Pollution and Long-Term Environmental Degradation: Impediments to Pakistan’s Growth

Posted on November 23, 2007
Filed Under >Bilal Zuberi, Economy & Development, Environment
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Bilal Zuberi

A few weeks ago I organized an academic panel discussion on global climate change and the impact on Pakistan. The speakers were leaders in the field of climate change and sustainable development, and provided a crisp account of the short and long term threats that developing countries such as Pakistan faced in the wake of rapidly increasing air and noise pollution as well as long term weather & climate related ecological changes.

However, at the end of the session one gentleman walked up to me and remarked: “humain apnay khaaney peenay kee paree hai, aur tum samajhte ho key hum environment per tawajjah dey sakte hain?” (i.e. we are concerned about our food/livelihood and you think we can pay attention to the environment?). This post reflects on that interaction.

We all agree that Pakistan is in a deep quagmire right now, in more ways than one. Our society is in the middle of a historic struggle to once again win freedom – this time from the hands of the military and the corrupt politician-military alliance. At the same time, we also face internal threats in the shape of religious extremism and suicide attacks, and external geo-political developments. In the middle of all this chaos is an ordinary Pakistani who is unable to earn decent wages, has to deal with rapid inflation and crunch on food supplies, and political-economic chaos around him continues to negatively impact his/her daily job.

But then – can we really afford to not pay attention to our ecology and environment, given that our very livelihoods depend directly on it? I don’t think so.

While it is true that Pakistan’s economy today is less dependent on agriculture than it was a few decades ago, the fact remains that we are still an agrarian economy. In 2006 the agricultural sector accounted for twenty-two percent of the Gross Domestic Product and employs a significant percentage of the working population. That important sector of the economy is highly susceptible to any significant or rapid changes in climate.

For example, climate change can lead to increased incidences of flooding in certain parts of the world, including Pakistan.

We just experienced a severe flood in Balochistan and the devastation caused was obvious. According to an article in the Humanitarian News and Analysis of the UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs:

“This whole area has an agrarian economy with rice and wheat as the main crops. But all our fields have been destroyed and our livelihoods are in ruins,” Akbar Buksh, a local farmer in the sub-district of K.N. Shah, told IRIN. K.N. Shah lies within the district of Dadu, about 350km southwest of Karachi. Two months after the deluge, the water is still running six to seven feet deep across vast tracts of farmland.

In Sindh floodwater damaged about 71,806 acres out of a total of 140,000 acres sown for this year’s harvest, according to a report published in the Business Recorder, a leading national broadsheet, in early August. The report said rice was hardest hit – with an estimated 3.05 million metric tonnes of produce damaged. Overall, the report concluded, about 4.41 million metric tonnes of this year’s rice, cotton and sugarcane crop worth about Rs 62.8 million (US$ 1,040,899) were destroyed.

Let’s look at another report that has recently been published. It is the Pakistan Strategic Environmental Assessment by the World Bank, that warns of environmental degradation as a threat that undermines Pakistan growth prospects. According to the study – Pakistan Strategic Environmental Assessment – the degradation of its resource base and high burden of disease is costing Pakistan at least 6 percent of GDP or about Rs. 365 billion (US$ 6 billion) annually.

Nearly 50 percent of the environmental damage cost is attributed to illness and premature mortality caused by indoor and outdoor air pollution. Indoor air pollution alone is the reason for 30,000 child deaths per year. Around one-third of the cost, or 1.8 percent of GDP, is due to death and illness resulting from waterborne diseases caused by inadequate water supply, sanitation, and hygiene. In addition, reduced agricultural productivity due to soil salinity and erosion accounts for about 20 percent of the cost.

It is striking that while national estimates are often cited in reports, it is not highlighted enough that the poor in our country will be the ones bearing the biggest burden of the climate and environment related degradation in health, ecology, and farmland. Their livelihoods, more than anyone else, depends on the very land on which they feed their animals and grow their crops. Last year a NASA led international team (under the leadership of V. Ramanathan) found that the persistence of ‘brown clouds’ over Asia was directly attributing to a loss in rice harvest in India. That is literally next door to Pakistan, and the brown clouds are not much more than ordinary clouds with entrained soot pollution from automotive emissions, home-fires for cooking, and bio-mass burning. According to the World bank report:

Environmental damage has severe impact in both rural and urban areas, the report says. Over 60 percent of Pakistan’s population is rural and depend on natural resources such agricultural soils, water, rangelands and forests that are strained and degrading. The sustainability of agricultural production is under severe environmental threat. Nearly 40 percent of the country’s irrigated land is water-logged, and 14 percent is saline. Forest and rangeland production is also at risk, the report says. The estimated cost of deforestation is between Rs. 206 to 334 million (US$ 3.4 to 5.5 million) per annum, and up to 80 percent of the rangeland is degraded.

