topics such as crime or political scandals do. Many people also dismiss them as they seem complex at first with difficult terminology at times. Another reason can be that harmful effects to the environment are experienced over a longer time frame and that is why, in the short-run, people are less concerned as they do not see serious consequences immediately.
Moreover, the environment can be considered an enemy of capitalism. It has been argued that developed Western countries are the ones that are more concerned with the environment as they have already gone through their industrialization and caused their harmful effects, but want the developing countries of today to restrict their industries. As such, it can be said that it is against the interests of the industrialists and the wealthy elite to have environmental restrictions placed. A quote that comes to mind is from the Cree Indian prophecy which states that, “Only when the last tree has been cut down, the last fish has been caught, and the last stream poisoned, will we realize we cannot eat money.”
The final part of the article is simple: what is the solution?
The solution, firstly, is reform in the law. Environmental laws and their enforcement agencies need to be given more power and independence from any factors which can influence them otherwise. Grey areas in laws need to be legislated upon to ensure that they cannot be exploited. Certain gaps in our laws which have been pointed out by the National Impact Assessment Program Report need to be fixed. The legislature also needs to consider stricter regulations, and beyond that, the bodies charged with implementation need to do so with more transparency and effectiveness in implementing the relevant law. Having a perfect law will be useless if there is no implementation of it. The federal and provincial governments must also aim for sustainable development keeping in mind the environment.
Furthermore, there should be more accountability in the process of assessments by the relevant bodies and that is where our media should be more concerned, with highlighting environmental issues and educating the public. Not just that, Pakistan needs more organizations conducting research and awareness camps for the environment so that the public can actually be educated about it. The relevant EPAs should also take the leadership role in education in this regard.
Finally, change starts at home, and that too at an individual level. Care for the environment, educate people about it by raising the issue over whatever platform you can, take the initiative to bring about a positive change in the environment in whatever way you can, because at the end, it is indeed our and our children’s future at stake.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any organization with which he might be associated.