23 March 2009

Better roads not to better commuters' lot

Article on the state of public transport in Islamabad. From Dawn e-paper

Better roads not to better commuters’ lot

By Rahim A. Khan
Among the many public services that are so lacking in this country, public transport is one that has seldom been addressed to and on the rare occasions when civic authorities have shown some interest, the initiative has often been wrangled out of their hands by private transporters who fear the loss of their monopoly.

Public transport is a government concern. The provision of an efficient and affordable service is government responsibility. Growing populations mean growing cities in which mass mobility is a need no government can overlook if the economic life of the country is to run smoothly. The transport situation in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad is in total disarray and the common man who must use public transport to go about the daily business of life is at the mer cy of a sloppy private service run by unscrupulous greedy operators in connivance with a corrupt traffic police.

The whole approach of the government, if it has any, is skewed. It believes the broadening of roads and placing of more policemen on cross roads to control traffic can provide the common people with a rapid transport system. In fact it is just a ruse. What is in reality intended is to make the roads broader and smoother for the rich people to drive through in their expensive cars without having to stop at traffic signals. The broadening of roads and building of overhead and under passes is not going to solve the traffic muddle for the common man. He needs an efficient road transport that touches all points of the city, runs on time, and is economical and comfortable. Only such a system will dissuade people from having private cars and burning expensive fuel on commuting to work and back, taking children to school and going shopping. Once such a system is in place the need to broaden roads and change the map of the city will automatically end.

The plight of the people who have to travel daily between Pindi and Islamabad cannot be described in words.When after hours of torturous waiting the bus shows its face it is an ordeal to climb it and find a seat for oneself. When the days work is done the rush at bus stops makes the goal of reaching home an uncertain possibility. Buses, vans and coasters run past the stands. It is an undignified sight to watch aged gentlemen chasing them to hop into as soon as the driver makes a sudden stop a furlong ahead of the regular stand. This is the daily routine of the commuter. Incompetence it surely is but it is also heartless of the government and a pity it calls itself representative and elected.

There were some efforts by the previous government. The ‘Varan’ bus service was a welcome introduction but could not g o beyond that. Its operation was throttled. First it was the private transporters who protested against it telling the government it had made life easier for the common citizen. Government agreed it was not its purpose to ease the burden of life on the common man.Then Varan itself found it difficult to ply an uneconomical service on hostile roads and was forced out of operations in the city. A rail service between the two cities was also proposed (the government is never in short supply of good ideas) but it never saw the light of the day. We are back to square one of course and all those who huddle at bus stops waiting for hope to appear in the shape of a bus have all the time in the world.

How difficult would it be? To introduce a government run mass transit system? Not so hard I think but this is more a ‘will’ than a ‘way’ argument. As mentioned above, public transport slashes the number of cars on the roads and as a lesson in causality such a means would have countless benefits. Fewer cars on the roads mean lower consumption of fuel. That means less pollution. For people it means less spending on cars maintenance as well as the fuel. For the government it means less public works costs (more cars = more wear & tear on roads) and a new source of revenue from their own transport system. But again that ‘will’ I speak of is not there.

But there is something at the heart of this that regardless of the lack of facilities is the biggest obstacle. As a people we are so class conscious that if seen using public transport we think it is the ultimate shame we can bring to our families. Owning a car is a status symbol. If not seen in one’s chariot, eyebrows are raised. Walking, they say is only good for exercise. Agreed, the present services aren’t fit for anyone but if one day they were, would the wealthier among us use them? In far more developed and richer countries, public transport is used by everyone. The Mayor of New York rides the subway everyday to office even though it is infested by rats aplenty. MP’s and Cabinet Ministers are often seen stepping out of cabs to go to Parliament or 10 Downing Street in Britain. I think our middle and upper class would be beggars in comparison to the well to do in the West, yet we pose as if we are better. It may seem fanciful to philosophize something so ordinary, but does not the idea of some bigwig using public transport have an egalitarianizing feel to it? As if it is the office and not the man that we must respect? It would be a different, better country if we saw those who ruled us at our level, that of the street.

The writer is a freelance contributor and may be reached at: ides_of_march@hotmail.com

19 March 2009

Pakistan ,Tahira Abdullah Vs PPP

Tahira Abdullah rips Sherry Rehman, the PPP and the establishment a new one.

14 March 2009

Climate Change affecting agriculture in Karachi

Here's a chilling article about the effects climate change is having on our urban areas.

Climate change affecting agriculture in Karachi
Friday, March 13, 2009
By Perwez Abdullah


Researchers from the University of Karachi (KU) Department of Geography have discovered the relationship between climate change and increase in the incidence of diseases, and the decrease in agricultural products in and around Karachi.

Former chairman of the department Dr Syed Jamil Hasan Kazmi along with his team of researchers worked on the impact of global warming on agriculture in Karachi on vector-born diseases (Malaria and Dengue) and the transformation of ecological systems within the mega city. Dr Kazmi has been working in Gadap, Kathor, Malir, Memon Goth, Darsano Channa and Hub agricultural areas for 20 years. “These were the fertile areas in 60s and provided fresh fruits and vegetables to the city. The mammoth growth of the city adversely affected the agriculture. Now the city meets only 10 per cent of the demand for fruits and vegetables from these areas.”

