Mar 8, 2009

A call for greener Pakistan

In Pakistan, industrial development was undertaken in such a way that it did not keep pace with the future needs of the country

By Sheher Bano
A veteran bureaucrat with more than five decades of experience, Sindh Minister for Environment and Alternative Energy Askari Taqvi was born in Ajmer (Rajasthan) in 1931. He did his Master’s in Economics and his LLB from Sindh University. In 1954, he joined the Civil Services of Pakistan, and served different government ministries and departments on coveted posts.
Askari Taqvi joined the Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) in 1994. Currently, he is a member of the party’s Technocrat Group, as well as Executive Committee of Research and Advisory Council. He entered the real world of politics when he contested for a Sindh Assembly seat from Karachi in Feb 2008 elections and won with a huge margin.
Askari Taqvi knows his shortcomings and the limitations of his department. That is why he has no inhibitions in admitting: "When I joined the department, I did not know much about environment, but I am in the process of learning. It’s a challenge for me." His only brush with environmental issues came when he was serving as additional secretary in the Environment and Urban Affairs Division. The News on Sunday interviewed Askari Taqvi recently. Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday: What were the reasons behind declaring 2009 as the Year of Environment and what role has your department been playing in this regard?
Askari Taqvi: The basic purpose of declaring 2009 as the Year of Environment was to increase awareness about environmental issues – individually, collectively and officially. After declaring 2009 as the National Year of Environment, the federal Environment Ministry developed a comprehensive plan of activities for engaging all stakeholders to play a proactive role in environmental conservation and achieve sustainable development. The activities that started on Jan 1 will continue throughout the year. The ministry has designed activities to celebrate all international days related to environment. Other planned activities include lesson-sharing; research studies on hydrological, geophysical and socioeconomic topics; sessions on environment-related subjects; etc. The environment departments in all the four provinces have been asked to chalk out their own plans in accordance with the particular issues of their areas for complementing the federal activities. Unfortunately, the common people lack awareness regarding issues like poverty, environmental pollution, etc. As a result, no significant work has so far been done in the country in general and in the province of Sindh in particular. The provincial environment department can only monitor the situation, guide different departments, envisage plans and raise awareness. It has no authority to punish someone; it can only take the people who are polluting the environment to the tribunals as a last resort.
TNS: What environmental plans have you envisaged at the micro-level in Sindh?
AT: Our broad strategy is aimed at gearing up other departments to chalk out plans in such a manner that they enhance their performance in terms of improving the environment of Karachi. The environment has a significant impact on the health of people, but it remains underestimated. To this end, we are planning to change the curriculum of the pre-primary classes, so that children could understand the concept of environmental pollution from the onset and can later change their elders to create a healthy society. I have also suggested to the education minister that during 2009 and onwards a weekly informal session should be dedicated to environmental learning in schools. I myself go in different schools to plant a tree and have informal sessions with children on environmental issues.
TNS: What are the major environmental issues of Sindh, in particular of Karachi?
AT: In Karachi, environment pollution revolves around two basic problems – shortage of drinking water and poor sanitation. Water pollution, noise pollution, air pollution and absence of solid waste management have collectively contributed to poor environment in the city. In Karachi, all the animal waste from Cattle Colony (Bhains Colony) goes into the sea. As a result, the majority of marine animals, including fish, die and the ecosystem is disturbed. There is no systematic way of destroying this waste, except to use it for making cow dung cakes. Our department has, with the help of the private sector, set up a small bio-gas plant at Landhi on experimental basis. After its success, another big plant will soon be set up in the area by employing British technology and with the help of investment from New Zealand. Being tried in Pakistan for the first time, the plant will make use of the waste of 0.45 million buffaloes of Landhi, besides producing 25 megawatts of electricity and 15,000 tonnes of manure.
TNS: What are you doing to reduce industrial pollution, which has remained a farfetched dream for successive governments?
AT: In Pakistan, industrial development was undertaken in such a way that it did not keep pace with the future needs of the country. Similarly, no arrangement was made for the disposal of wastes coming from industries of Karachi and its adjoining areas, and getting mixed with the sewerage water. Proper laws regarding environment standards for industries are very much there. After taking charge of the provincial environment ministry, I have also conveyed these again to the relevant industries. I have also warned them that if they fail to meet these standards, we will prosecute them through the Environment Protection Agency. I have also suggested some cost-effective solutions to the provincial minister for Industries, who has promised to look into them. Currently, the Ministry of Industries is planning to set up a treatment plant and the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board (KWSB) has also appointed a consultant to prepare its feasibility study. In all, they plan to set up four treatment plants in Karachi. Similarly, we have talked to the district nazim of Hyderabad and have also sent a foreign consultant to advise the city’s administration on solid waste management and setting up of a biogas plant. The private sector has already set up two water treatment plants in Hyderabad. Now the polluted water from the city, which earlier used to enter the Phuleli canal, has reduced to a great extent. Since no such work has been executed so far in other cities of Sindh, the chief minster has ensured financial assistance if we make similar projects for other cities too. The donor agencies are also willing to provide funds for this purpose. We have conveyed this message to all relevant departments.
TNS: What plans do you have for reducing dependence on conventional energy sources and exploiting alternative sources?
AT: Pakistan has been facing a severe shortage of water and energy. Similarly, oil and gas are also diminishing quickly, but despite this all IPP projects are either oil- or gas-based, and contribute to air pollution and global warming. We want that the country reduces dependence on fossil fuels – such as petrol, diesel and gas – and harnesses alternate sources like wind energy, solar energy, sub-soil water energy or the tidal waves energy. There are two main hurdles in switching to these alternate sources: first, lack of technology; and second, the cost factor. In order to convert sea water into drinking water, we are planning to establish a plant for the whole coastal belt – through solar power and, if possible, wind power – that will not only produce energy but will also treat water. Similarly, sub-soil saline water can also be treated by using solar energy. We have already discussed the project with the World Bank, Alternative Energy Development Board, Sindh government and chief minister. However, due to the lack of expertise, we have still not been able to prepare a feasibility report for the project. We are trying to get technical assistance from Spain and other countries where such work has been done in the past. Within two to three months, an expert will be available after which further development will take place on the project. I have also asked the KWSB to start work on solar plants for reducing the burden on existing energy sources. All these initiatives will ultimately ensure availability of water, improve sanitary conditions and reduce poverty.
TNS: What are you doing to reduce vehicular emissions?
AT: This is a major issue, especially in Karachi and Hyderabad, but nothing has been done so far because of the involvement of some vested interests. The licenses of old, smoke-emitting, horn-blowing buses are renewed on annual basis. I have made a new plan and have also acquired equipment for its execution. Now the licences will be issued after proper check up of the buses, which hitherto was done purely on the basis of personal contacts. If implemented properly, we may expect some positive development in the near future. The government is also thinking about replacing the existing fleet of buses with CNG buses, but again some vested interests are opposing this idea tooth and nail. Similarly, rickshaw drivers were given the deadline of 2007 for converting from two-stroke to four-stroke engines, but they have extended it to 2010. Until the relevant departments do not enforce these orders strictly, nothing will happen. We are also receiving complaints about petrol adulteration and its smuggling from Iran. Action is also awaited in this connection. I would urge the media to take up these issues on a priority basis.

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