The state of the country’s green spaces is arguably more precarious than ever before. According to analysis by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE), Pakistan has lost 20 per cent of its forest area over the past 24 years due to growing urbanization and the continuing reliance on wood as a source of energy. This leaves just 4.8 per cent of the country’s land area with forest cover as compared to a global average of 31.2 per cent and a regional average of 18.9 per cent. In South Asia, only Afghanistan has fewer trees per square kilometre than Pakistan, which has just five trees per person against the 900 trees per person needed for sustainable development. PIDE estimates that of the 27,000 hectares of forest cleared every year in the country, about half is for cooking and heating in households that lack access to gas. Urbanization and rapid population growth are cited as compounding the problem, leaving Pakistan more exposed to climate change and its consequences. This problem appears to be somewhat quixotic in nature, with Pakistan seemingly suffering from the downsides of increasing, and yet, too little development simultaneously.
Increasing urbanization tends to be reflective of economic growth, which Pakistan has had over the long run though not as much as most would like. However, our pattern of development has been highly uneven and top-heavy, with a minority capturing most of the economic gains while the majority remains poor and deprived. This is how one gets a country with expanding cities filled with people living in informal settlements without basic amenities like gas but also bigger and more malls, housing societies and other real-estate developments. The latter, unlike the former, are not necessarily problematic if managed well. Well-planned cities tend to grow vertically and everything people need is a maximum 15 minute walk, bike, train or bus ride away. Pakistan has the exact opposite, with a chaotic, polluted, poorly regulated urban sprawl and long, tedious commutes defining life in urban Pakistan. This is a disastrous trend for the environment, with the growth of urban areas swallowing up more and more green spaces, and prosperity as transportation becomes a financial burden, hitting the poor the hardest.
PIDE’s research also shows that 36 per cent of our forests, the highest percentage ratio in South Asia, are privately owned and that indigenous communities, most invested in the health and survival of forests, own the least among all categories of forest ownership. As such, those with the greatest stake in ensuring sustainable development and protecting the environment have the least power to do so. The same can be said of urban sprawl. Well-planned cities prioritize affordability and favour the poor. Yet despite regular elections, our urban and rural poor have little influence over urban policy or, for that matter, any other kind of policy. It is poetic justice that what is good for humanity, treating everyone equally, is also best for the planet and our continued survival on it. Thus, addressing our environmental and developmental concerns go hand-in-hand. Greater equity should thus be a top priority for any government concerned with the environment and vice-versa.