Thursday, 14 April 2011

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Pakistan: Environmental Issues

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, just to name a few. The major constraint to overcoming these problems, in-fact perhaps the main contributor to their intensity is the population growth, which is very high in contrast to the natural limited resources that are available to the people. Also included in the constraints is the unsustainable use and management of these resources. Around 160 million people live in this country, making it the seventh most populous country in the world. The rate of population growth is one of the fastest and according to estimates it would double in just 25 years (UNDP 1997). What is obvious from this is, if the population continues to grow at this rate, it would take a severe toll in the environment. The reason being that the country is not endowed with the resources required sustaining a huge population. Although it is primarily an agricultural country, the landscape is predominantly arid. Water, already a scarce commodity in most parts of the country, is now facing further shortages. This is also due in part to inadequate distribution and the coercion of the water-tanker mafia. This shortage is hindering the country's potential to develop agriculture. There are limited indigenous sources of energy, fossil fuel reserves are low and there is no great potential in the biomass energy.

Nowshera, Pakistan.

Some of the major environmental issues are mentioned below:


The main water sources in Pakistan are rivers, glaciers, rainfall and groundwater. The rainfall pattern is extreme due to the varied topography of the country. Almost 75% of the country receive less than 250 mm annually. The rainfall is dependent on the two monsoon seasons, the most important being the Southwestern monsoon between June to September. The high temperatures mean that there is high evaporation, which leads to loss of water everywhere.

Pakistan occupies the basin of three major rivers, which is of considerable importance to the country. Indus (70% of total land area), Kharan closed basin (15% of the total land area) and the Makran coastal basin (15% of the total land area) are the three basins, with the Indus basin representing the largest potential. It mainly draws its water from snowmelt and precipitation.The Indus Water Treaty (1960) between India and Pakistan has restricted Pakistan's access to the water in the Indus basin, to the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum rivers.

Considering Pakistan's environmental scenario, it becomes increasingly obvious that water issues are the most pressing. Human health, agriculture, rangelands, forests, waterbodies, and aquatic life, in fact the whole ecosystem is affected by problems associated with water. Not only is there a scarcity of drinking water but pollution of water bodies by effluents from industries and the sewerage system have compounded the problem.

Freshwater Pollution - Almost all chemical waste is dumped untreated into the river system from where it is taken out to sea. A large number of industries discharge deadly and toxic waste into storm-drains, open nullahs or in the Lyari and Malir rivers. These include leather tanning units, pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, refineries, chemical, textile, paper and pulp, engineering works and thermal power plants. The Lyari River has become a putrid and toxic gutter due to discharge of effluents. Solid waste also finds its way into the water system. The first environmental assessment study in the country was conducted at the SITE industrial area to record the effect of industrial wastewater on Karachi's vegetation (Dr. S.A. Qadir). The chemical analysis revealed that there were traces of heavy metals such as chromium and nickel in the vegetable samples. Invariably, this showed that that the industries were not using any pollution control measures whatsoever. Untreated industrial waste is not only affecting the environment but ultimately is also having its toll on the country's health, by polluting the water bodies. This renders them useless for human consumption and irrigation. Consequently, it is responsible for the many water borne diseases that plague the country and account for 60% of infant deaths.

Sewage - The discharge of sewage and contaminated water in rivers and water bodies not only affects marine production, use of such water for agriculture results in the contamination of the food chain. In Pakistan, sewage water is re-channelled to irrigate crops, which contaminates them with pathogens. As a result 50% of the crops are contaminated. Groundwater may also be contaminated by untreated sewage. Water borne diseases are the largest killers in the country and health problems resulting from polluted water cost a large amount of money.

Marine Pollution - The seas have been used as dumps for ages, mainly due to the misconception that they are so large, whatever is put into them gets diluted. However, the truth of the matter is that most of the contaminated water entering the sea has a density different to that of the natural seawater.

This means that it does not mix and in fact settles down at the bottom of the ocean as sludge, which may be 1.5 foot deep in certain areas. Much of the water from the rivers finds its way down to the sea, taking with it all the toxic effluents. There have been major changes in the coastal environment in the last 200 years.


