17 November 2009

Davos Question 2008 - Urban traffic and congestion

The solution to traffic: cycles!!!

Edward Burtynsky photographs the landscape of oil

The IBM ad after this short TED video is very interesting. It shows the effects of a congestion charge on automobiles.

16 November 2009

Say a Prayer for Lahore

From The News, 13 November 2009 (http://www.thenews.com.pk/editorial_detail.asp?id=208278)

The only thing as incredulous as the recent announcement by the Government of Punjab -- it announced its intention to construct a highway through the heart of Lahore -- was the recent statement of the CEO of Fashion Pakistan Week that their glorified display of clothes was a "gesture of defiance towards the Taliban."

Our fashion industry is as much of an industry as the Holy Roman empire was holy, Roman or an empire. Our designers are talented without doubt; but to suggest that parading scantily clad men and women down a runway behind the bunkers and barricades of a five-star hotel in Karachi is an act of defiance is, well, really stretching the limits to which the "security situation" can make a fool out of us. The foreign media took to the sound bite like a starving man to a steak and now, once again, Pakistan is portrayed as two-dimensional: a country teeming with brave designers, fighting Islamic militancy. My friend and critic Faiza S.

Khan said it perfectly in her column at openthemagazine.com:

"One designer lamentably laid claim to being 'a very brave woman' for displaying her clothes on a catwalk at a five-star hotel in a country where women have been known to be murdered, maimed, mutilated and on occasion buried alive, where girls' schools are routinely attacked and where, even at the best of times, women's rights, outside of a tiny income bracket, are limited at best. Another designer called it an act of defiance in the face of the Taliban, glossing over the fact that fashion shows do, in fact, take place with some regularity in Pakistan, and if one must intellectualise this, then it could more honestly be described as a display of affluence in the face of a nation torn apart by the gaping chasm between rich and poor. Why the foreign media can't ask Pakistani designers questions about their work and why they, in turn, yield to the temptation, like Miss Universe, of providing a sound bite on world peace is beyond me."

Over the weekend, the Chief Minister of Punjab announced that he was allocating Rs3.15 billion for a project to widen Lahore's Canal Road.

The decision can only be described, at best, as a reckless adventure and, at worst, a catastrophe waiting to happen.

In 2006, the Traffic Engineering and Planning Agency (TEPA) of Lahore Development Agency (LDA) proposed to widen the Canal Bank Road, purportedly to reduce traffic congestion in the city. Because the project was over Rs50 million, the provisions of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act,

1997 kicked in and TEPA was constrained to engage the National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) to carry out an environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the project. This was done and the EIA was presented to the Environment Protection Agency (EPA), Punjab, in a public hearing where hundreds of Lahoris gathered to protest against the decision to deprive the city of one of its last surviving environmental heritages: the 14 kilometres of green belt that line the canal and make the street one of the most unique avenues in the world.

The EPA, Punjab approved the EIA but before the project could go any further, the Lahore Bachao Tehreek (an umbrella organisation of dozens of grass-root NGOs as well as WWF-Pakistan) challenged the veracity of the EIA as well as the approval granted to it by the EPA, Punjab. The case remains pending before the Lahore High Court.

The announcement by the mhief minister, giving the go-ahead for the project "after completion of design", raises some important points.

First, it is clear that the project approved by the CM is not the project that the TEPA had originally proposed in 2006. For one thing, the cost of this new project is nearly five times the cost of the original design. Also, according to news reports, the new project is set to incorporate new features along the Canal Road (like "beautifications" which, I must hastily point out, in the context of roads means nothing).

What this means is that the Government of Punjab cannot use the EIA approval granted to the original TEPA project. According to our laws which, the last time I checked still apply to everyone including the government, road projects in excess of Rs50 million must have an EIA carried out and should be approved by the EPA.

But the observance of legal and procedural formalities is not the primary concern that most Lahoris have about the road widening project. It's an open secret that the Government of Punjab is operating on overdraft.

In such a situation, it would seem bizarre that the provincial government would choose to spend Rs3.15 billion -- nearly 10 per cent of the allocations it made last year to the three heads of health, public health and education -- on one road in one city of the province.

Less than 20 per cent of Lahoris have access to cars. For the vast majority of the over eight million people who try and live and work in this city, transport and mobility are dependent on motorcycles, cycles and what is euphemistically referred to as "public transport" (there are less than 1,000 buses that ply the city's streets). Ever since the previous tenure of Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, when the Punjab Road Transport Corporation was shut down, neither this nor the PML-Q government of Chaudhary Pervaiz Elahi have spent a rupee on public transport, which, by the way, is the only way to reduce traffic congestion in a city. Now we are told that a seriously broke government is about to spend billions of rupees it doesn't have on a road it doesn't need for people who don't want or use it. Remarkable indeed.

In a presentation made by NESPAK on August 31 this year, the various options of widening the Canal Road were presented to the CM. According to NESPAK, all the road widening projects would "fail" by 2020 -- meaning thereby that if the government didn't do something to invest in public transport, and soon, the billion-rupee road widening adventure is, at best, a 10-year frolic. Is the Government of Punjab serious? Does the chief minister not know that, according to the Punjab Economic Survey of 2005 carried out by the Planning and Development Department (P&D), over 50 per cent of Punjabis live in slums? Who is this road being widened for?

