Under an old low hanging tree, Abdul adjusts his wet handkerchief on his head and seeks some relief in the sweltering heat of the summer. Up until a few years ago, this tree shade used to be enough to shelter Abdul and some passers-by in summer afternoons. Not anymore.
Abdul is a guard at a quaint neighbourhood in Gulshan-e-Iqbal, Karachi. Intriguingly, despite being caught in the hustle and bustle of the city, this neighbourhood once enjoyed the peace and serenity which is rare to find in an urban centre. Just adjacent to this neighbourhood was a land full of Acacia trees and shrubs.The dense bushes kept the air clean and filtered the harsh rays of sunlight in the mornings, making the area cooler. It also housed an ecosystem of small animals and birds which contributed to the scenic view and provided an escape from the city’s noise and pollution. The neighbourhood has now grown immensely with more houses and two new apartment buildings. And, two years ago, the land of Acacia was wiped clean to establish an infrastructure. With this huge chunk of greenery out of the picture, residents now face the full brunt of the summer heat, dust storms, rain and the lack of a beautiful biodiversity that once existed. The different species of birds and little creatures that found refuge in those trees are rarely seen, and the place looks barren and sad.
This neighbourhood is just one of the many ecosystems that are slowly diminishing from our surroundings, especially in urban areas, and it is starting to impact us drastically. Metropolitans are now being termed as urban heat islands, the air quality is becoming unhealthier by the day, rainfalls are causing devastation and our natural resources are depleting.
Apart from the urban areas, many of our expansive ecosystems are affected due to the human interventions happening since decades. From burning of fossils fuels, harmful emissions from industries and waste dumping into the seas and oceans to deforestations, wildfires in rainforests and mass urbanisation, we are witnessing disastrous effects of climate change.
In Pakistan, we have faced catastrophic floods, droughts, and cyclones in recent years that have killed and displaced thousands, destroyed livelihoods, and damaged infrastructure. Furthermore, Himalayan glaciers melting are causing severe water stress and reduced hydropower; there is food insecurity due to decreasing agricultural and livestock production; more prevalent pests and weeds; degradation of ecosystems; biodiversity loss; and northward shifting of some biomes. Also, higher temperatures may affect the composition, distribution and productivity of mangroves, while lower precipitation could contribute to salt stress. Unfortunately, the prospect that these and other natural hazards will increase in frequency and severity in the coming decades is a stark reminder that Pakistan is one of thefew countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
World Environment Day (WED) takes place every year on 5th June. It is the United Nations’ flagship day for promoting worldwide awareness and action for the environment. Over the years, it has grown to be the largest global platform for environmental public outreach and is celebrated by millions of people across the world. With Pakistan as a host, this year’s observance of WEDwas on the theme of ‘ecosystem restoration’ and focus on resetting our relation with nature. It also marked the formal launch of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration 2021 – 2030.
Pakistan & its efforts to curb climate crisis
In recent years, the federal government has announced certain plans that aim to curb the climate crisis in the country. Starting from one of the world’s most ambitious afforestation efforts with the ‘10 Billion Tree Tsunami’ campaign spread over 5 years. The campaign also includes restoring mangroves and forests, as well as planting trees in urban settings, including schools, colleges, public parks and green belts. Moreover, there is an Eco-System Restoration Fund to support initiatives like afforestation, biodiversity conservation, marine conservation, promotion of ecotourism and electric vehicles. And, last year, federal government launched the ‘Protected Area Initiative’ which aims to increase protected areas such as national parks, wetlands and wildlife reserves to 15 per cent of the country’s total area by 2023. In the last two years, protected area coverage has already increased to 13.9 per cent and further progress looks assured.
While these plans sound promising, experts fear that they can be easily undermined by corruption and lax implementation. In an interview, activist Afia Salam weighs in that despite resource constraint, it is aspirational for what Pakistan has done. She added there are many conflicting interests within the ruling party itself that it may all go in vain.
Environmentalists are also pointing towards other ambitious policies the government announced since it took power, such as the ban on plastic bags, which has gone widely ignored.
In the same vein, Environmentalist Tofiq pasha expresses, “Let’s consider trees as umbrellas. You have an umbrella over your head but there is a burning fire at your feet. What will be the point of that umbrella? We need a radical decrease in our fossil fuel burning and everything else we’re doing which is destructive to our surrounding. The trees can only do so much. Many countries have reduced their fossil fuel consumption drastically and the only thing that we have done is planted trees.
