Pakistan is facing environmental problems of both green and brown nature since long.

Sep 24 - 30, 2007

Pakistan is facing environmental problems of both green and brown nature since long. Rapid population growth of about 3% p.a. and impressive GDP growth of about 6% p.a. have put pressure on the country's natural resources consequently creating various environmental hazards. A number of serious environmental problems are inherent in the country, which are of great ecological concern in terms of its sustainable economic future. These include soil erosion, pesticide misuse, deforestation, desertification, urban pollution, water logging & salinity, freshwater pollution and marine water pollution. The major constraint to overcoming these problems is the population growth, which is very high in contrast to the natural limited resources that are available to the people. Besides, growth of urban population, continuous increase in the number of vehicles burning fossil fuels, and growth of industries is also posing serious threats to the surrounding environment. Due to environmental degradation and poor resource management country continues to suffer economic loss. According to the World Bank, it is estimated that approximately 6% of GDP is lost annually due to environmental degradation whereas environmental pollution causes deaths of over 50,000 people mostly poor. This environmental degradation along with other factors has resulted in an increase in poverty, which is now at an all time high of above 30% of the population. Lack of resources and expertise in solving environmental problems are one of the major constraints in tackling this issue. Therefore, environmental problems can be grouped into two broad categories; one due to poverty and population growth thus leading to over-exploitation of natural resource, and other emerges due to unplanned increase in industrialization and urbanization hence leading to the pollution of water, air and land.

Significant studies have been made in last few years for forwarding the environmental issues from being a stand-alone topic to a national mainstream agenda item. Several policies, plans, programs and projects have been initiated for environmental protection and conservation in various areas of water and air pollution control, land use, forest management, energy efficiency, biodiversity conservation, and waste management, etc. Pakistan is a signatory to a number of Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs) and has acceded to other non-legally binding instruments such as Agenda-21 Rio Principles and Johannesburg Plan of Implementation aiming for sustainable development of natural resources. Among them are the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of wild flora and fauna (CITES), United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD), United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Convention on Migratory Species (CMS), Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, Basel Convention on the Control of Trans-boundary Movement of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), and the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer.

Although constrained by issues such as lack of awareness, technical expertise, institutional set-up/capacity, coordination among various concerned departments /organizations, and a clear cut policy and plan of action for each MEA, yet it has taken several steps to meet its obligations to the MEAs. Key actions include finalizing the National Implementation Plan (NIP) to eliminate Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), meeting the targets set by Montreal Protocol for the elimination of Ozone Depleting Substances, implementing the Biodiversity Action Plan, finalizing the Action Plan for UNCCD; finalizing the guidelines and rules for hospital waste management, and regular reporting to UNFCCC through its National communication.

Following the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol in 2006, it has established the "Designated National Authority" (DNA) for Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) in the Ministry of Environment. National Operational Strategy for CDM has been approved by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, which offers all support for attracting investments and capitalizing the carbon business under the CDM initiative. The CDM Cell is working with public and private sector partners for attracting investments in energy efficiency, renewable and alternate energy, industries, forestry and agriculture together with technology transfer and capacity building.

Government of Pakistan (GOP) with the support of the World Bank is taking various steps for environmental pollution endangering public health seriously, though it is still rather slow in dealing with the situation. As a matter of fact, necessary legislation and procedures are already in place but these need to be implemented. The real challenge is to take practical measures and implement polices and regulations where it lacks most. United Nation adopted the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in year 2000 and one of the goals aims at ensuring environmental sustainability. GOP initiated the National Environment Action Plan (NEAP) in 2001 with the support of United Nations Development Program as an umbrella program to address environmental concerns in a holistic manner. The development objective of NEAP is environmental sustainability and poverty reduction in the context of economic growth. Government has developed policies and strategies like National Environmental Policy, Sanitation Policy, Clean Development Mechanism Strategy, Draft National Forest Policy and Energy Conservation Policy etc. The GOP has enhanced budgetary allocations for the environment sector for the period 2005-2010, which will significantly contribute towards ensuring the environmental sustainability. GOP has allocated Rs. 5 billion (about US$ 833.3 million) for environmental improvements in budget 2007-08 as compared to Rs. 300 million (about US$ 5 million) in budget 2006-07. In addition to this, government is serious in tackling the environmental issues and has chalked out a medium-term development framework for the next five years with a budgetary allocation of Rs. 20 billion (about US$ 333.4 million) for the environment sector.

