An emerging crisis

Rampant real estate development poses an imminent threat to the environment

The for-profit real estate business in Pakistan is aggravating the environmental crisis in the country. Sadly, the prime minister has put his government at the service of the realtors who are fast converting croplands into plots, metalled roads and concrete. The environment protection is unable to find supporters in high places.

Videos showing bulldozing of human habitats, felling of mango trees, levelling of land and eviction drives are circulating widely on YouTube. There is no response from the government. It has failed even to exercise due diligence in approving real estate development. The state apparatus is acting with brutal disregard for nature.

I have walked around many emerging real estate schemes in Lahore, Karachi, Multan, Islamabad, and Faisalabad over the last two years and noticed that the environment is in jeopardy. The scale of real estate development is so large that it can cause whole forests to disappear and leave a wilderness behind. Real estate development at the extravagant scale thrives with active state support, explicit as well as implicit. The developers have successfully created a lust for low-density, big-home neighbourhoods spread out horizontally.

The rise of the real estate industry in Pakistan is contributing to the rise of land surface temperature (LST) mainly through a loss of vegetation.

A 2020 study by Muhammad Sajjad Saleem et al reports an LST increase of 2 °C in Lahore, 2.2 °C in Faisalabad and 2.4 °C in Multan over the last two decades. A rise in LST is linked to heat waves and urban heat islands. On average, seven heat waves are being reported in Pakistan every year, killing hundreds of people and requiring thousands to be hospitalised. The high humidity makes it worse during summers. Heat waves are the leading cause of weather-related deaths worldwide.

What if, as recent climate predictions tell us, the duration of summer doubles by 2040? How will this impacts the Pakistani cities? The impact can be mitigated by increasing vegetation cover.

Data projections show that in a few years the demand for electricity to deal with weather will significantly rise in Pakistan. The required power may not be available given the current state of electricity production. It is prudent for Pakistan to prefer nature-based solutions and restrict the ‘plotification’ of suburban land.

Another problem the reckless real estate is causing is the loss of cropland. Fruits and vegetables are now transported to Pakistani cities from greater distances. This involves huge financial and environmental costs. Major Pakistani cities are becoming dependent on food produced elsewhere. This is likely to contribute to the rising food insecurity in the country. Urban planner Arif Hasan once told me that Karachi used to get 70 percent of its fruits and vegetables from the villages around it. It is now getting less than 10 percent from the source.

Lahore and Islamabad, too, are dependent on food brought from other districts. The real estate developers, acting in connivance with the urban planners, have pushed agriculture so far away that it will take decades to bring it back close to major population centres. Some of the city dwellers even feel offended by the suggestion to allow production of food near their homes. It threatens their sense of the environment. They have developed a taste for exotic alien and ornamental plants that do not provide food or shade. Children born and raised in these neighbourhoods could be both environment and food illiterate. They are likely to know little about agricultural and horticultural species. The real estate developers and horticulture agencies have promoted the notion of a decent home and a decent neighbourhood that relies on alien horticulture.

The loss of biodiversity is no less significant. As the developers plotify land, they tend to level everything. Whole communities of micro-organisms and insects are killed and birds and animals forced to migrate. This is a recipe for ecocide. We still know little about the effects of the destruction of the habitats of insects, animals and birds on the overall urban environment. The studies conducted in the US and Europe have shown that the results of destroying these habitats become visible over a long periods. They might include new infections, diseases, and poor air and water quality. Restoring biodiversity lost to real estate development may prove very difficult.

The car-based neighbourhoods, which real estate developers are building in Pakistan, are causing tremendous harms to the environment. Whole cities have been developed without a consideration for environment-friendly transport. The number of car trips is increasing across our major cities, especially in the suburbs created by new real estate developers. Their carbon footprint is huge and lethal. The energy use in homes for lighting, washing, cooling and heating add to this footprint. Both low-density housing and the construction industry behind it have proved highly wasteful.

Maria Saxton showed in her 2019 PhD research completed at Virginia Tech that the spatial footprint of big homes extends to vast swathes of productive agricultural land. To restore nature and thrive in it, she suggests rethinking ownership of big homes. Of course, the greed of the real estate developers is a major driving force behind chasing environmentally destructive big homes. Since 40 percent of the global energy is used in buildings, Pakistan needs to rethink horizontal, low-density housing.

On a climate change vulnerability index, Pakistan ranks fifth. Once the economic, social, and cultural vulnerabilities are added to this, the country’s future seems bleak. If the rise of the real estate utopia, declared the most cherished of industries for economic growth by Imran Khan, continues unquestioned, our major cities might turn into nature-less dystopia.

The writer is a scholactivist with Forman Christian College University and Punjab Urban Resource Centre in Lahore

An emerging crisis