Reports by the HRCP as well as the EIA point out serious flaws with the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project, and highlight the devastating impact it could have if development continues unabated in an environmentally unsustainable manner
Pakistan is believed to have the highest rate of urbanisation in South Asia, with more than 36 percent of the population now based in cities. As rural-to-urban migration continues towards centres of economic activity, runaway urbanisation is expected to see 50 percent of the population living in cities by 2025. An already rapid urban sprawl to accommodate the masses moving to cities like Lahore is evident from the disappearance of green spaces — plantations, parks, green belts and urban gardens — in the name of development.
The transformative nature of urbanisation is converging with climate change in an ominous manner. Cities and towns are increasingly bearing the brunt of natural disasters such as urban flooding and smog. Increased utilisation of poor-quality fuels for transportation, power generation and industrial purposes, coupled with deforestation, land-use changes, and extensive infrastructure development contributes to increasing environmental pressures.
In August last year, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced a transformative project to revive the lost glory of Lahore by creating a model city compared to the likes of Dubai, along the banks of the Ravi. This Rs 5 trillion development scheme was immediately hailed as a lifeline for not just the local economy but also the country’s construction and real-estate sector.
Marketed with tall claims such as being a one-stop solution to the city’s pollution, sewerage, water supply, and smog challenges, the project was to be implemented by the Ravi Urban Development Authority (RUDA).
The authority’s grand marketing scheme painted a rosy picture that seemed too good to be true: creating a quarter of a million jobs in construction, transforming environmental conditions, creating space for new residential and commercial areas, wastewater treatment plants and a grand residential scheme overlooking the river — all to be completed before the next general elections. A report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) outlines serious flaws with the project, and highlights some of the devastating impacts it may have if development continues unabated in an environmentally unsustainable manner.
For starters, the proposed re-alignment or channelisation of the Ravi outside its natural course is an open invitation to a flooding disaster. Pakistan is already among the countries that are most vulnerable to climate change, and flooding is the biggest natural hazard the country faces: 26 major riverine floods have ravaged the country since 1950, affecting 20 million people and causing losses worth nearly Rs 1,500 billion. In the last few years, there has been devastating urban flooding in Karachi and Lahore, as well as some other metropolitan cities. Among its chief causes are changes in land use, alteration of natural water courses to make way for development and occupation of flood plains.
As the second largest city of the country, Lahore has a surveyed population of more than 11 million. Urban sprawl is evidenced by the fact that the city’s population nearly doubled in merely 20 years (Source: Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, 2018). Detailed land-cover change analysis of the district is given in the table below:
The aforementioned figures indicate that during the seven-year period from 2010 to 2017, the tree cover in Lahore fell by nearly 75 percent. This explains the harsh environmental impacts we have been suffering with the increasing severity of heat, smog and urban flooding each year.
The project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report, conducted by the Environment Protection Department (EPD), highlights that 77 percent of the proposed construction area is farm land while the remaining includes orchards, forests, settlements and flood plains. A whopping 76,000 acres of agricultural land and 12,172 acres of protected forests will be consumed by this proposed development.
The report goes on to highlight the very real possibility of groundwater depletion and quality issues due to construction. Furthermore, an increase in air pollution is likely due to construction activities, movement of heavy vehicles and use of other equipment.
The EIA has largely been considered inadequate by conservationists and civil society, citing outdated baseline data and social statistics used; omission of solid waste management and impacts on food production; and lack of monitoring mechanisms, environmental conservation and affordable housing options.
eyond the environmental impacts, serious concerns surround the acquisition of land for the project. The Punjab government invoked the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, to notify vast tracts for the Ravi Riverfront Urban Development Project (RRUDP) without EIA’s approval. Residents of the area and farmers complain that they were not allowed to record objections, and adequate compensation has not been offered for their land.
This disregard of human costs and failure to present a suitable relocation or compensation plan for loss of livelihood is a stark reminder of history repeating itself as similar complaints were made during land acquisition for the Orange Line Metro Train (OLMT) project.
The provincial government’s EPD as well as the RUDA must re-consult the stakeholders, engage farmers in the conversation and revise the environmental impact assessment in the light of new information and on the lines of the international best practices. Input from environmental experts is also essential before re-channellising the riverfront, to reduce the risk of future disasters, particularly riverine floods.
Finally, the rules and regulations of the RUDA must be prescribed so that arbitrary work can be replaced by systematic, sustainable measures that protect the lives and livelihoods of the local population.
The writer is a development sector professional with nearly a decade of experience in communications and reporting. He has supported the implementation of The World Bank’s Disaster and Climate Resilience Improvement Project (DCRIP) and ADB’s Flood Emergency Reconstruction and Resilience Project (FERRP) in Pakistan