Pakistan is currently experiencing its hottest summer on record, as climate conditions become more severe in the country.
With air pollution ten times higher than safe levels recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO), Pakistan is the fourth most polluted country in the world.
The government is now spearheading public transport projects in major cities. Normally that would be considered a win for sustainable development and the environment.
But this time, environmentalists are slamming the project,as trees are being traded for transport.
Asia Calling correspondent, Naeem Sahoutara reports from Karachi and Lahore.
Hundreds of trees are being cut down in Pakistan’s Southern city of Karachi, paving the way for a new bus service, ironically named the Green Line Bus Service.
At an estimated cost of 16 billion rupees, (or US$22 million), the bus service is supposed to serve about 300,000 passengers each day, connecting residential areas to the city centre.
Commuters, like Karam Din, say the buses will bring a welcome change.
“People cannot reach their destinations on time because of frequent traffic jams.” Din complained.
“Many people, who are sick, face great difficulties. I hope that once this project is complete, it will benefit the public, and people will be able to get where they’re going.”
Karachi is Pakistan’s largest city.
It is the country’s economic life line, and home to 20 million people.But its infrastructure lags behind other South Asian cities.
Traffic jams last for hours. Buses are decades-old, worn-out, and leave clouds of smoke in their wake. They break down in the middle of the road.
In February, former Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif launched the bus project, declaring it a gift to the citizens of Karachi.
An efficient public transport system would normally be considered a positive step for the environment.
But environmentalists are calling this project a ‘green disaster.’
They will reduce carbon emissions. But their damage should also be compensated, says horticulturalist Rafi-ul-Haq.
“Otherwise, it’s unsustainable development - on the one hand it benefits people, but on the other hand it harms the environment,” he explained.
20,000 trees will be cut down in Karachi to make room for the Green Line Bus Service.
Rafi-ul-Haq says that’s green cover the city can’t afford to lose.
“Karachi used to have 6 to 7 percent urban forest cover. That forest has shrunk to less than 3 percent [of its former size]. If more trees are cut down, and new ones aren’t planted, will we need to import oxygen for people to breathe?” he asks me.
The government promised to plant 17,000 trees to replace those lost. But Rafi-ul-Haq says the government hasn’t kept its promise.
“The government promised that the trees on the Green Line Bus Service route would be carefully uprooted and then re-planted somewhere else.”
He continued, “few trees were replanted, and they have all died because the procedure was not properly performed.”
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government takes pride in the infrastructure projects they have led across the country.
But these projects all follow a similar pattern.
In 2013, the first Metro Bus Service was launched in Lahore, once known as the ‘City of Boulevards.’ 500 trees were chopped down to make way for the project, and Lahore is now noisier and dirtier than before.
Two years later, Islamabad lost 1000 trees in a similar project.
The government recently launched the Metro Train project in Lahore. But the High Court has temporarily stopped construction due to its impact on environment and heritage.
Lawyer Humayun Faiz filed the public interest litigation.
“This is a concrete project,” he stated.
“Over 25.7 kilometers there will be total concrete and, you know, it is [proven] in the scientific research that every kilometer of concrete will rise 2 [degrees] Centigrade [the temperature] of the city. And definitely the poor people of Punjab will suffer.”
In recent years, Pakistan has seen a rapid change in climate patterns, as winter and summer become increasingly severe.In 2015, an extreme heat-wave killed at least 3, 000 people in Karachi.
An efficient public transport system and sustainable development is essential.
But Lawyer Humayun Faiz says rather than dealing with the country’s long term challenges, these infrastructure projects are destroying the environment for short term political gains.
“When the government started this project, it was just start intention to grab votes and sympathies,” Faiz contends.
“The people need good education, health and environment. I’m making a categorical statement that they Government of Punjab have not planted a single tree and they have cut down hundreds of trees. This is a big, big loss.”