The irrigation of these agricultural lands was usually through the wells that were providing water after digging 20-30 feet below the surface. The rainfall pattern in the city has changed drastically since 1985, decreasing the frequency and intensity of rain in the city. This has resulted in drought of underground water levels. Now water can only be 400-500 feet deep. The high temperatures have evaporated the rain water quickly leaving the underground water levels dry. Two small ‘Check Dams’ have been built in Thuddo (North East of Super Highway) but it is sufficient for a 20 km area only.

“These people are living in the area for more than 300 years. Agriculture, which is their livelihood, is threatened by the change in climate and urban encroachment over the suburbs of the city. Now they have started sand mining in their areas to compensate for the loss of the agricultural production. This is very harmful as the unchecked removal of sand will create more ecological problems”, says Dr Kazmi.

According to Dr Kazmi, fruits and vegetables grown in the area cost more than the ones coming from Badin, Thatta, Sajawal, Hyderabad, Mirpurkhas, Tandojam and Rahim Yar Khan. “It is highly priced due to the shortage of water and extensive labour required to grow the crops in a semi-arid environment”, he explains.

Another effect of the lowering of the ground water level is the advance of sea water which causes salinity, due to which land ceases to be fertile. The Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) in these areas have a density of 3500 mg/litre compared to the World Health Organisation’s standard of 500 mg/litre. Elevated total dissolved solids can result in water having a bitter or salty taste, and can result in incrustations, films, or precipitates on fixtures, corrosion of fixtures, and reduced efficiency of water filters.

“Water is a good solvent and picks up impurities easily. Dissolved solids include any minerals, salts, metals, cat ions or anions dissolved in water. TDS comprise inorganic salts (principally calcium, magnesium, potassium, sodium, bicarbonates, chlorides and sulfates) and some small amounts of organic matter”, Dr Kazmi elaborates.

The mangroves also need fresh water, and due to saline water, these valuable plants wither and ultimately die. This has resulted in Pakistan sliding down the world ranking for mangroves from 13 to 21. With the country heading for an environmental disaster, concerned individuals in the government and in the civil society have pinned their hopes on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

IPCC is a scientific intergovernmental body set up by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to provide the decision-makers and others interested in climate change with an objective source of information about climate change. It was established by the WMO and UNEP in 1988 given that climate change is a complex issue, and policymakers need objective sources of information about the causes, consequences and measures necessary.

City living a cause of parnoia?

Not much is written about the effects of urbanization on our minds and sanity. Does living in a city cost us our sanity. This article, which really made me sit up and take notice, said that one in four people is likely to suffer from paranoia, most likely because of an unfriendly urban environment. Take a look at this excerpt

Over the last 15 years, as a research fellow for the Wellcome Trust, Freeman has found links between paranoia and urbanisation, globalisation, migration and wealth inequality, increased power of the media, CCTV cameras and the internet. Urbanicity particularly fascinates him, largely, you sense, because he can’t quite pin it down. “You go into Camberwell [home to King’s College hospital] and it’s stressful, it’s noisy, it’s chaotic. You are bustled about, you have to negotiate your path. Sometimes it’s familiar and fine, but as soon as you have a suspicious thought, there is ambiguity and confusion, and paranoia thrives in that sort of environment. But it’s hard to quantify.

Read the entire article - Suspicious minds, by Sabene Durant - as it was published in Dawn here.

Damned if you do, damned if you don't

At lunch in Karachi with the some urban conservationist and environmental activists, I was surprised to hear someone from the group put forward the suggestion that the CDGK would be less inclined to convert amenity plots to residential or commercial plots if they got their money from taxes instead.

The idea is a good one. Our cities are broke. They are incredibly badly managed - politically and financially. I know that most of the revenue for CDGL and the LDA comes from Provincial Government receipts. City governments, strapped of cash, are then forced to turn to sell its assets (the first to go are parks and amenity plots) to generate revenue.

If only local governments were financially independent, goes the argument. Of course, our local government laws enable local govenments to raise funds by collecting taxes and fees, but this is rarely done.

Recently, the "dynamic" Nazim of Karachi decided to impsoe a municipal levi on municipal services. And guess what: he gets loads of criticism. Damned if you, damned if you don't.

05 March 2009

Measures for Clean Energy

Below is an op-ed by Arif Pervaiz of the Clinton Climate Initiative that was published in Dawn

THE world is moving in the direction of a low-carbon economy not because it can afford the luxury — no one in today’s world has spare change — but because investments in energy efficiency and clean energy can create jobs, reduce waste, help revive economies and lower harmful greenhouse gas emissions that are causing global warming.

Some argue that for Pakistan, whose total carbon emissions are minuscule — measuring less than 0.4 per cent of the global total — reducing greenhouse gas emissions is not a priority.

