Weapons of mass destruction bring to mind wars, lost lives, huge economic costs and devastating impact on human lives. Degradation of environment is exactly that where humans have waged a war against the eco system destroying the natural habitat of forests, water bodies, wild life that eventually result in pollution, earthquakes and floods causing more loss of lives than many wars. The question is if it is more devastating than wars why is nobody bothered about these deadly dangers? The answer is that these dangers are not immediately visible and directly attributable like a gunshot or bomb blast. The comparison of immediate strangulation and dying due to oxygen not being able to get into your body with slow poisoning that over a period of time pervades your system taking you to a slow but sure death, explains why we do not respond to environmental challenges on immediate basis.

Germanwatch, a German think-tank advocating for the prevention of dangerous climate change, has just launched its latest Global Climate Risk Index 2018 report. The long term impact of environment overlook is huge as if this path continues Pakistan will become more and more vulnerable to “natural disasters caused by unnatural interference with nature”. According to the report Pakistan is ranked 7th, with a death toll of 523.1 lives per year i.e. 10,462 lives lost in 20 years and economic losses worth US $ 3.8 billion — equivalent to 0.605 per cent of the GDP in the 20 year period. During this time, Pakistan suffered from 141 extreme natural disasters like cyclones, storms, floods, Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) and heatwaves, etc. The economic cost is huge. US $ 3.8 billion saved would make Pakistan independent of loans from IMF and World Bank. $ 3.8 billion would put 2.5 million children in schools, develop top class health facilities in most cities, and provide housing to the poor and so many other development areas which have suffered badly because of a lack of budget and a dependence on loans.

The smog in Lahore is the result of persistent disregard of all environmental alarms, dangers, warnings that have been constantly explained to successive governments. The city of gardens has turned into city of smog which has reached unprecedented levels of pollution. The air quality tests show that the dangerous particulates known as PM2.5, small enough to penetrate deep into the lungs and enter the bloodstream, have reached 1,077 micrograms per cubic meter — more than 30 times the safe and healthy limit. The smog is impregnated with germs that have caused chest issues, eye infections and skin breakouts. It is like a cloud of toxic carbon-dioxide suspended in the air as the greenery that was supposed to absorb it and release oxygen has become so thin and inadequate that there is no place for this toxic gas balloon to be dumped and dissolved unless nature blesses us with some rain to do so.

The Punjab government claims to have taken measures of punishing crop burners, fining car drivers with high emission level etc but these are just reactive stop gap measures. What needs to change is the mindset of the government about treating environment as a top priority and quality of life policy matter. That has to be followed by budget allocations and strict monitoring to ensure that implementation is taking place. In this respect the Federal government has announced a Green Pakistan Program, a late but welcome initiative which plans to plant 100 million trees. How successful it is remains to be seen. However the program that has made international headlines and recognition is the Billion Tree Tsunami project by KP government.

When Billion Tree Tsunami was launched four years ago it was considered an over ambitious project. However its completion has proven how much potential there is if the right political will and execution skills are present. This project has challenged mindsets, traditions, capacities and records. There are many firsts about this project. Target of 1 billion trees was achieved before time and has now exceeded the plan (presently 1 billion and 16 crores). As per World Wild Life assessment report over the plantation has an 85% survival rate against the norm of 50% with over 2500 plants/ha being naturally regenerated. Political will was key. KP was a victim of timber mafia. Timber mafia in KP had crushed over 80 thousand kanals of forest land which was recovered by a very persistent effort by the government including dismissing two ministers who were supporting land mafia. Influential people were running hundreds of factories based timber cutting and selling. Almost 500 factories were shut down to save tree felling and treating. Most projects do not carry credibility as they are part of political claims that are not independently authenticated. This is the first project that took up the forest target under “Bonn Challenge” and was the first entity amongst 45 countries to achieve its target as certified by IUCN.

Another unique thing about this achievement was that government projects are usually not just delayed but have cost overruns by a huge percentage. This project is an exception. The project was in 2017 instead of 2018 and the budget for the project was Rs 22 billion while it was completed in Rs 14 billion which is a saving of 37%. This is the largest Eco Investment ever made in Pakistan and it has already given a return in terms of generating green jobs especially in youth and women. 13000 nurseries were established to grow plants to be sold for this drive and 500000 jobs were created with almost 10% to women at home. This project was especially recognized by IUCN and was commended at the Paris Climate Summit.

The numbers are important and so are milestones. However, the major achievement of this project is far beyond numbers. This project has brought a behaviour change in communities and public in considering trees as an asset and environment as their responsibility; it has also pressurized federal government to follow suit and replicate this model in the capital and other provinces; it has influenced politicians to consider environment as an electoral issue; it is imperative for the future of this country to create this awareness at all levels that the cost of destruction to the environment is a cost to their very existence. As they say “If you think environment is less important than economy try holding your breath while you count your money”.