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Greening the urban environment Dawn, By F.H. Mughal


“GEEEN Cities: Plan for the Plant,” the theme for the World Environment Day (June 5, 2005), was most appropriate in today’s urban environments in the fast growing cities. In 1960, only one-third of the world’s population lived in urban areas. By 1999, that percentage increased to 47 per cent. By 2030, more than 60 per cent of the world’s population will live in urban areas. The increased urbanization has given rise to such problems as pollution, poverty, disease, despair, unemployment and loss of human dignity

Diseases and poverty are common and quality of life has deteriorated. Exposure to toxic substances (e.g., atmospheric lead) impacts the mental growth of children. Children learn more slowly and miss much of their schooling.

The natural environment provides service for humankind, free of charge. Survival of species depends upon the service, the environment provides. Ecosystems perform valuable ecological service for the human beings. They help purify the air and water. They absorb carbon dioxide gas, which contributes to global warming. Ecosystems help to covert wastes into useful resources.

Biological diversity maintains varieties of species, which reduces vulnerability to diseases and pests. So, by degrading and spoiling the environment, the humankind, in a way, is trying to destroy the ability of the environment, to provide these life-sustaining services.

Drinking-water provided to Karachi city is not wholesome. Households boil the so-called drinkable water. One can imagine the huge volumes of gas being used for boiling water. Those, who are affluent, are seen carrying bottled water all the time. Because, the water supply in the city is not metered and, the city’s water supply agency is least bothered, the water conservation in Karachi is simply non-existent. One can see indiscriminate use of water for washing floors and cars.

The practice keeps continuing, despite serious shortages of water. City government should realize that, even globally, there is a fresh water crisis. About one-third of the world’s population already lives in countries, considered to be “water-stressed” (where consumption exceeds 10 per cent of total supply). Karachi is well within the definition of water-stressed.

Municipal wastewater treatment is dismal and hopeless. The effluent quality of water, produced by the existing wastewater treatment plants is poor. The North Karachi aerated lagoons wastewater treatment plant, which had the excellent capacity to produce good quality effluent and, would even treat industrial wastewater, because of the extended aeration system, became a victim of total neglect.

The high organic load of wastewater imposes a drain on dissolved oxygen levels of the Lyari and Malir rivers, causing anaerobic (devoid of oxygen) conditions, most of the time. Lyari and Malir rivers’ water quality is no better than an open sewer. The rivers drain to the sea, where marine life is impacted. Non-treatment of industrial wastewaters adds toxic elements to the marine life.

Unclean and smoky vehicles foul the ambient air in Karachi, with no relief in sight. Municipal solid waste management is deficient. Not all the waste generated is collected. There are no proper sanitary landfills. Hazardous waste, mainly of industries, is not treated and disposed of.

In addition to the automotive-related noise, the roadside establishments (welding shops, iron smelting shops) generate noise due to the improper planning. In the built environment, indoor air quality, energy-wasteful buildings, improper sanitation and non-water conservation, are some of the issues that are of serious concern.

In view of haphazard development of the city, one has to pay its price in terms of money, time and even in frustration. It has become an issue, which is affecting every responsible citizen. Squatter settlements and slums is the product of sprawl. In Karachi, there are nearly 1,300 squatter settlements. Inadequate water supply makes it difficult to maintain adequate sanitation.

Lack of proper sanitation and inadequate hygiene has lead to increased environmental health problems. Poor sanitation in the squatter settlements is responsible for the 80 per cent of all diseases. According to the UN report, worldwide, the annual death, toll due to the lack of basic sanitation, exceeds five million, 10 times the number killed in wars, on average, each year.

Travel time in Karachi has increased tremendously. Time wasted in traffic gridlock is significant. It is estimated that, 100 million litres of fuel are wasted in traffic gridlock each year.