All too often our politicians harbor the mistaken belief that infrastructure development is the only thing that will make our cities "modern"; that infrastructure is the only thing that will attract the foreign investment necessary to bring economic prosperity to a developing nation. But where are the examples of the success of this model? Our own urban Guru, Arif Hasan, in his brilliant essay "The world class city concept and its repercussion on urban planning in the Asia-Pacific region" demonstrates that our preoccupation with a modern city is also the root of our urban decay. But who in the government reads? Thus, one can only pray for Lahore.

06 November 2009

Punjab Assembly turns into a "fish market"

This has to be one of the most riveting descriptions of an Assembly session in recent memory. Brilliant stuff. Far more entertaining than TV. Wait, this should be on TV!!

From The News (http://www.thenews.com.pk/daily_detail.asp?id=206968)

Punjab PA turns into fish market as Sana, Zaheer trade allegations
Friday, November 06, 2009
By Babar Dogar

LAHORE: The Punjab Assembly turned into a fish market on Thursday when Law Minister Rana Sana Ullah Khan and Opposition leader Ch Zaheer traded allegations against each other’s leadership, declaring them dacoits and Qabza Mafia heads.

The parliamentarians from the PML-N and the PML-Q in the Punjab Assembly crossed all limits of decency in exposing the past corruptions of their top leadership. Law Minister Rana Sana alleged Ch Pervaiz Elahi and Ch Moonis Elahi were dacoits and Qabza Mafia heads who had illegally occupied 4,000-kanal land of Roberts Agriculture Farm, besides being involved in the Punjab Bank scam.

In retaliation, Opposition leader Ch Zaheer termed PML-N Quaid Mian Nawaz Sharif and Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif dacoits and heads of Qabza Mafia who had illegally occupied 1,600-acre land in Jati Umra, Raiwind.

Rana Sana challenged Ch Zaheer to prove the allegations, or he would have to resign while Ch Zaheer informed the house that he was being threatened within and outside the assembly by the law minister.

The parliamentarians from both sides of the divide also raised slogans against the leadership of the opposite parties. Sana alleged that the Chaudhary family had established a cell in the party secretariat to level allegations against him that he had illegally occupied 10-marla plot in Faisalabad. He said Ch Zaheer had held press conference against him while an open letter from the letterhead of MPA Ayesha Javed was also circulated. He claimed that Ayesha Javed had disowned the letter, telling him that it was circulated in her name by the party leadership.

Ch Zaheer, on the other hand, kept on requesting the Speaker to give time to him and his colleagues for unmasking two dacoits living in Jati Umra. Pandemonium ruled the Punjab Assembly immediately after its proceedings started with Speaker Punjab Assembly Rana Iqbal turning completely partial allowing the parliamentarians to engage in mudslinging against one-another’s leaders.

Speaker Rana Iqbal used to be very strict on the issue of supplementary questions and did not allow parliamentarians to make lengthy debates on any particular question but, on Thursday, in violation of his own verdict, he let the parliamentarians to waste one hour on just one question.

The female parliamentarians, throughout the debate, stood on their feet and continued raising slogans, making it difficult to comprehend anything. The Punjab Assembly could take only one question during one-hour long proceedings.

04 November 2009

Insights into a Lively Downtown

Interesting documentary on what people think make city center's successful. You'd be surprised that trees and benches are one of the important reasons why people like some downtown streets over others.

02 November 2009


Here's the brilliant Steven Johnson explaining how a cholera outbreak in London during the 1850s changed public infrastructure systems:

The outbreaks and Great Stinks eventually led to legislation to clean up the city of London (the largest and filthiest city in the world at that time). One of the heroes of the time was Joseph Bazalgette (another was John Snow). I wrote an article about Bazalgette some years ago when the sewerage system in Karachi's upscale Bath Island went kaput. Seems relevant now:

It was Jorge Agustin Nicolas Ruiz de Santayana, or George Santayana, the famed Spanish intellectual giant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who first pointed out that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. A recent letter to the editor bemoaning the state of the sewerage system in Karachi – Bath Island is ankle-deep in &*%$ and the well-to-do are beginning to lose their beauty sleep – constrains me to remind my fellow city-dwellers of a certain historical incident of striking similarity.

By the middle of the 19th century, London was on the brink of an environmental catastrophe. The city was growing rapidly in terms of population and size, and the old ways of supplying water, burying the dead and disposing of sewage were rapidly becoming inadequate.

For centuries, human waste had been removed from the cesspits of the city disguised by the euphemism 'night soil' and taken away for use as fertilizer on fields in the surrounding areas.

With the relentless growth of London during the middle of the Industrial Revolution, this was no longer feasible. The population of London doubled between 1801 and 1841, and the city was rapidly spreading outwards. Most houses used cesspits which were mainly drained by means of open sewers and the tributaries of the river Thames. They weren’t perfect and had the nasty tendency to overflow through floorboards and into people’s living rooms!!

