Chopping Trees on Earth Day?

Earth Day has been celebrated by millions of people around the world each year since 1970. This Sunday, citizens and organizations around the world, including Pakistan, pledged to protect the precious yet fragile environment in which our habitat is placed.

But what did the government do to demonstrate its responsibility towards the environment?

It chopped down dozens of trees along the main highway running through the heart of Karachi. These trees lined the main Sharah-e-Faisal and had been there for decades. The image of the naked chopped down trees is a stark reminder of the gross environmental negligence that has become a part of the norm in our infrastructure development authorities. The image next to it – of the familiar ‘Tree of Life’ is a reminder, that such disrespect for nature is not only environmentally inappropriate, it is also a traversity of our heritage.

According to a report in Dawn:

A senior city government official told Dawn on Saturday that the traffic island along Sharea Faisal was being cleared of trees in preparation of the construction of a proposed 25-kilometre-long Karachi Elevated Expressway from M.T. Khan Road to Quaidabad, Landhi.

The city government held a public hearing on the controversial project three weeks back for the issuance of a no-objection certificate from the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency.

Analysts acquainted with environmental laws insist that the city government should not have started the tree-clearing operation along Sharea Faisal without a final approval from the provincial environmental agency.

Members of civil society, professionals, conservationists and other stakeholders have been expressing concern over the elevated expressway project along Sharea Faisal, saying that it is an expensive and inefficient solution to the city’s traffic problems. They feel certain that the project would give rise to many environmental problems.

According to an official document, apart from trees on the northern and southern sides of the KEE corridor, there are about 1,100 medium to large and extra-large trees of gyacum, eucalyptus, neem, peple, yellow flower, kiker, mango, palm, red flower which would ultimately be uprooted.

The provincial minister for environment and alternative energy, Dr Sagheer Ahmad, conceded that the no-objection certificate for the elevated expressway had not yet been granted to the city government.

City District Government Karachi (CDGK) has recently signed a contract with a Malaysian firm for the 3-year construction of this 24-kilometer elevated highway to the tune of $225 million. Already reports are surfacing that costs will be overrun, and discrepancies have been found in the financial plan for the repayment of this project via a 15 year toll tax plan.

This is not the only front where the citizen groups are fighting to protect the few natural habitats and environmental sanctuaries now left in this otherwise barren city. Kudos to the groups that are putting up a fight and resisting the officials in public and in court. For example, ATP has reported earlier on the “Sahil Bachao” campaign that is also taking place in Karachi.

The problem with some of these projects is that often overly ambitious government officials attempt to bypass the normal procedures of determining full environmental impact analyses and then entering into a constructive dialogue with the impacted communities and civic groups. The obfuscation of the real impact, and the reluctance to engage the civic society in such large scale infrastructure change projects is unfortunately a result of the overall bad planning that plagues these departments.

While there is certainly a need to improve traffic congestion in the city, and for the creation of mechanisms to ease traffic chokepoints on major arterial highways, such developments cannot be undertaken at the expense of environmental concerns which are already hightened in the dusty and polluted city of Karachi. One could imagine how a plan could be put in place to move these trees to a nearby location instead of simply chopping them down one fine sunday morning (that also happens to be the Earth Day). What message are they sending to the young children who may have learnt about protecting trees and plants in their classrooms just a few days ago?

Infrastructure developments that undermine the environmental and social impacts are often doomed for eventual failure, partly because the very society that is supposed to be helped by them finds itself suffering from the aftermaths. Karachi does not need more grey cement infrastructure dinosaurs that result from a lack of proper planning.

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