Syed Rizwan Mehboob
When I hear our people getting agitated about the â€œenvironmental scepticismâ€ of the US President, Donald Trump, these days, I find it hard to control my ire. It comes as a painful reckoning that polity in decision-making echelons in Pakistan has always and (barring a few exceptions) continues to display a similarly inane and stolid disregard for the environmental phenomenon, leaving little justification to single out likes of Trump on this count. Take Indus Water Treaty, for example, which till quite recently, was touted as a gem of foresight of our leadership regarding the â€œhydro-politicsâ€ during the sixties. Peruse the papers of geography textbooks taught in government schools and one is certain to come across the refrain, â€œuser rights of three western rivers were allocated to Pakistan while water rights in the remaining three easterly rivers were conceded to Indiaâ€ (luckily, they do not add, â€œand they lived happily ever afterâ€). Hello, what are we saying? How could the then leadership of Pakistan agree to issue death warrants for our three easterly rivers â€” Ravi, Sutlej and Beas? Rivers are living entities and fully entitled to the â€œright of survivalâ€ just like other human or animal rights. Apportionment of river waters for irrigation purposes is one thing but disregarding historical rights of rivers to have â€œbare minimum quantities of watersâ€ or environmental flows borders on the criminal act of omission or commission. As champions of Vedic and Brahmanic traditions of revering rivers as conduits of eternity, linking eternal Himalayan snows and Indian seas, it would not have been impossible to seek agreement for maintaining essential downstream water flows in Ravi, Sutlej and Beas till their confluence with Sindhu (another Vedic river). If only, likes of Ayub and Yahya could have some regard and sensitivity to environmental notions. A more recent manifestation of â€œEnvironmental Blind Spotsâ€ can be traced in near nauseating debates during past decades around Kalabagh Dam in particular and water storage on the whole in Pakistan. Proponents, as well as opponents of large water reservoirs, present a spectacle of lavish amounts of foolhardiness by failing to understand environmentally precious and positive implications of these water bodies. Large water reservoirs are crucial to balance dwindling water tables, especially in semi-arid areas of upper Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Such water bodies provide ideal wetland sites, helping improve habitats for migratory birds; huge dams provide wonderful sites for enriching plant and animal biodiversity. And lastly, with visibly unpredictable rains and snowfall patterns in Pakistan, efforts for regulating an ambivalent flow of waters in rivers and downstream areas can only be ensured through controls applied by these water structures. Is it not out rightly bizarre than neither the nationalistic politicos from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or Sindh nor the â€œmainstreamâ€ leadership from Punjab never ever refer to these environmental benefits likely to accrue from likes of Kalabagh Dam? Another monument of ossified stupidity in terms of sensitization to the environment and climate change has been haunting since passage of the eighteenth constitutional amendment.
Chairman Raza Rabbani may have been the most passionate democrat, to be found on both sides of Indus but his arbitrary and near callous handling of the subject of the environment in the run-up to the eighteenth constitutional amendment is hard to digest. By 2010, climate change had already emerged as a cross â€” cutting theme, defying sub-national, national and even international boundaries. How on earth Raza Rabbani and Co could have been ignorant about the centrality of environment-related themes and imperatives of retaining a federal level entity to take care of climate change themes and discourse in Pakistan. It was callous to summarily disband erstwhile Federal Ministry of Environment without first seeking agreement on a clearly defined and palpable follow-up and fallback option. Eighteenth Amendment-related disservice to the cause of environment administered by the then political leadership continues to haunt us to-date. Premier Centre of Excellence in Forestry and Environment Education in Asia â€” Pakistan Forest Institute â€” has been reduced to miserable straits under the clueless provincial government of KP. Compliance regime covering a dozen or so international treaties on the environment has been made to chronically suffer due to federal-provincial disconnect, resulting from arbitrary abolishing of Environment Ministry in 2011. Reporting protocols on forest cover, wildlife censuses through Zoological Survey organisation, capturing the extent of intra-provincial pollution etc; most of these themes are yet to fully recover from jolts of 2010-11. Although Ministry of Climate Change has been recreated to fill in the huge coordination gaps between federation and provinces on climate change monitoring and reporting themes, the wounds of arbitrary hastiness will take decades to heal â€” If at all these would ever heal.
Barring these huge and historical lapses amongst national political leadership, similar instances at a smaller scale are also not too uncommon. And shining Punjab tops the list of such bizarre ignorance about environmental themes. Come monsoon and supreme provincial leadership can be seen, donning long boots cowboy fashion, and supervising in person â€œdewateringâ€ of rain waters from every nook and corner of big cities including Lahore. Why they fail to appreciate that these monsoon rain waters are a blessing and act as a crucial lifeline for augmenting and purifying receding water tables in large metropolis alike Lahore. I have personally heard senior irrigation engineers and water experts whispering in hushed up voices to disband this â€œhydrological kamakaziâ€ but then Punjab shining is obviously not very conducive in terms of allowing frank opinion space to poor babus.
With lesser clean energy options, up and running full throttle minus essential mitigation measures or abundance or concretized development, bulldozing crucial Environment Impact Assessment mechanisms across todayâ€™s Pakistan, historical â€œGreen Tramplingâ€ phenomenon is yet again on display. For sure, reverse travel from â€œTrumpâ€ to â€œAl Goreâ€ mindsets on the environment in Pakistan has just about begun.