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Pakistan's politicians fail to protect environment - rights group

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 29 Apr 2014 09:00 GMT
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A man fills his jerry can from a drinking water point at a slum on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Jan. 28, 2014. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

LAHORE, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A leading rights group in Pakistan has criticised the country’s politicians for neglecting the environment in their electoral campaigns, and for spending too little on action to tackle climate change. 

“Environmental issues cannot be sidelined as secondary matters of public policy,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) said in its annual report covering the state of rights in 2013.

According to the World Bank, Pakistan loses up to 6 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) annually because of environmental degradation, with the costs falling disproportionately upon the poor, the report noted.

“Despite these abysmal figures, the issue was visibly neglected in political party manifestos leading up to the general elections in May 2013,” said the HRCP report, issued last Thursday.  

Major political parties – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), the Pakistan Peoples Party, Pakistan Muslim League, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Awami National Party (ANP) - assigned little priority to environmental protection and pollution control, the report said.

The only party that presented an environmental policy was Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). It placed emphasis on creating a “green economy” through sector-based initiatives, including small-scale sustainable farming, eco-tourism and more effective water management.

The PTI – an opposition party at national level but leader of a coalition governing Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province where forests are fast disappearing - also proposed a goal to reverse deforestation, and increase forest coverage from 3 to 6 percent.

Environmentalists welcomed the PTI policy, but doubted whether it would become reality. 

“Even if these issues are mentioned in manifestos, they rarely get implemented,” said Ahmad Rafay Alam, a lawyer and environmental activist. Almost every candidate standing from the city of Lahore spoke about clean drinking water and sanitation, for example. “But as soon as representatives are elected, they seem to lose focus on these issues,” he added.

CLIMATE SPENDING SLASHED

With the environment featuring so low on the agendas of political parties, the HRCP said it was not surprised by the lackluster response to pressing environmental issues by government agencies.

“The many challenges that Pakistan faces in environment become even more difficult because of a general lack of awareness from the grassroots to the top rung of decision-making, lack of prioritisation, planning and allocation of resources,” said Najam U Din, editor of the HRCP annual report.

“These have a very direct bearing on a range of rights, including the right to life, health, work and housing among others. The importance we attach to environment and climate change is reflected in the parsimonious budgetary allocation, which is shrinking further,” he added.

The environment was not regarded as important by the new government, led by the PML-N under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, which began its tenure by slashing the budget for climate change projects. In the budget for 2013-2014, only Rs 59 million (roughly $590,000) was allocated for the Climate Change Division, compared with Rs 135 million in 2012-13.

Not only was the climate budget cut – officially for austerity reasons – but the arm of government dealing with climate change was downgraded from a ministry to a division, environment expert Alam noted.  This occurred despite the National Climate Change Policy of 2012 identifying climate change challenges as "major survival concerns".

The HRCP urged the Pakistani government to consider climate change across all its planning and development processes, and to tackle related inequalities.

“The disproportionate impact of climate change on the poor and women, as well as other vulnerable communities, must be understood and effort must be taken to reduce their burden. Effective adaptation strategies are needed to address these fundamental gender disparities of climate change,” the report said.

DIRTY AIR AND WATER

Water-related diseases were the cause of 40 percent of all deaths in the country, the HRCP report emphasised. Many environmentalists regard water as the most important social, political, legal and moral issue in Pakistan today.

“Pakistan is in a water quality crisis. The loss of life, damage to health, infrastructure costs etc all associated with impure drinking water amount to approximately 4 percent of GDP,” Alam said. It is “remarkable” to think that nearly half of deaths - and every other Pakistani in hospital - are attributable to impure drinking water, yet the problem is not the country’s premier political issue, he added.

The report quoted a World Health Organisation (WHO) study that ranks the Pakistani cities of Lahore, Quetta and Peshawar among the top 10 most polluted cities in the world.

“The air quality monitoring equipment in Lahore hasn't functioned in years. The Environment Protection Department doesn't have the funds to pay the Rs. 30 million needed annually just to maintain the equipment necessary for measuring air quality,” Alam said. “The situation is grim, grim, grim!”

According to the HRCP report, fossil fuel-fired power plants, vehicular emissions and fumes from industry were the main air pollutants. Dust and smoke particles in Pakistan were twice the global average.

ILLEGAL LOGGING

Pakistan’s forest cover also remains abysmally low. A brief and controversial policy change by the previous government in March 2013 sanctioned the movement of both legal and illegal timber, and the felling of hundreds of thousands of trees, the report said.

A day before his term in office expired, former Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf approved a policy allowing wood to be moved from Diamer in Gilgit-Baltistan. As well as 2 million cubic feet of legally-cut timber, which locals claimed had begun to decay, the policy also approved the trading of 1.9 million cubic feet of illegally-cut wood after contractors paid a fine to the government.

The policy - criticised by local people and environmentalists alike - lifted a ban on timber movement from Gilgit-Baltistan that had been introduced in 1993 to prevent deforestation. Activists said it gave free rein to timber smugglers to chop down new trees and transport them south in the guise of old timber. At least 200,000 trees were reportedly cut in the Thor and Batoga valleys in Diamer from February to July 2013.

The new government withdrew the controversial order in July, in what was a rare yet significant victory for forest conservationists over the country’s powerful “timber mafia”.

Led by the PTI, the government in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province banned logging, prohibited saw machines and stopped issuing transport permits in an effort to protect forests in Hazara. But illegal tree felling continued unchecked in the region as the powerful timber mafia - with the support of local government and police officials - openly defied the rules, according to the HRCP report.  

The second-largest juniper forest in the world, which covers an area of 247,000 acres in Ziarat, Balochistan, also remained prey to illegal logging by the timber mafia, and to a smaller extent, locals cutting trees for cooking and heating. UNESCO has declared Ziarat’s juniper forest a biosphere reserve, but the government has yet to take any steps to protect it, the HRCP report said.   

Waqar Mustafa is a Lahore-based freelance writer for the Thomson Reuters Foundation with an interest in climate change.

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