Wrong. What we should be looking at instead is our carbon intensity — measured in terms of greenhouse gas emissions per unit of GDP. Pakistan ranks in the bottom 14 out of 185 countries for its carbon intensity. Simply put, there are a lot of inefficiencies and wastage in our use of energy.

Actions aimed at greenhouse gas emissions reduction can result in better energy efficiency, less wastage, reduced pollution and improved public health. For these reasons, greenhouse gas reduction or ‘mitigation’ measures are important for us and should be part of our climate change strategy.

There are numerous initiatives that can be undertaken. Quite obviously we need to stem the ongoing haemorrhaging in our electricity system — 40 per cent of the electricity generated is lost. Why don’t the system’s losses get as much attention as talk of installing additional capacity?

Deployment of renewable energy as part of our energy mix has been very slow in coming. We need to devise a meaningful and ambitious plan for on-grid and diffused — district, neighbourhood and household — deployment of wind, solar PV, solar thermal, micro-hydels and other appropriate renewable technologies. The market for renewable energy solutions is emerging, but it needs

more support. Electricity loss reduction and renewable energy are viable solutions that should be focused on.

Another area in need of focus is transport and clean fuel. Rails and buses can carry more people per unit of energy consumed than private cars, but our investment priorities are highly focussed on the promotion of the use of private cars by a small elite. We need to start charging the real cost of car use and simultaneously develop effective mass transit systems. Car use should be taxed higher along with congestion and road-use charges, and car-free days should be introduced to encourage a shift to public transport.

It is important that any mass transit should be based on the local context, rather than technology. Subways and metros might appear attractive but they are very expensive and hard to maintain. Cheaper options like a Bus Rapid Transit System — planned for Karachi — are more appropriate, which partly explains why 80 cities around the world have or are in the process of developing a BRTS.

Mobility needs of the non-car-owning majority will require the building of extensive networks of navigable footpaths and bicycle tracks — this is important also from a public welfare standpoint. Especially when one considers the restricted recreational spaces available to families numbering eight, 12, sometimes 20 who live squeezed into tiny homes in congested localities.

Improvement in urban mobility and public health will have to include measures such as phasing out dirty-and-old buses, and two-stroke engines. Our refineries and petroleum suppliers need to start providing cleaner fuels — low sulphur diesel, pre-mixed fuel for two-stroke motorcycles — which have been promised for long. PSO has taken encouraging steps towards the production of bio-diesel. Production and deployment of bio-fuels — which don’t displace food crops and don’t require much freshwater — should be expanded and taken to scale.

There is vast untapped potential for generating energy using municipal waste. Some work is being done on this in Karachi, Lahore and Faisalabad, but needs support for wider development. Electricity generation through methane capture (at wastewater-treatment plants), and processing construction and demolition waste for reuse in construction, should also be explored.

Karachi dumps 400 million gallons of wastewater including raw sewage directly into the sea everyday. Lahore and other major cities also dump their untreated waste into fields and water bodies. This egregious act defiles the environment, kills aquatic life, and creates a public health hazard. In many areas around the country, sewage water is used to grow vegetables. Karachi desperately needs implementation of the city government’s Sanitation III project, which promises to put an end to this mindless practice.

Technology and expertise are available to treat all of this sewage water for reuse, and supply it to industry, and for urban farming and parks. The water savings from this could offset the need for large additional investments in urban water supply, provide an opportunity to use precious money for other social and economic investments and improve our environmental capital. We should also look to save billions of rupees by improving energy efficiency of equipment and processes at our water and wastewater utilities — where there is tremendous scope for savings.

Key to progress on realising benefits of a cleaner and more energy-efficient environment will be the institutional arrangements we craft. The main driver of a low-carbon economy will be the private sector, bolstered by the state’s policy and regulatory bodies for environment, availability of easy financing and local and international assistance. To play a meaningful role, relevant NGOs will need to go beyond generic ‘awareness raising’ to organising technical training, fostering linkages with local universities and technical institutions, and bringing in relevant international expertise.

A coherent climate change strategy should be formulated and pursued through a high-level, well-resourced and independent body, e.g. a climate change council, with representation from industry, business, professional bodies, universities, NGOs, donor agencies and concerned government departments, which can guide, direct and support climate change-related activities.

Additional technical and financial support required should come from bilateral and multilateral institutions and from our friends like the US and EU who can structure their aid in ways that promote ‘green’ investments.

Far from being a tree-huggers’ wish list, the actions discussed above have the potential to create thousands of employment opportunities for skilled and unskilled people, revive our engineering and technical institutions, increase capacity and business opportunities for the private sector, upgrade our infrastructure, and save hundreds of millions of dollars by reducing waste. Oil prices might be low now but they will increase again soon, and so it is a question of ensuring energy security for an uncertain future. The private sector and international financial and technical assistance will be important drivers in the move to a low-carbon economy, but it is that all-elusive political will which will determine the pace and extent of the change.

The writer is an environmentalist working on the development of climate change mitigation projects.