The next general elections in Pakistan are right round the corner; they are most likely to be held sometime in July 2018. Starting from the sitting governments in the centre and provinces and going back to the mid-1980s, our experience tells that almost all the previously elected civilian and military governments have shown complete indifference towards the daily environmental challenges that over 200 million Pakistanis face.
A pretty much similar attitude has been of our concerned organisations, elected representatives, local government officials, media, and the general public. This has been largely so due to our ignorance towards the devastating consequences and implications environmental challenges pose to not only human health, but also to animals and the rest of the ecosystem. Lets briefly describe some of the environmental issues which threaten human health, cause discomfort and disruption in our daily lives, and at times even death.
Clean air, for one, is an absolute essential requirement for a healthy life. Does the quality of air in most of our major urban centres and their suburban, peri-urban areas meet international standards? As per the World Health Organisation, the answer is negative. WHO maintains that in Pakistan the mean annual concentration of fine dust particles (PM2.5) is 60 micro-grams per cubic metre of air, against the permitted level of 15 micro-grams per cubic metre, which means it is four times higher than the set standard. The Pakistan Air Quality Initiative’s (PAQI) 2018 report has revealed that the PM2.5 concentration in Peshawar is 111, Rawalpindi 107, Karachi 88, Lahore 68 and Islamabad 66 micro-grams per cubic metre of air.
The report further states that every year 59,241 deaths are caused by air pollution in Pakistan. WHO surveyed 1,600 cities of the world in 2013 to monitor their air quality data. Three Pakistani cities, Karachi, Peshawar and Rawalpindi, were placed as the 5th, 6th, and 7th most polluted cities of the world respectively. Ironically, in WHO’s 2016 report – air quality survey conducted in 3,000 cities – Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Karachi were declared the 2nd, 4th, and the 14th most polluted cities among the world respectively. This is not all, because apart from the particulate matter (PM2.5 & PM10), gases like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and lead are also, to a great deal, responsible for affecting the health of humans and animals, and the ecosystem.
Besides air pollution, water, noise and plastic pollution, solid waste mismanagement, impacts of climate change, untenable economic development, deforestation, urbanisation, scarcity of drinking water, and excessive emission of greenhouse gases, are all responsible for the direct and indirect negative impacts on human beings. Like in most developing nations, in Pakistan too environmental degradation and its unpleasant, uncomfortable and unhealthy consequences are never considered a high priority issue. It is left on the nature to correct itself over time.
After clean air, the second most essential requirement for human survival is clean drinking water. According to a review article published by Daud and 11 others in 2017, in a biomedical research journal, safe drinking water is available to just about 20 percent of Pakistan’s entire population, while the remaining 80 percent are constrained to consuming unsafe drinking water. People in Pakistan consume drinking water from both surface and underground sources. The sources of contamination include sewage, toxic chemicals from industrial effluents, pesticides and fertilisers discharged into drinking water sources.
Resultantly, waterborne diseases such as typhoid, hepatitis, giardiasis, diarrhoea, worms, gastroenteritis and other communicable infectious diseases constitute 80 percent of all diseases and 30 percent deaths. A 2010 World Bank publication titled ‘The Cost of Environmental Degradation’ made this horrific revelation that Pakistan spends Rs1 billion every day as the cost for ignoring and neglecting environmental degradation.
Providing safe and nutritious food at affordable costs to people of all social classes is the responsibility of the governments, but both raw and processed food, beverages, dairy products, cooking oil, spices, tea leaves, and vegetables etc, are more often than not adulterated. Thus, unfit for human use. Besides, in none of Pakistan’s major cities, including in the federal and provincial capitals, does a proper solid waste management system exist to date. According to the Pakistan Renewable Energy Society, about 20 million tons of solid waste is generated each year across the country. But only 50 to 60 percent is collected and disposed of in open dumping sites. The waste is not even segregated into recyclable, reusable and compostable materials. Almost half of the waste is left on the site to rot, resulting in stench and diseases which are spread through flying insects.
Small and large manufacturing units related to the textile and leather industry, cement factories, brick kilns, stone crushing factories, mining activities, construction and demolition, car-wash facilities, smoke and noise from vehicular traffic, toxic and hazardous waste from hospitals and maternity homes, changes in status of lands from agriculture or forest land to housing societies, all need to be regulated by governments through their line departments or other organisation. The 70-year history of Pakistan and the role of its various governments has made it amply evident that not enough has been done about environmental hazards, and people continue to suffer.
Perhaps now is the time to tell our political parties, leaders and opinion-makers to ‘do more’. It is an appeal to the electorate to carefully evaluate how many political parties incorporate and prioritise such environmental issues in their election manifestos, and what strategies do they formulate to overcome human miseries instead of their rhetorical narratives. We wish to see a clean, green, healthy and environment friendly and prosperous Pakistan at the turn of this decade.
The writer is former professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Peshawar.