Striving to elevating Environment on the Election Agenda

ISLAMABAD (SPECIAL REPORT)

The National Impact Assessment Programme under the auspicious of IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the Government of Pakistan organized first of its kind roundtable dialogue titled: “Highlighting Environment on Election Agenda in Pakistan”  at a local hotel in Islamabad.

The National Impact Assessment Programme (NIAP) being jointly implemented by the Government of Pakistan and IUCN aims to contribute to sustainable development in Pakistan by strengthening Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and introducing Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) in Pakistan’s development planning processes. NIAP has four partners namely: the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (PEPA); Environment Wing, Ministry of Environment; Environment Section, Planning Commission and IUCN Pakistan. Technical assistance to the programme is being provided by the Netherlands Commission for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) while the project is being funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands (EKN).

The dialogue ensured an invigorating debate which witnessed strong participation of the environmental experts, political representatives and the media. Hosted by a renowned television anchor Mr. Talat Hussain, it was aimed at including environment as a priority subject on the election agenda and mainstream political process. Representatives of three major political parties, Malik Amin Aslam from Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf, Waqas Khan from Jammat-e-Islami and Syed Zafar Ali Shah from PML(N) were present at the occasion. Representatives from media included Faisal Rahman from PTV, Javed Iqbal from Dunya TV and Shabina Faraz, a freelance environmental journalist. The panel also included renowned experts from the environment sector including: Mr. Azharuddin Khan a prominent industrial environmentalist and CEO, National Engineering Consultant Company, Mr. Mahmood Akhtar Cheema, Country Representative, IUCN Pakistan, Dr. Shahid Ahmad head of IUCN Pakistan Water Programme, Dr. Parvaiz Naim an expert on Urban issues and Environment and Dr. Aashiq Ahmed Khan, visiting Professor at China Academy of Sciences, Urumgi, China.

The proceedings started with Mr. Mahmood Akhtar Cheema introducing IUCN and providing a glimpse into its long history of environmental conservation in Pakistan, spanning over 3 decades. He stressed on the need and importance of highlighting environment on the political agenda. He said that the idea behind this dialogue on environment is to bring together experts from the fields of environment and politics to understand the need for mainstreaming environment. The dialogue was followed by an interactive discussion session during which the participants highlighted some critical environmental issues that need immediate attention.

Mr. Ahmad Saeed, Project Manager NIAP, brought forth four environmental issues that needed utmost attention i.e. Climate Change, Biodiversity Loss, Clean Air & Clean Water and Environmental Governance. During his presentation, he shared some alarming facts, like Pakistan’s acute vulnerability in the wake of climate change. He mentioned that according to the Global Climate Risk Index, Pakistan is the 8th most vulnerable country coupled with the fact that it is rapidly losing its natural resources. He said that according to a WWF report, our forest cover has depleted by 2.1 percent, which is the highest deforestation rate in Asia. Along the coasts of Sindh and Balochistan, mangroves forest cover – a reason for healthy fisheries, has now fallen by 1.5 million hectares.  All in all, Pakistan ends up losing 365 billion (6% of GDP) annually because of environmental degradation. He termed weak Environmental Governance as a key to all problems, especially since Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is not being implemented properly in the planning and development of projects. Also, there is no use of Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) in policy and planning formulation.

Mr. Malik Amin Aslam from PTI talked about how the policies exist, but there is a lack of political ownership to implement them. Unless, the people of Pakistan consider environmental degradation as its own loss, things will not improve. According to him environmental right should be the basic human right in the constitution i.e. the right to clean air and clean water. He said that Pakistan is bestowed to be one of the very few countries that have 10 ecological zones, what we really need is awareness and environmental education that should be part of curriculum from primary school level up to the college level. He talked about the recent development in England where 1 million jobs have been via green economy. He said that unless economic evaluation of environmental degradation is not done, the country would not realize what it is losing out on.

Syed Zafar Ali Shah from PML(N) talked about why environment hasn’t taken as much importance on the national level as it should have had. It should have been discussed in the parliament, but unfortunately we tend to ignore such issues.

Mr. Waqas Ahmad from Jammat –e-Islami cited the example of Madina as a welfare city since the time of Prophet (PBUH) and talked about how biodiversity and animal rights were considered equally important along with other social reforms.

Dr. Parvaiz Naim, stressed time and again that environment should be integrated into all planning and development and we shouldn’t find solutions to mitigate environmental issues afterwards. He said that if one keeps on talking about environment as a separate subject, it will never materialize into anything substantial, hence there is a need to understand environment as a cross cutting theme.

Dr. Shahid Ahmad talked about how natural resources are becoming more and more extinct in Pakistan. He cited the example of the beautiful hill station of Murree where people had access to fresh spring water in the 60s but how the same water is not drinkable any more. The need of the day is environmental activism on behalf of the Government, on behalf of the civil society as well as the environmental organizations, which can play their part in organizing consistent civil society dialogues.

Dr. Aashiq Ahmed,also lamented about the rapid loss of natural resources. He mentioned illegal hunting in the national parks of Pakistan as an example. He suggested that since most of our natural resources are in the areas governed by the military and paramilitary forces, and they can be entrusted for its protection.

Javed Iqbal  from Dunya TV talked about how environment used to be an agenda item on state television several years ago, as well as in the academia but that’s no longer the case. He talked about how the work is often overlooked on a micro level which is equally important along with policy reforms. Faisal Rahman from PTV, also talked about handling things on a small level and stressed on the power of an individual.

Mr. Mahmood Akhtar Cheema stated that in the current scenario the question of environment can no longer stay on the sidelines, instead it has become an issue of survival for Pakistan.

Summing up the session Syed Talat Hussain instilled a sense of hope amongst the participants by talking about how the hall slowly but steadily filled up and people chose to stay till the end, which is a great metaphor for environmental activism. He added that developing environmental language is also the need of the hour. It is important to make it easy for the people to understand the environmental issues, to be able to influence our target audience. He added that the power of media, especially social media, to mobilizing larger organizations should be tapped into. He also stressed on the need for civil society activism in this regard.

 

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