As with the poor, the children are also more vulnerable to environmental hazards. In the light of several targeted epidemiological studies, it is well understood now that children are more susceptible to lung and throat diseases, including asthma, emphysema, chronic lung bronchitis and damage to lung’s airways leading to inflammation and swelling of blood vessels. A recent study has also found that polyaromatic hydrocarbon compounds present in soot can lead to cancer, especially in children, just like the smoke from smoking. Again, according to the World Bank study:

…with more than one-third of the population living in towns and cities, Pakistan is the most urbanized country in South Asia, and exposure to urban and industrial pollution is a rapidly growing concern. In all major cities, airborne particulate matter exceeds safe levels and causes some 22,700 deaths annually.

Similarly, access to clean water is another burgeoning problem that Pakistan faces today, and that problem will only be more evident globally in the future. It is predicted that future wars will be fought over water resources, and not oil. Will the Indus Waters Treaty hold strong? and how will we deal with the equity issues related to potable and drinkable water?:

The health costs associated with waterborne diseases amount to 1.8% GDP, caused by unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation and inadequate hygiene. Surface and ground water are contaminated by a combination of municipal sewage, industrial effluent and agricultural runoff. In addition to investment in water supply and sanitation, and the establishment of institutions to operate and maintain such investments, the regulatory framework needs to be strengthened to include drinking water quality standards and use-based standards for water sources. While local capacity is required for water supply and sanitation service provision, Federal, provincial and local authorities must all play a role regulating drinking water quality.

The facts are rather clear, and are alarming. The question is what do we do about it?

Our actions must begin with a realization of how large the problem really is and what is at stake in case we fail to play our part in curtailing global climate change. We need a collective and systematic effort at the local, regional, national and international level to prevent pollution and large scale environmental degradation. The world bank proposes a few institutional steps that need to be taken, but we need to find ways for our own contribution.

The real solutions will not take hold until each one of us realizes that we have a role to play. What is our carbon footprint? How much do we use and/or conserve the precious resources that our country men, women and children are so in need of? When was the last time we did something more than complain about the pollution and environmental degradation around us? We need to look at the cars we drive, the amount of plastic bags we use and throw away, trash we do not recycle, amount of water we waste, electricity that is not consumed efficiently, homes that are not insulated, and the pollution that is caused by pollution at home and in the industries we work in. Are we standing up when trees are chopped down, for the degradation of our coastline, or the traffic congestion, or the quality of drinking water? Why not?

At the governmental level, some progress that has been made in recent years (e.g. see our post on fines levied on smoke-emitting vehicles, introduction of CNG vehicles, and the Bijli Bachao Mohem):

Since adopting the National Conservation Strategy (NCS) in 1992, the Government of Pakistan has made considerable progress in raising public awareness of environmental issues, and establishing a framework for environmental management. The National Environmental Action Plan was approved by the Government in early 2001, and a new and far-reaching National Environmental Policy (NEP) was adopted in 2005, accompanied by a significant increase in the budget allocated for environmental management.

Yet, many challenges remain.

The main binding constraints to improving environmental performance include gaps in incentives and accountability, institutional design, the regulatory framework, and capacity limitations. Currently, Pakistan lacks standards for the quality of ambient air and water. Such standards are the foundation upon which emission control strategies are based.

To reduce the costs associated with environmental and natural resource damages in Pakistan, the Strategic Country Environmental Assessment provides recommendations targeting institutions, regulations, capacity, and accountability:

Strengthen institutional design, in particular to guide Federal oversight of environmental authorities delegated to provinces, to build partnerships between Federal, provincial and municipal authorities for clean air, and to define responsibilities for water quality protection.

Update the regulatory framework, to set health-based air quality standards, use-based water quality standards, and standards for drinking water. Vehicle emission and fuel quality standards should also be updated.

Build capacity for environmental management, especially for effective Environmental Impact Assessment Systems (EIAs), air quality management and protection of water quality. Environment cells in key sector ministries and planning departments should be further strengthened.

Reinforce incentives and accountability, through greater public consultation and disclosure in the EIA process, by providing public information on air and water quality, and by supporting public interest advocacy for the environment.

I am very interested in hearing what you think about these personal and institutional challenges (and opportunities hidden underneath them).

For some additional info on renewable energy in Pakistan, view this post.

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29 responses to “Pollution and Long-Term Environmental Degradation: Impediments to Pakistan’s Growth”

  1. Atif Alam says:

    In Pakistan we have big problem of pollution. The main source being the pollution rising from factories ,traffic and unauthorized burning or waste disposals. I give you small example of Lahore, the city is now clouded by dust and smoke 90% of the time, clear sky in night or sunshine is like a dream. Western part of the city are badly affected from the pollution rising from the industrial area. Every year there is less rainfall. Considering Pakistan as an agricultural country, we see this as a major problem. Not to mention pollution is also a main reason of rising health problems in big cities of Pakistan. Cancer, skin allergies, high blood pressure and heart diseases are on rise, while normal throat problems because of bad air is an everyday problem. CO2 emmisions are also increasing because of increaing use of electrical and electronic equipment in Pakistan. If we donot addresss pollution problem now, i think in near future whole nation will be fighting agaisnt health issues instead of looking for earnings. If some one try to raise such issues then people normally use to say that we have problems in meeting both ends in life, how can we think about this. Only one thing to say that we dont have to think, we have to act. Starting on issues like this will start new projects and this in turn will give jobs to people. This means creating job oppertunities. So we must think in a positive way.

