Shahzada Irfan Ahmed
Historically, the uncontrolled growth of cities, lack of proper urban planning, non-implementation of building bylaws and a general disregard for green development rules have resulted in environmental disasters in our country. Mired in atmospheric pollution and devoid of the indispensable green cover, these cities are fast becoming unlivable for people.
People have no option but to breathe polluted air and bear extremely high temperatures, caused mainly by the urban heat island effect. Heat island can be described as built up areas that are hotter than their surrounding areas due to increased human activity, especially modification of land surfaces. This difference in temperature is larger at night than during the day-time and can be unbearable when there are no winds. When trees are cut, green areas encroached upon and construction carried out without concern for environmental hazards, this phenomenon is bound to set in. Over the last many years, the green areas of our cities have been eaten up by infrastructural development giving them the shape of a concrete jungle. The case of Punjab province can be discussed here as the last decade has seen a lot of development carried out here by both the government and the private sector.
While cutting of trees is condemned widely, it is unfortunate there has been no comprehensive urban forest policy in the province that can define and enforce rules about developing green areas, planting trees and penalising those violating these rules. Different entities look after functions like forestation and plantation but in isolation from each other. Therefore, there is an urgent need to come up with an Urban Forest Act for Punjab Province and legally bind all the stakeholders to strive for this collective goal. This will also be in line with the recommendation of the province’s smog valley.
The draft of the Punjab Urban and Peri Urban Forest Policy 2019 has been prepared by The Urban Unit (TUU) Punjab and awaits approval by the provincial cabinet. The policy draft also includes input coming from different government departments including Forest Department, civil society organisations and citizens’ groups. It is hoped once this policy comes into force, the cities that have lost their green cover will get much of it back and saved from further onslaught.
However, there are a couple of questions that come to one’s mind. For example, what exactly led the government to take this long-awaited step? Was it a policy move from within or there were external factors involved? How workable can be such plans in the presence of strong mafias and shortage of funds at the disposal of the government to carry out massive plantation drives? What happened was that Justice Jawad Hassan of Lahore High Court (LHC), while hearing a petition, asked the government of Punjab to submit a policy on the issue of growing trees. The government submitted a draft prepared by the Forest Department after getting these orders. The learned judge asked Khalid Sherdil, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), TUU, to make improvements after holding consultations with all the stakeholders.
Talking to TNS, Sherdil says a major issue in this context was that there was no single department responsible for plantation. The Forest Department caters only to the notified forest land and does not operate in urban areas and the peri urban areas that fall within 20-kilometre distance of city limits. Similarly, the Parks and Horticultural Authority (PHA) mainly does beautification work and landscaping but not plantation. That is why this policy is of great significance. “It gives guidelines, defines duties and responsibilities of stakeholders and provides the required legal framework.”
He shares they have issued instructions to 600 industries and 150 housing cities to plant trees in required numbers and fulfill their commitments they had made while applying for NoCs. The industries, he says, can plant trees on their premises as well as adopt roads for tree plantation whereas the housing societies can use their seven per cent open area to grow plants and trees.
He shares there are several housing societies that have either left designated areas open without trees or used these for construction purposes. This is totally against the law and it is suggested the owners of such housing societies be dealt with strictly. “As a punitive measure their NoCs can be revoked.”
Sherdil shares that to start with, the government lands will be used for plantation — including vertical plantation in which plants are grown against wall of buildings etc. The immediate dividends will be improved health of citizens, increase in aesthetic value of cities, decrease in urban temperatures, pollution control and so on.
Hammad Naqi, Country Director, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), says the policy was urgently needed keeping in view the environmental hazards associated with deforestation. He shares the country loses an average of approximately 43,000 hectares of forests every year which is equivalent to half the size of Islamabad. Besides, Pakistan has just 2.2 per cent forest cover which is well below the recommended cover of 25 per cent and an annual deforestation rate of over 2.37 per cent which is the second highest in Asia after Afghanistan.
Naqi suggests care in species’ selection for plantation. For example, the trees shall be native to the area and must have close association with bird diversity, have no adverse effects on nearby infrastructures, be maintenance-free as much as possible, be tolerant of seasonal drought and deep rooted to resist wind power and be fast growing, if possible.
He shares a single tree planted will sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide at an average of 50 pounds per year and a patch of tree will be able to recharge up to 0.96 million liters of water per year per hectare.
Environmental lawyer, Sardar Asif Ali Sial Advocate, suggests special focus on peri urban areas that are food baskets of cities but have lately been eaten up by housing societies. These areas must be preserved also for the reasons that trees planted on peripheries save cities from urban flooding caused by overflowing of water bodies. He also fears the fate of these plantation drives will be the same as those undertaken earlier where there was no system to do follow-ups.
Sherdil tries to allay these concerns and says they will use technology and remote sensing to track the inventory of available plants and even the health of each and every tree. A Management Information System (MIS) which complements with the satellite imagery-based estimations is being established at TUU.
Regarding the finances required to carry out desired activities, the policy suggests that all the stakeholder departments shall be funded through development and non–development budgets. The activities proposed in policy mainly involve raising of nurseries, land development and planting, maintenance of planting through protection weeding, and irrigation and development of green grounds. Usually, these activities are not adequately funded except in case of Forest Department, horticulture and other development authorities.
It further suggests the government shall set up a Fund, to be called the Green Development Fund (GDF). This Fund shall be financed from the sources like grants made by the provincial government, loans, aid and donations from the national,
provincial or international agencies and any fees prescribed under rules formulated to implement this policy. The provincial government shall, in its annual budget, make provisions for this fund at 1 per cent of the
total Annual Development