The green areas, which produce oxygen, absorbs carbon dioxide, filters the air (thereby enhancing the air quality), provide storm water control and allows people to breathe in the fresh air, are vanishing and giving place to real estate development. This has important effect on ambient temperatures. Urban air temperatures can be as much as five degrees Celsius hotter than the surrounding green areas, when natural land cover is replaced by roads and buildings. This phenomenon, known as the “heat island effect,” can be minimized to a large extent, by preserving or creating green spaces in cities. The city needs more green areas.

An important adjunct of green living is the development of green buildings. Green building approach incorporates consideration of aspects like indoor environmental quality, judicious waste disposal, environmental impacts, impact on transport patterns, construction processes, emission of greenhouse gases, dust emissions, water usage, wastewater and solid waste generation, building waste material, health risks, aesthetic quality, landscaping, heat island effect and material life cycle assessment. Poor indoor air quality in large buildings is a major problem.

The city authorities need to develop and adopt a “environmental action agenda,” which should be implemented along with the execution of development projects, in order to have healthy urban environments. This should apply to the outdoor environment and the built environment (the building construction).

The agenda should have a vision which pledges that by improving the environment of city, quality of life and economic well-being of the city can be improved. Realistic goals should be set.

The goals could be, like improve drinking-water quality; reduce use of water; improve air quality; rational treatment and disposal of municipal and hazardous solid waste, reduce greenhouse gas emissions (by using renewable energy); phase-out ozone-depleting substances; create healthy, green urban neighbourhoods; preserve, restore and increase green areas; promote environment-friendly design and building of projects; promote clean fuels and clean vehicles; make Karachi a pedestrian- and bike-friendly city; provide efficient mass transit system; encourage less car usage and carpooling (schools in Karachi should be asked to promote carpooling); promote car-free zones; promote concepts of re-use and recycling of materials; encourage citizens to buy environment-friendly products; discourage citizens from buying products containing persistent toxic constituents; build a central library and museum in city centre; raise public awareness about environmental problems; promote best environmental practices in all faucets of life; encourage environmental impact assessment of all projects; provide environmental education in schools; vigorously promote environmental health interventions in squatter settlements; make built environment (buildings) green; improve the beaches and coastlines of Karachi; and reduce use of pesticides in agricultural areas in peri-urban areas.

The goals listed would require a lot of efforts to be achieved, but are not impossible. A number of cities have taken steps to ensure sustainable approach in the development and, making the cities and buildings green.

Provision of a fast, comfortable and reliable system of public transport, is becoming common in most cities, with a sensible and sustainable mix of mobility options (buses, trams, underground metro system and sky trains) with quick interconnections. Transit modes complement each other to a high degree, with convenient shifting from one mode to another. Buses travel on specified lanes, with pick and drop at designated points only. Frequency and punctuality of the public transport is superb. Traffic signals are synchronized to prevent idle engine running conditions.

Waste reduction is an aspect, which has not received the desired attention. Assuming that 5,000 tons/day of waste is generated in Karachi, at present, the waste reduction plan should ensure 80 per cent reduction in waste by the year 2010, so that, despite the time progression, only 1,000 tons/day of waste is generated. In fact, most cities are striving for zero waste disposals to landfills. Waste reduction can be achieved by waste minimization, waste reuse and waste recycling. Large reductions are required in the use of disposables and toxic products. Encouraging local community groups can help in adopting environment-friendly recycling and composting programmes.

The city government needs to start work on making Karachi green, by adopting green governance and, changing their present “business-as-usual” approach. All operations, development and management of activities need to be made environment-friendly.

The actions, which can be taken in hand right away, are forest-like areas in city centre and extensive establishment of greenbelts, provision of safe drinking-water (water quality should conform to the WHO guidelines for drinking-water quality), protection of surface and groundwater resources, proper treatment of all municipal wastewater produced in Karachi, treatment of industrial wastewater, treatment and disposal of municipal and industrial solid waste, control over vehicles causing air and noise pollution, aesthetic pleasing outlook of the city and, making the built environment green (the building activity).