The Lahore Canal declared by the Supreme Court as a ‘Public Trust and Urban Heritage Park’ is under threat as the upcoming canal road widening project is expected to require the uprooting of almost 500 trees. This will become a serious environmental hazard. The last time canal widening took place in 2012, thousands of trees were uprooted and exotic species planted in their place which made almost no ecological sense.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the deforestation rate in Pakistan, 2.1 per cent per annum, is the highest in Asia. A sharp rise in population, and demand for agriculture, is fast eating our forests and green belts.
The Lahore canal (60 km long), built by the Mughals, is the epicentre of the city’s cultural heritage. The road, which runs on the banks of the Lahore canal, is one of the city’s main transportational arteries. A rise in population has led to congestion on the canal road resulting in traffic jams. A recent report titled ‘Cleaning Pakistan’s Air’ by The World Bank stated that Lahore, the second largest metropolitan city of Pakistan, hosts millions of cars which has lead to high concentrations of pollutants in the atmosphere, up to 2 to 14 times higher than the prescribed United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) limits. This is something we need to worry about.
[quote]Thousands of local trees were uprooted and exotic species planted in their place[/quote]
An increase in the number of vehicles has demanded widening of roads but any such expansion should be in line with sustainable development. The importance of green belts and forest cover, which act as carbon sinks by absorbing harmful emissions and releasing atmosphere-purifying oxygen, cannot be ignored. However if trees are chopped down, rising levels of pollutants, as highlighted in the report, will lead to countless health problems, alongside fueling climate change.
This year as well the government has developed adhoc plans to further widen the road and develop new underpasses, which it claims will help to reduce traffic congestion. The recent public hearing which presented the findings of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) of the Canal Bank Road widening, construction of 12 signal free u-turns, rebuilding of Jail Road underpass, and remodeling of all present underpasses held on July 16, 2014, was against the sanctity of the Supreme Court (SC) judgment and the Lahore Canal Heritage Park Act, 2013.
This isn’t the first time the government is chhosing to ignore environmental concerns, as a similar public hearing for the EIA of the ongoing Metro Bus Project was held in Islamabad. Surprisingly, it was conducted by NESPAK, the same company commissioned to build the metro bus system. It would not be incorrect to assume that the hearing was biased.
In the case of Lahore, the public hearing was in complete defiance of SC orders, as the Lahore canal area was declared a public trust and urban heritage park from Thokar Niaz Baig to Jallo Park on September 15, 2011. It is worth mentioning that the former Chief Justice of Pakistan took suo moto notice of the canal widening three times, terming it the lungs of Lahore. According to the Lahore Canal Heritage Park Act 2013 Section 3 subsection 5 (a) and (b) it is clearly indicated that construction, clearing and removal or damage of trees in that area is illegal, which means that even the public hearing violates the Lahore Canal Heritage Park Act, 2013.
Ali Hassan Habib, Director General and CEO of World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan) also condemned this unsustainable development by saying that ‘Canal widening does not solve the problem of congestion. Since the exits of the canal enter congested city areas, it creates worse traffic jams at the entry and exit points. One must know that the Lahore Canal serves as a sanctuary for birds, insects and trees. Most importantly, it will destroy a part of the heritage of Lahore, especially after the Supreme Court ruling requires the government to treat the canal area as a heritage area, a public trust. Not only will it remove shade, but also destroy the habitat of any remaining wildlife prevalent there.’
This expensive plan will cost approximately 8.5 billion rupees, but there seems to be little or no investment in clean drinking water projects, better health care facilities and most importantly envisaging a transport master plan to cater to the growing needs of the city.
Imrana Tiwana, General Secretary, Lahore Conservation Society urged the government to invest in public welfare projects, as they are more important. She further stated that‘We wrote letters to DG, Environment Protection Agency (EPA), Lahore Development Authority (LDA) and the Traffic Engineering and Transport Planning Agency (TEPA) but got no response, which shows ignorance of the government in addressing environmental issues.’
Nonetheless, government officials were optimistic that the project will help improve mobility and reduce congestion on the canal road. Israr Saeed Khan, Chief Engineer, LDA, responded to my environmental concerns of the planned uprooting of 500 trees out of 1,064 by saying: ‘We’ll plant more indigenous trees on green belts than ever before so that the environment is not harmed’. It’s hard to tell where they’ll plant them when there are no green belts left.
Our government should keep in mind that development shouldn’t be focused on a very small percentage of Lahoris, i.e. those 5-15% who own cars. Road widening will help improve traffic for a limited time period only. In the past, engineers claimed that the development taking place on Lahore Canal Road, either for the sake of constructing underpasses, interchanges or widening of the roads, would improve the traffic situation in Lahore but this never happened. Even NESPAK in a recent study falsified government claims of putting an end to traffic congestion on the Lahore Canal Road. It confirmed that even after this high budgeted project is completed, traffic congestion will appear once again after six years. When this budget project needs revision after a mere six years, what is the point of building it?
Laws exist to protect this country from environmental degradation but we lack the capacity to implement them with full spirit. What Lahore and the country needs is a vision that can take the country away from constant petrol consumption. The government has shown little to no interest in educating the public on the importance of car pooling, use of public transportation, providing a better and more sustainable network of buses all over the city and promoting walking and cycling. Unless these alternative measures are also put on the table, Lahore’s traffic problems will not be solved.
The writer is a freelance contributor. He tweets at @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached at email@example.com