The most significant causes of environmental damage are inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene; soil degradation; indoor air pollution; urban air pollution; and exposure to lead whereas major industrial contributors for example pulp and paper, chemicals, petrochemicals, refining, metalworking, food processing, and textile industries are located around major cities and are gradually more polluting streams, rivers and the Arabian Sea through untreated toxic waste. Unfortunately, this has been accompanied by a corresponding rise in pollution and the degradation of natural resources. Many of these negative impacts on the environment are of such magnitude that they are of national concern. Air and water pollution continue to rise, and solid waste management is becoming an enormous problem. Deforestation continues alongside coastal and marine degradation. The most dangerous pollutant, known as PM10, is present at 2%-4% higher than the safety limits worked out by World Health Organization for the big cities, including Karachi, Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta. Another commonly occurring hazardous element is airborne lead, it is known to cause hypertension and heart trouble among adults; and aside from having some other harmful effects on the health of children, lead produces irreversible loss of IQ.

World Bank conducted Pakistan's Strategic Country Environmental Assessment in 2006, there are various reasons and categories of environmental and natural resource damages but unfortunately relevant data and information was not available for all the categories. Due to this, World Bank considered water supply, sanitation and hygiene, indoor air pollution, urban air pollution, agriculture (soil salinity and erosion), lead exposure, rangeland degradation and deforestation only for their environmental assessment. They estimated that environmental degradation costs the country about Rs. 365 billion per year. Report says that "The highest cost is from inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene (Rs. 112 billion) followed by agricultural soil degradation (Rs. 70 billion) and indoor air pollution (Rs. 67 billion). Urban air pollution (particulate matter) adds another Rs. 65 billion. The estimated cost of lead exposure is about Rs. 45 billion. Rangeland degradation and deforestation cost are the lowest at about 7 billion Rs. in total". Keeping in view that these estimates are based on conservative assumptions and therefore represent the lower bounds of damage and omitted several important categories of loss - most notably fisheries and coastal zone degradation - for which there is no adequate data.


Environmental problems are often caused by the inappropriate policies that damage country's natural resource. Governments often give subsidies on few agricultural inputs that cause damage to the environment in return. For example, price of irrigation water is substantially below the cost of delivery which onward increases water logging. Similarly, subsidies allowed for usage of agricultural chemicals led to excessive use of pesticides. Like most of the developing countries, Pakistan's environmental decay is both a cause and consequence of poverty. It is currently facing numerous environmental challenges like decline in forest cover, degrading soils and rising levels of air and water pollution, which are common across the region and in much of the developing world. But at the same time, it has certain disadvantage by its dependence on a single river i.e. the Indus River for its surface water. The country is therefore more vulnerable to the consequences of basin degradation and water pollution than any of its neighbors.

Pakistan's green issues include environmental problems of irrigated agriculture, rain-fed agriculture, forests, and rangelands and brown environmental problems are categorized in five main groups i.e. industrial wastewater pollution, domestic wastewater pollution, motor vehicle emissions, urban and industrial air pollution, and marine and coastal zone pollution whereas each system is characterized by different resource management and conservation problems.


Brown environmental problems are of serious nature yet there is no precise methodology to estimate their seriousness. Environmental experts believe that water pollution which is directly related to health is the most serious issue and accounts for nearly half of the total environmental damages. Health disorder is another concern that happens to a large extent due to air pollution which according to the experts accounts for one fifth of the environmental damage.

* Industrial Waste Water Pollution-Level of pollutants being emitted from industries is growing rapidly. Discharge of industrial waste water is causing serious environmental problems, among them are contamination of ground water, contamination of sea water, affecting aquatic life and drinking water; and contamination of rivers besides adversely affecting health of public. Pakistan is an underdeveloped country and most of the machinery imported over time by various sectors is of not very high standard owing to cost concerns thereby infusing toxic smoke but in order to progress, policy makers ignore various environmental aspects and related repercussions. Thus pollution from these machinery's is therefore higher than it is in many industrial countries. Industries with high levels of water contamination include textiles, leather, paper and board, sugar, fertilizer, and cement, which together account for above 70% of total water consumed. Adequate disposal of industrial waste water in the country is quite rare.

* Domestic Waste Water Pollution Waste water is often dumped into open drains, streams or septic tanks mostly connected directly to agricultural land instead of dumping into sewers. Household refuse is also dumped into streams and drains, which over time have become overloaded. One must not forget that direct disposal of municipal waste water into streams not only reduces ground water quality, but also disturbs the aquatic ecosystems, depletes aquatic resources, and affects agricultural uses of the surface water. On top of that, there is a practice of using municipal waste water for farming without any treatment which causes serious health hazard and makes soil salty hence irrigated land is becoming unproductive for cultivation very quickly. It is estimated that over 40 million people lack access to clean drinking water, and 60 million to basic sanitation facilities whereas migration to the big cities is putting pressure on inadequate urban water and sanitation facilities. Water related infections are spreading swiftly and more than 40% of patients admitted in hospitals are suffering from water-related diseases, such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, diarrhea, dysentery, yellow fever, and malaria, and about 60% of infant mortality is associated with water-related infectious and parasitic diseases.