Forests, scrub and planted trees on farmland constitute about 4.2 million hectares (4.8%) of the country (Forest Sector Master Plan GOP 1992 from Environmental Profile of Pakistan 1998). The majority (40%) of the forests are either coniferous or scrub. Irrigated plantations and riverine & coastal forests make up the rest. 1.78 million hectares is covered by hill forests which include species such as deodar, fir, blue pine, spruce, juniper, chir pine, oak and horse chestnut (The Nature of Pakistan). These forests grow in the watershed areas protecting the fragile mountain ecosystem and helping abate floods and droughts. They are a major source of timber, fuelwood and resin and this, coupled with the increasing grazing requirements is posing a major threat.

The destruction of forests can have long lasting
negative effects on our world.

The foothill forests (comprising acacia and kau) are also subjected to over-grazing. Shisham and mulberry (in Punjab) and babul and eucalyptus (in Sindh) make up the man-made irrigated forests and are mainly used for fuelwood and timber for the furniture and sports-goods industries.


Desertification is a process that turns productive land into non-productive desert. It occurs mainly in semi-arid areas (mean rainfall less than 600 mm) bordering on deserts. The arid and semi-arid rangelands in Pakistan show signs of being strained. The threat of overgrazing, over-harvesting and overstocking of the natural vegetation is aggravating the situation. The change in grazing practices has virtually reduced some areas in the Cholistan desert to sand dunes.

According to one estimate more than 60% of the natural grazing areas of the country have production levels lower than one third of their biological potential. More than one-third of the country has been classified as under risk of desertification (45 million hectares). Deforestation, over cultivation, excessive cutting of fuelwood and incorrect irrigation practices all have a share in this problem.

Soil Erosion

Soil erosion is taking place at an alarming rate and is mainly due to deforestation in the north. Water erosion is prominent on steep slopes such as the Potohar track and surrounding areas, an area extensively used for cultivation. Water erosion and poor land management is also affecting watersheds in the upper Indus River and its tributaries.

Waterlogging and Salinity

These problems usually occur together and are a result of intensive and continuous use of surface irrigation. Some experts consider them more important than soil erosion because they occur in the most productive areas of the Indus Basin. When the water evaporates the salts are left behind and the area becomes unfit for agriculture.

Waterlogging and salinity pose serious threats to the primarily agricultural economy and may also affect the remaining forests in the basin. In any case, the increase in this problem could mean the clearing up of the adjacent forests to make room for more agricultural land.

Certain other issues of extreme importance in Pakistan also have an impact on the environment. Among these the prominent ones are poverty, urban migration and the growing population.

How Environmental changes are dealt in Pakistan?

Environmental changes are taking place in every part of world. Pakistan faces many environmental challenges which needs to addressed since the economy is dependent on its natural resources. These challenges are grouped in to two broad categories with varying degrees of impact. The first arises from a combination of poverty and population growth, leading to the over-exploitation of natural resources. And the second, emanates from the largely unplanned increase in industrialization and urbanization, leading to the pollution of water, air and land. The poor are disproportionately affected by this environmental degradation and lack of access to clean and affordable energy services.
In order to support the Government to meet these challenges, UNDP Pakistan works closely with the Ministry of Environment, Local Government and Rural Development to assist in implementing the national environment agenda. The program focuses in an integrated way on different aspects of the environment: natural resources management, multiple level capacity building for decision-making, mainstreaming environment into the development process, and advocacy.
In 2008, UNDP initiated a number of projects to address Pakistan’s environmental issues. The Mass Awareness for Water Conservation and Development project addresses the issue of water shortages. The Renewable Energy Project aims at removing barriers to the adoption of renewable energy technologies, particularly in Pakistan’s remote areas. The National Capacity for Self Assessment for Global Environmental Management in Pakistan Project works with the government to identify national environmental priorities. It also identifies capacity building gaps to implement the three Rio Conventions – bio-diversity (Convention on Biodiversity), land degradation (UN Convention to Combat Desertification) and climate change (UN Framework Convention Climate Change).

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