The Pepsi can - Ardeshir Cowasjee - December 12, 2010

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AMIDST the madness and mayhem which is Pakistan and its state of governance, about which we all knew but now thanks to Julian Assange have confirmation and reinforcement, we must wonder how much the environment in which we subsist has contributed to the addled brains and behaviour.

Two professors from the Nadirshaw Eduljee Dinshaw University of Engineering and Technology (NED) came calling the other day and whilst discussing the environment Dr Asif Shaikh, chairman of the department of environmental engineering, told a telling tale.When he returned to Pakistan in 1997 he invited two of his professors from Nagasaki University in Japan to visit the `land of the pure`. The two oriental academics arrived in great trepidation as to what they might experience, but reportedly had a good time and were grateful to be introduced to a different face of Pakistan.

One of them had a favour to ask: could Dr Shaikh give him `permission` to throw away an empty Pepsi can on the public road as he could find no trash bin? This would have been unthinkable in Japan, but he noticed it was a common occurrence in Pakistan — he merely wanted to experience the bizarre sensation!

He requested the wrong man. Had he approached one of the many hundreds in our city who fling paper-wrappers and empty boxes out of vehicles, or the thousands who spit out streams of paan all over the place, or the numerous industrialists who spew poisonous effluents into public sewers and filthy emissions into the atmosphere, he could merrily have chucked his empty can onto the road.

But Dr Shaikh, unlike too many of his countrymen, subscribes to the edict “safai nisf iman hai ” (cleanliness is half of faith), and refused `permission`.

Dr Shaikh, and his assistant professor, Ahsan Siddique, had come to see me about the NED`s plan to get regularly involved in Sindh EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) public hearings on issues of critical ecological import to the province.They brought along a statement which analysed the environmental downsides of the 220MW electricity barge anchored in Korangi Creek, and pooh-poohed the contents of the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) report submitted and the NOC granted: “In our opinion, the EIA should contain a more realistic and detailed technical analysis, in advance, for addressing the environmental impacts.”

Colleges and universities in Pakistan with departments/institutes of environmental science or engineering, have much to offer in terms of research on ecological tribulations being faced by citizens and critical analysis of the mitigation measures proposed by polluting industrial, commercial, municipal and utility projects. Their findings will carry weight with government authorities and will help reduce the $1m per day environmental damage the World Bank determines Pakistan is experiencing.

The 12-day Cancun climate summit ended Friday. It has been a series of inconclusive alignments and realignments among shifting groupings of advanced countries (which have caused most of the problem over the past 200 years), rapidly industrialising countries (which are now increasing their contribution to the mess) and poorer countries (read Pakistan) which will bear the brunt of the consequences.No sensible consensus has been reached on the methodology to contain global warming to 2°C by limiting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 450 parts per million (presently around 390ppm, increasing by 2 to 3ppm every year). So the rich countries will continue developing/polluting and the less well-off will try to catch up, to the eventual detriment of mankind.

The New York Times reported mid-week: “Last year`s climate summit in Copenhagen was a political disaster. WikiLeaked US diplomatic cables now show why the summit failed so spectacularly. The dispatches reveal that the US and China, the world`s top two polluters, joined forces to stymie every attempt by European nations to reach agreement.”

In December 2009, the two greatest polluters colluded to dilute the very specific draft Copenhagen Agreement to a vague, impotent Copenhagen Accord, which developing nations were bribed to accept.

Our team at Cancun put up a dog-and-pony show, `World`s most devastating floods: Pakistan`s extreme climate event`.

A former environment minister, Malik Amin Aslam, stated that “We are fighting two wars in Pakistan: the war against terrorism and the war against climate change.” Does he not realise that these two wars are essentially the same war?

Has he not read National Security & the Threat of Climate Change , the study prepared in 2007 by a blue-ribbon panel of 11 retired US three- and four-star admirals and generals (not tree-hugging environmentalists), in which they warned the Bush administration that projected climate change poses a serious threat to America`s national security, acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world (read Pakistan), and would add to tensions even in stable regions?

Despite the $10bn havoc caused by the 25-day flood this summer (the after-effects of which will linger for many years), Pakistan has not straightened out its act on the environmental front. The government deliberately keeps the federal and provincial EPAs under-funded, under-staffed, incompetent and corrupt. Implementation of environmental laws is virtually non-existent.

EIAs are meaningless paper exercises meant to `fill the stomach of the file`, and actions against industrial and municipal polluters are subject to political influence.

When will we realise that the environment is a most critical issue for Pakistan, the ultimate cause of our escalating problems? Non-sustainable development decimates the environment, the burden of which falls on the poor, widening the gap between the haves and have-nots, who turn to terrorism and crime in economic frustration. Our present tribulations are a consequence or a symptom of our deteriorating environment.

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