The environment has never been high on the list of government priorities in Pakistan, at either a federal or provincial level. Successive governments have either had more immediate problems
However, with Pakistan’s international ‘image’ a prime concern for the present political leadership, it is possible that a recent report by the World Health Organisation (WHO) that lists three Pakistani cities — Lahore, Peshawar, and Quetta — among the top 10 most polluted cities in the world may spark some government interest in the environment and sustainability. The report used measurements of particulate matter in the atmosphere; the sources of particles include dust from construction and building materials, burning wood, coal or animal dung, industrial emissions, and most importantly burning fossil fuels for power generation and transport.
The Pakistani cities combine these factors, though the lion’s share is attributable to industrial emissions and petrol and diesel fumes churned out by inefficient car and truck engines. Anyone driving in Lahore knows what it is like to get a mouthful of diesel when one of these smoke-machines drives by. There are no emissions ratings or other safeguards.
The environment, however, is not a single-policy problem. Environmental changes through human activity can substantially alter the quality of life in societies, which is why aware governments go to great lengths to preserve natural ecosystems and habitats. The necessity for sustainable sources of energy production is increasingly clear, with governments investing heavily in solar, wind, or other forms of environmentally sustainable energy generation. Pakistan’s pervasive requirement for power won’t allow such solutions in the short term as the government plans more coal-fired power plants. However, more research must be funded and projects developed to shift the burden of power generation away from fossil fuels.
Habitat and forest preservation are another key aspect of environmental policy, which have been left hostage to various timber and poaching ‘mafias’. Pakistan has about 4.2 million hectares covered by forests, which is equivalent to 4.8 percent of the total land area, down from around 14 percent in 1947. Compare this to Japan, which, despite having a higher population density, still has 70 percent forest cover because of far sighted environmental policies. Forest, marsh, and river communities are among the poorest segments of society, being heavily dependent on the environment for their livelihoods. Forest degradation affects rural livelihoods, especially for those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale.
Sustainable energy development, preservation of natural habitats and forests, curbing timber and land mafias, and emission controls and penalties for industry and vehicles must be prioritized in order for Pakistan to remain an environmentally sustainable state. The efforts of many countries show that development and environmental preservation aren't mutually exclusive; in fact they are deeply intertwined.