According to Pasha, when it comes to afforestation, one has to be mindful of what sapling is being planted where. There should be proper guidelines and check and balance by the experts to make sure that we’re not making it worse rather than better. Species must be selected very carefully. “When it comes to planting trees, it’s a good constructive thing, but it isn’t everything. It will take years before the saplings turn into trees; I see so many people going out for plantations on a day when it’s 40 degrees outside… this is not the time to plant a tree. It may not survive but will be heat stressed damaged. Random plantation without proper distances between trees is counterproductive, waste of money, time, effort and final results. The idea is to create as much foliage, wood and shade as possible. Moreover, we need to understand there are specific needs for a specific area. People at Faisal Cantonment were planting Terminalia trees on the roads which have spreading lower branches (a conical shape), not suitable for roads at all. There were also date trees brought in from Sukkur and Khairpur to Karachi; out of a thousand, hardly a hundred are still alive,” laments Pasha. “Although, I feel that in a few years’ time Karachi will be much greener and the biodiversity will come back. There are plantations being done by KMC, CBC, DHA, K-E, Karachi University and citizen groups; apart from the efforts of the federal and provincial governments. In the last 5-10 years, we went towards monoculture but we are recovering from that. Even indigenous plants and trees that had disappeared have made a comeback. The mangrove in the delta has been getting attention and there are positive results. Massive increase in acreage can be seen,” he shares.
On another note, alongside tree planting, the government announced a new electric vehicle policy last year in summer and plans to get two-thirds of its electricity from wind, solar and hydropower by 2030. According to Activist and Environmental lawyer, Rafay Alam, one has to be careful of the rhetoric that politicians might make to benefit their own cause. It is very important to understand what they are saying and what they are doing. “There is a Climate Action Council that was set up in 2019, which I’m also a part of, includes the Prime Minister, all the Chief Ministers and experts. It is supposed to sit at least twice a year for meetings and whatever steps that are taken with regard to the environment has to go through it. Unfortunately, the federal government has been launching these campaigns without any counsel and to this date, there haven’t been any meetings held,” informs Rafay.
“Right now, the power is in the hands of the State. The conditions are going to get worse and the cities are going to become unliveable. For the State, I’d recommend easing off the political rhetoric and focus on how you’re doing things. Apart from tree plantation, there are more issues like water crisis, energy crisis which are going to get worse,” he emphasises.
Playing our part
Functioning urban ecosystems help clean our air and water, cool urban heat islands, shield us from hazards and provide opportunities for rest and play. They can also host a surprising amount of biodiversity. Ecosystem restoration means assisting in the recovery of ecosystems that have been degraded or destroyed, as well as conserving the ones that are still intact. Seeing as we are the last generation to make a change to save the planet, here are some things that we can do:
Advocate for greener, more insect- and bird-friendly spaces in your city: Find and support initiatives to restore waterways and wetlands, plant indigenous trees, and create urban woodland and other wildlife habitats along roads and railways and in public spaces.
Rethink lawn culture: Rewild your gardens, terraces and balconies. Reduce the frequency of mowing your lawns, schools or business premises, plant indigenous saplings. Put out a home-made bird feeder with seeds in your outdoor space to invite feathered friends and insects.
Grow your own food: Agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation around the world. Many of these lands are exhausting their vitality, from over grazing, intensive ploughing and degrading soil and vegetation. You can help by growing some of your own food at home in a planter or veggie garden.
Switch to a seasonal, regional, plant-rich diet: Helps you pack in higher nutrition while also supporting local farms that nurture vegetation with better environmental practices.
Grow a tree: Add trees to a garden, a public space, a farm, across a landscape or even a whole country. But, most importantly, make sure it’s the right tree at the right time, grown in the right way. Find out which trees are native to your environment and carry the most benefits; and then spread the word.
Join a beach clean-up: Freshwater and seawater ecosystems face pollution from chemicals, plastics and sewage as well as overfishing and overextraction of water. They are affected by real estate development and mining with about one in three freshwater species threatened with extinction. Mobilise all ages to gather the masses of waste and abandoned stuff that wash up on our beaches and shores.
Reduce your plastic consumption by switching to alternatives for single-use plastic: Recycle plastics and other materials to keep them out of landfill. Stop using unnecessary plastic products. Ask yourself if there is a sustainable alternative available and then make the effort.
Be a part of support groups caring for local ecosystems: Begin withneighbourhood and community organisations concerned with local ecosystems like forests and grasslands, working together to promote sound management and conservation practices.
Keep educating and raising awareness: Last but not least, it’s important that we keep advocating to bring a substantial change curbing the environmental crisis. Support your local organisations truly working for the cause and call out people in power to step up.