* Motor Vehicle Emissions Vehicle emissions represent the greatest source of air pollution in Pakistan. In recent days, usage of vehicles has increased manifolds because of the availability of consumer finance facilities. According to an estimates, motor vehicle emissions account for about 90% of total emissions of hydrocarbons (smog), and carbon monoxide. Other emissions include lead, which can cause mental retardation in young children with few other health related problems. One can't take out the economic aspect from almost every matter of life therefore it wouldn't be wrong to say that vehicle emission has increased due to economic growth besides having few other factors including the growth in population and disposable income, the mass production of affordable vehicles, the deterioration of alternate modes of transportation. The absence of emissions regulations, the lack of enforcement of motor vehicle fitness regulations, and lack of interest and funds in maintaining vehicle smoke free are the main reasons for vehicle emission. In cities, a major source of pollution is two-stroke rickshaws and diesel-run vehicles and consumption of furnace oil with higher levels of sulfur. It is estimated that an average vehicle in Pakistan emits 20 times more hydrocarbons, 25 times more carbon monoxide, and 3.6 times more nitrous oxides than the average vehicle in the United States.

* Urban and Industrial Air Pollution Only a handful of industrial units in Pakistan treat their wastes according to the international standards even though most of them are ISO certified. These industries mostly in urban areas release radioactive substances and other noxious fumes (such as carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide) into the air as a consequence, air quality is declining. Due to lack of information and procedures, it is not possible to accurately estimate the level of air pollution but according to the rough estimates it has around 22,000 premature deaths among adults and 700 deaths among children every year. Illness and premature mortality is one of result of air pollution (both indoor and outdoor).

* Marine and Coastal Zone Pollution Over the period of time, coastal environment has changed, partly as a result of the massive take-off from the Indus River for irrigation and extensive pollution, particularly around Karachi area. Moreover, there is a reduction in the mangrove forests, which has adversely affected fish and shellfish nurseries. Waste water from industrial and domestic sources and agricultural run-off eventually end up in the river systems and ultimately in the sea. As a result, the economic policy failures that have led to industrial and domestic waste water have also caused coastal zone problems.


Pakistan contains number of natural resource systems such as irrigated agriculture; forests; fisheries, and systems focused on preserving wildlife. Each system has different conservation problems and management.

* Irrigated Agriculture Almost 90% of Pakistan's agricultural goods are produced in irrigated land which is around 80% of total cultivated area whereas it has the largest canal irrigation system in the world with over 2 million kilometers of canals, branches, distributaries, field channels, and watercourses. It is estimated that around 40% of the total water supply is lost in the canals and watercourses before reaching the farm gate. Most of the system is unlined and around 70% of the irrigation is supplied by tube wells, particularly in the rabi season. Since early years, water logging and salinity posed major hazards for irrigated agriculture. This has created greatest danger to the country's most important natural resource. Environmental agenda for irrigated agriculture is dominated by salinity and water logging whilst other problems include soil productivity losses and excessive use of agricultural inputs, especially chemicals.

* Water logging, Salinity, and Ground water Management-Salinity to a degree is the result of naturally occurring geological processes and depends on the soil material, climate, and land use. Salinity has increased due to canal irrigation system. Surveys have shown that three-fourth of tube wells provide brackish water that is unfit or only marginally fit for agriculture. The cost of salinity in terms of reduced yields is hard to evaluate. Unluckily there is no systematic system available for the collection of data so that accurate economic loss can be measured. Even then it is estimated that crop yields are reduced by about one-third for crops grown on slightly saline areas and yields on moderately affected areas are reduced by about two-thirds.

* Pollution from Agricultural Chemicals The haphazard use of agricultural chemicals, such as fertilizers and pesticides, has contaminated ground and surface water moreover pesticide run-off is becoming the cause of increase in the numbers of dead fish (especially on the banks of the Kabul River in certain seasons). Pesticide residues are of particular concern because they absorb into the environment at a slow rate, and accumulate in fish and animal tissue. Other risks from agricultural chemicals include contamination of shallow wells used for drinking water in villages and cities, and pesticide residues on grain and vegetables products in markets. The widespread use of often dangerous pesticides on the cotton crop is associated with several potential health hazards, including contamination of workers who apply it (three quarters of producers use a back-pack sprayer with no protective clothing), harvesters (mostly women), soil and ground water used for drinking, and consumers of agricultural products. Very few data are available to document the extent of these various health hazards.