With the situation worsening, something was finally done in 1847. The Metropolitan Commission of Sewers was formed to tackle the problem. Sadly, the Commission tried to open its innings with a boundary, so to speak, and found itself clean bowled. Its first act was the “genius” order to seal all the cesspits. Needless to say, without an overflow to control pressure, the sewerage now burst through the antiquated open sewer system and directly into the Thames.

The resulting stink wasn’t the only problem. London’s drinking water used to come from the Thames, and this brackish drinking water only added to the woes of the cholera epidemic of 1831-32, the first of many such outbreaks lasting through 1854 which resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 people died (including 30,000 in London alone).

The tragedy of the cholera epidemics (they started in India and spread all the way to Europe) was that, at the time, it wasn’t common knowledge that cholera was a water-borne disease. The “experts” in London thought the disease was caused by miasma, the foul in the air from rotting matter, stagnant water and rats.

As is always the case when the poor suffer due to the indifference of the rich, the problem was not properly addressed until the Victorian gentry found their lovely morning and afternoon routines made unbearable by the fumes of the refuse flowing through the entire length of the city. The summer’s heat exacerbated the smells caused by the rotting sewage and soon passage to and from even Parliament became almost unbearable. The smell inside the un-ventilated building could not have been better. For some years, legislators attempted to keep the choking smells at bay by having their curtains soaked in perfume and chemicals. It was “The Great Stinks” of 1855 and 1858 that finally resulted in the government opening its coffers for the purposes of constructing the first modern sewerage system.

Although still advancing under the mistaken belief that a sewerage system would eliminate the miasma from the air and end the epidemics, the Great Stinks resulted in the passage of the Metropolitan Management Act, 1855 which in turn saw the establishment of the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW). It was the MBW that was tasked by Parliament to revolutionize the sewage system, and it fell upon a single individual, the Chief Engineer of the MBW, to forge the way. That man was Joseph William Bazalgette.

Bazalgette began his career as assistant surveyor to the ill-fated Metropolitan Commission of Sewers in 1849 and eventually rose to become Engineer in 1852 when his superior died suddenly, under the strain of the “harassing fatigues and anxieties” which cursed that office (a similar curse, I should point out, to the one which hangs over the post of MD of the Water and Sanitation Agency, Lahore). When the MBW was established – and I can’t think of it being an easy job to do – the only man who had the qualifications to do the job was Bazalgette.

Bazalgette’s solution was to construct 83 miles of underground brick sewers and intercept sewage outflows, and 1100 miles of street sewers, to prevent raw sewage flowing through London's streets and into the river. The whole scheme took seven years to complete and was opened in 1865. Bazalgette's achievement is amazing even by modern standards and today, almost a century and a half later, London still relies on Bazalgette's sewers to keep it looking clean and beautiful.

Bazalgette was knighted in 1875, and elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1888. There is a blue plaque in his honor outside his former home in St. John’s Wood, north London. Sadly, Bazalgette’s fame is not renowned. Perhaps there is justice in the fact that this should be the fate of any good plumber (a Chief Engineer is, in a way, a glorified saantry walla): If they’ve done their job right, you never need to remember their name or call them again.

However, there was no justice when, despite of the significance of Bazalgette’s achievement, the mistaken belief that cholera was spread by miasma and that it was not a water-borne disease resulted in many more deaths due to cholera.

Just as the well-heeled of Karachi’s Bath Island now have trouble getting from their front door to their cars, the well-to-do of Lahore’s Gulberg are now beginning to see the effects of an infrastructure straining to cope with fast paced commercialization. For example, the predecessor of the Lahore Development Authority, the Lahore Improvement Trust, could not have foreseen what has become of the Main Boulevard and M.M. Alam, Gurumangat and even Hali roads. That’s why it’s frightening to think that the commercialization of M.M. Alam road is resting on a infrastructure and a 9” sewer pipe laid nearly a half-century ago.

Just as in London over a century ago, the upper classes are beginning to get wind (pun intended) of the problem only now whereas the poor in our cities have been suffering this stink for years.

The directions issued by the Punjab Environmental Tribunal about a year ago in relation to the sewerage in Lahore’s canal has yet to be fully implemented. The Tribunal had identified over 40 different points where sewerage was pumped into the Canal, including industrial and chemical waste. The Canal is over 20 miles long and, like the Thames, flows through the length of the city.

Both Karachi and Lahore share environmental challenges stemming from waste management and an overburdened sewerage system. It would be a crime if, for example, the nightmare scenario of contamination were to strike the many thousands who swim in blissful ignorance through the filth of the Lahore Canal on any summer’s day. It would be a crime for which our indifference would indict us.

I cannot speak for Karachi and the Karachi Water and Sewerage Board, but Lahore does not have a Joseph Bazalgette (it has had its Sir Ganga Ram and Bhai Ram Singhs). I pray that we can learn from the examples of mistakes made through history and take the bold decisions to improve the environment today. If not, then, like Santayana predicted, we will all be condemned to repeat the horrors of the past.