  2. Rafay Kashmiri says:


    benefits of fast growing and large populations in USA, UK or
    Canada, Australia and japan are not necessarily workable for all 27 EU members with the exception of Germany, France, Luxembourg, Holland and Scandinavian countries which has a stable sociale security working with different levels, high, medium, and low.
    e.g. un-employment benef highest in Luxembourg, Germany
    eventually minimum salary is the highest than elsewhere , where as half of it in spain portugal, Italy, Greece, France.

    North America, they don’t have the same sociale security, &
    benefits, you pay your insurance for sickness, pension and
    no un-employment benefits, in Japan its more or less the
    same, we have in Luxembourg minimum official salary is
    I.580 Euros in Germany its about 1.100, France 800.

    As you said, taking small population hit, but its not the case,
    can you throw the others out or have no benefs. Half of the
    American have no fix social securtiy system to protect
    when they hit jobless, where as in Europe the taxes are
    diducted from your salaries, e.g. for taxes sickness, jobless, and pension, you get the net in your hand, if you become
    jobless your are paid one year 80% of your last salary and
    after, you get the minimum, this programmed system
    is going to exist among the newcomer in EU sooner or later.
    Here if the population was more, then more subscriptions
    (we call it ” cotisation”) resulting in more reserves benefits,
    but when there is lesser cotisation then deficite is borrowed.
    so they opted for bringing in workers to increase cotisation
    to pay normal benefs. To Have a valid sociale security
    programme working smoothly that protects every one,
    including kid benef, every child here get 250 Euros,
    pregnancy benef, & holidays, during birth, holidays
    post birth benef uptil delivery, one year of maternel and
    paternal holidays. etc etc etc.

    Europeans tried to convince their folks to marry and have kids, they are doing it for the last 38 years,

    In france you can confirm from your French Embassy
    about the toll for hot wave deaths more than 15 000 in 9 days

    these retired, were not earning ok, but their health security
    was deducted and every expence was paid by their assurance
    they were paying their old houses (nominal amounts), there
    was a small disputed amount deducted as un-employment
    charges for the funds for lobless out there.

    In UK USA growing rate is far lower than we think,

    i say we in Europe specially Luxembourg, Germany,
    Holland, Belgium France have the most stable sociale
    securitiy system where everybody is secured.

  3. Tina says:

    Rafay, your post was incoherent and your numbers certainly way off. I am absolutely sure that 15,000 elderly did not die during the heat wave in France. Anyway they would have been collectors of social benefits, not contributors.

    At any rate if there are any labor shortages it is certainly no trouble to open the borders and grant more visas to immigrants, but racism (the so-called and greatly feared “browning” of America, Germany, etc.) gets in the way of this simple and obvious solution. The money remanded back into the third world from the wages earned by immigrants (who would be sending it to families back home) would represent a desirable re-apportioning of the world’s wealth, too.

    Agreed that humanity is a blessing but quality of life is important and I think enough quantity is already in place.

    I fear Mother Nature taking matters into her own hands, and we can see a die-off killing 2 or 3 billion people at one go. This would be an unspeakable tragedy but we are humans, not animals, and we can avert this through planning.

    Sadly, I know people who honestly do not care about this because they know the poor suffer first, and figure the die-off will occur in the slums of Lagos, Mumbai, or Rio first….so sit back, hoist a glass, and wait for the apocalypse…

  4. RJ says:

    @NoPCThoughts “I am sorry but turning Pakistan into a nuclear target (for that

  5. NoPCThoughts says:

    Kasim and Rafay, I think you both a bit blinkered, in your vision of the benefits of fast growing and large populations. As Tina pointed out the Europeans, Japanese, Chinese and North Americans are all in the process of taking a small population hit because the ‘baby boomers’ are all getting old together. Nevertheless the UK and US for example, are still growing via a rise in birth rates and immigration.

    In 20 – 30 yrs time they will have passed this bump and still be wealthier societies than Pakistan and India (Gross Per Capita Incomes, will be many times that of the sub continent). Having vast numbers of poorly educated, and poorly fed people, is the exact opposite of what’s required in the new world economies. Pakistan (and many other Muslim countries) are struggling to react to the better health care for children, which mean’s many more people survive than before. The poor in particular are still having many more children than is necessary to replace or support the parents.

    Population growth is the driver for Global Warming, and the degradation of the ecology on the planet and if not tackled will eventually destroy our world.


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