A thick blanket of smog is currently engulfing most of the Punjab province in Pakistan. This persistent smog has significantly reduced the visibility which is now badly affecting the road and air communication systems in the province. So far, dozens of people have died in a number of smog-related road accidents across the province. Moreover, this smog is also causing various respiratory and skin diseases among the people. In order to reduce the intensity of smog, a large number of oil-run power plants have been shut down in Punjab under the direction of federal government. Consequently, the duration of power outages has also instantly expanded in the country.

A few days ago, Punjab environment minister Zakia Shahnawaz readily blamed India for the current spell of dense smog in the province. She identified the growing incidents of stubble-burning by the farmers in India as primary reason for smog in Pakistan. This statement appears to be only a typical clever move by our politicos whereby they usually shift responsibility to somebody else for their own failings. However, it is a fact that the burning of crop stubble is a common practice by the farmers on both sides of the border. But unfortunately, the protection of environment is hardly a serious concern for the people on either side of the border.

Pakistan is world’s sixth most populous country. With 2.4% growth rate, Pakistan’s population has surged to 207 million. This rapid population growth has just given rise to a rapid but unregulated urbanisation and industrialisation in the country. Most of the manufacturing facilities and industrial units in the country simply don’t conform to the environmental quality standards. The disposal of municipal waste has become a pressing problem in the major cities. Similarly, dilapidated and smoke emitting vehicles are also polluting the air with impunity. Pakistan is also one of the largest energy-deficient counties in the world. Over a period of time, Pakistan has just switched to thermal power generation from the hydel one to cater to the energy needs of its large-sized population. Compared to the renewable energy sources, the environmental cost of thermal power generation is always high. Lastly but most importantly, the CPEC-related extensive transit and industrial activities inside Pakistan would also add to our environmental woes in the near future. Pakistan is currently facing a number of environmental challenges ranging from the polluted air and contaminated water to the climate change.

Pakistan is one of first signatories to the UN framework Convention on Climate Change, which is primarily aimed at “stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent the dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. The promulgation of Pakistan Environmental Protection Act in 1997 was the first significant step towards introducing environmental legislation in the country. Under this Act, Pakistan Environmental Protection Council, a premier environmental protection body was established. Chaired by the Prime Minister, this body was to supervise and coordinate the enforcement of this Act besides approving some comprehensive national environmental policies. Similarly, Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency, a watchdog body was established to perform some important functions under this Act; including the implementation of national environmental policies, assessment of environmental impact, preparation of National Environmental Quality Standards, and preparation and publication of annual National Environmental Report etc. Moreover, a number of Environmental Tribunals were also constituted across the country to try certain environmental offences under this Act.

Following the 18th Constitutional amendment passed in 2010, the subject of environment and ecology has been devolved to the provinces. Therefore, now provinces are primarily responsible for enacting and enforcing environmental protection regulations to protect and preserve environment. All the four provincial assemblies have enacted exhaustive environmental protection laws in their respective provinces in line with the federal environmental legislation. However, there is no proactive and efficient environmental protection body in any provinces to effectively enforce these laws. Similarly, there also hardly exists the required political will and resolution to protect environment and preserve ecology in the country. The recent apathetic attitude of provincial environment minister towards the state of environment in Punjab simply shows that our politicos are simply least bothered about the environmental hazards.

At present, we are keenly looking forward to the CPEC project, and its accompanying investment in the country. However, at the same time, we are quite disinterested in precisely assessing the adverse environmental impact of this game-changing opportunity. The primary purpose of this project is to facilitate ‘the world’s largest economy’ in its international trade by offering it a convenient and competitive transit route on Pakistan’s soil. Therefore, there will be thousands of heavy trucks, carrying Chinese finished goods and raw materials, moving between the Gwadar Port and Khunjerab Pass round the clock. There will certainly be an environmental cost for these extensive transportation activities. Similarly, CPEC-related energy projects and proposed Special Economic Zones (SEZ) will also exert pressure on the country’s environment in some way. Moreover, the CPEC is also likely to disturb the ecological balance in the country, especially in the Northern Areas. Therefore, Pakistan should not let this economic game-changing activity turn into an environmental mess.

Indeed, at this stage, Pakistan can by no means afford to abandon, or otherwise make any compromise on the CPEC project. However, it can certainly take some necessary measures to mitigate the adverse environmental impact of this project. Unfortunately, while there are numerous plans to extensively exploit this project in multiple ways, there hardly exits any significant plan in the entire CPEC package to stabilize or improve the state of the country’s environment. Certainly, Pakistan direly needs to chalk out an effective plan to minimize the CPEC-specific environmental hazards. It should focus on improving its railway infrastructure to support and supplement CPEC since, compared to road transportation, a rail transit is much cheaper and more environmental-friendly. Similarly, an extensive afforestation plan will also help preserve environment and ecological balance in the country. The ‘Billion Tree Tsunami’ afforestation plan launched by KP government in the province is really amazing and commendable. Now the other provincial governments should also seriously try to replicate this pragmatic plan in their respective provinces.

The institutional capacity of the provincial environmental protection agencies is observably impaired to overcome the underlying environmental challenges in the country. The provincial governments should mobilize all the potential provincial resources to support environmental protection bodies. The district administration can also act to improve the state of environment in a district. The colonial-era legislation in British India prescribed a number of administrative measures to tackle certain environmental issues in the name of removing the ‘public nuisance’ in a district. Section 133 of the Code of Criminal Procedure empowers the district administration to make conditional orders to stop any activity which is “injurious to health and physical comfort of the community”. Similarly, under Section 144 of the Code, the district administration can also impose immediate restrictions on such actions which are likely to “endanger the human life, health and safety”. Therefore, besides the environmental protection bodies, the provincial governments can also mobilize the district administrations to protect environment by putting an end to certain undesirable activities, including the practice of stubble-burning by the farmers.

Pakistan certainly needs to evolve an effective environmental protection regime to overcome its underlying environmental woes. All the relevant state institutions should support and help environmental protection agencies in achieving their important environmental goals. Similarly, Pakistan also needs to carefully prepare a comprehensive environmental protection plan. This plan should be an integral part of all future development strategies in Pakistan. Similarly, this plan should also be duly incorporated in the country’s energy, industrial, trade and transportation policies. It is high time for us to precisely evaluate the nature and gravity of the environmental challenges in Pakistan. Otherwise, these environmental hazards would not only adversely affect the lives and health of Pakistanis but also jeopardize the important sustainable development goals (SDG’s) in the country.