* Rain-fed Agriculture (Barani)-About 20% of the total cultivated area in Pakistan is rain-fed (barani) particularly in northern Punjab and NWFP. Most of the natural resource issues which affect irrigated areas, particularly the use of agrochemicals and the decline in soil productivity, also affect rain-fed areas. The major problem in rain-fed areas is soil erosion, which has worsened over the years with the increase of population and poverty as a result low yield forces people to move to other areas to meet their livelihood. Water erosion is the major cause of soil erosion in rain-fed areas. Over 11 million hectares of land are slightly or severely affected by water erosion problem in Pakistan, particularly in NWFP, where one-third of rain-fed area is classified as seriously affected by water erosion.

* Forests - Forests occupy only 5.02% of the land area in Pakistan in 2005-06 out of that only one-third of the forests are productive in terms of timber extraction. Forests nevertheless play an essential role in the country's economy because of their importance as sources of fuel wood and grazing land. According to the estimates of GOP, almost one third of the energy needs are met by fuel wood whereas forests are also used for grazing more than 25% of the country's livestock. Deforestation leads to water erosion, which causes soil losses, siltation of reservoirs, and inefficiency in the irrigation system. This problem is most severe in the northern valleys, where migratory herdsmen and residents of the area have caused substantial destruction. Deforestation has increased over the period of time because of heavy demand for housing and crop land and growing trend of holding large livestock herds. Deforestation is also the result of poor forest management. Most of the natural forests are classified as state forests and the protection, timber extraction, and reforestation of these forests is vested in the Forest Departments. Revenues generated from timber sales are credited to the government treasury however and the departments responsible for forest management receive operational funds through annual budget appropriations that cover only a fraction of their requirements. As a result, needed replanting and maintenance are not carried out, resulting in deforestation and deterioration of the existing forests.


It is obvious enough from the foregoing facts that the government needs to get its priorities right. Indeed, it is important to have a comprehensive strategy framework that includes a forest policy, an energy conservation policy, etc, but it is even more important to undertake urgent action to bring air pollution down to safe limits and provide clean drinking water to all. Main binding constraints to improve environmental performance can be categories as; gaps in institutional design; gaps in the regulatory framework; capacity limitations; and gaps in incentives and accountability. Of these, weak incentives and low levels of public accountability remain the critical constraints on performance In all fairness, it is said that many of the problems are caused by failures of policies where most of the environmental problems arise because decisions about usage of natural resource and pollution are made without taking into account the full costs of environmental damage to the society at large. Therefore, additional policies are needed to ensure that the benefits from economic growth are not offset by the costs of increased pollution.

Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) should be made obligatory before launching a project like a dam, industry etc to protect and conserve environment in the surrounding areas. System for identifying projects that need Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is very weak and a lot need to be done in this respect by all the five environment protection agencies in the country. The mandatory EIA is required under the Pakistan Environmental Protection Act 1997 but most of the housing projects, large scale schemes completed and urban development done in the recent past have not obtained mandatory EIA. Lack of monitoring and enforcement of EIA conditions is another weak area of the system moreover there is a need to form a comprehensive institutional framework which clearly defines federal, provincial and local governments' responsibilities in checking environmental degradation. One must not forget the role NGOs, civil society and media can play in this respect. These organizations should be used more effectively. Of course environmental deregulation is not cost-free. Environment-friendly policies, such as the tax on industrial pollution, need to be adopted to ensure that the improved economic incentives do not conflict with the need to use natural resources in ways that are sustainable. Government should emphasize to promote environment education at all levels so as to disseminate awareness among masses regarding critical aspects of the issue and potential improvements in the living standards of people. It is pertinent to relate that Pakistan is not expected to be a major player in global warming, although its energy based emissions are a major source of pollution and environmental degradation within the country. Many of environmental problems can be associated with economy wide policies that have had indirect effect on the environment.

Summing up, It is appropriate to say that some progress has been made by both public and private sector in identifying environmental problems, their causes, and remedial actions to tackle with those problems though a lot can be done rather must be done. At the same time, it is also vital to mention that environmental institutions have failed to fully monitor and regulate usage of natural resource and pollution adequately. Specific policies should be made to discourage conservation and pollution, while the regulatory structure should be adequate enough so that regulations could be enforced and monitored. The potential impacts have been identified in the sectors of water, agriculture and forestry. Such impacts are likely to be incremental and a function of the imbalances created by socio-economic pressures and structural constraints. In short, government should not rely exclusively on regulation but should also focus on monitoring as well. And unless relevant policies are changed, environmental degradation as a result of industrial waste water is likely to accelerate with the growth in manufacturing sector.