Category Archives: Environment

Rights of rivers

By Zubeida Mustafa

CAN a river have legal rights as, say, a human being? Why not, a Maori would say. Te Awa Tupua, New Zealand’s third largest river located in the North Island, was recognised as a legal entity in March 2017 by an act of parliament. This move came in response to a 140-year-old demand of the Whanganui tribe of the region which has traditionally treated the river as its ancestor. This in effect means that a close link between man and nature has been recognised and man’s obligations towards the river — his lifeline — acknowledged.

This is a unique concept which makes much sense. Within the span of a few weeks, an Indian court followed suit, and the Ganges and Jamna, sacred rivers of the Hindus, were also given legal rights. These initiatives have reinforced the personhood rights of rivers movement, which is rapidly gaining ground worldwide. It has significantly caught the attention of Pakistani environmentalists as well. I first heard of it the other day from Muhammad Ali Shah, the chairperson of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum, who spoke of this in his speech on dams at a meeting organised by the Irtiqa Institute of Social Sciences. Who else but the fisherfolk would be the first to ponder the implications of the savage abuse of rivers in Pakistan?

A few facts and figures quoted by Shah should be eye-openers. Of the thousands of rivers in the world, only 292 are defined as large — that is, they carry over 1,000 cubic kilometres water — but only 21 of them reach the sea. The remaining have been depleted by dams and mega irrigation projects.

The worst form of social injustice in Pakistan can be found in water distribution.

What about Pakistan? The Indus, the only river to reach the sea in the country, is in its death throes. Dams and canals are draining the waterway while garbage and solid waste are choking it. As a result, the sea is encroaching on the delta, strangling the mangroves and affecting the ecological health of the coastline and the river mouth. Pollution is another major enemy of the Indus and its tributaries.

And the dams? According to the International Commission on Large Dams, Pakistan has 150 dams of the height of at least 15 metres, including the world’s largest earth-filled dam (Tarbela). Yet we seem to be desperate for another one.

If the personhood rights of the Indus were to be accepted in principle, we would have to ensure that the river is not polluted, no more dams are built on it and water is drawn judiciously so that the river’s ecology is not damaged further or marine life decimated. Many lakes have also been affected by the pollution and depletion of river waters.

Pakistan is a water-scarce country, we are told, and our exploding population needs water to live. What is strange is that the many options available have not been explored seriously. There is no discourse on reservoirs to store the excess water that the heavy monsoon rains and the floods bring. There is no mention of conservation in agriculture (drip irrigation has never been tried on a large scale) and industry, or of the need to check the wasteful practices of the rich. And what about the leaking pipes which drain away as much as 30 per cent of the water in Pakistan’s largest city where the Karachi Water & Sewerage Board rules over the water kingdom. Muhammad Ali Shah’s was a lone voice that spoke strongly of conservation at the Irtiqa meeting.

The worst form of inequity and social injustice in the country can be found in water distribution. It is no wonder that the Supreme Court-mandated commission on water and sanitation in Sindh expressed its “serious resentment” on the “unfair” distribution of water in Karachi recently. Water theft, the operation of a tanker mafia and the prevalence of illegal water pumps are the sad story of Karachi’s water supply system. These illegalities are provided cover by allowing half of the 2,600 flow meters installed on the intervention of the Supreme Court to remain out of order. And who are the beneficiaries? Naturally, the rich and the privileged who can buy water at exorbitant prices to meet their needs, while the indigent continue to be denied even this basic necessity of life.

With the lack of availability of water is in itself the first major issue that has to be addressed, no one speaks about the quality of the water that is being supplied. It is not fit for drinking. As a result, water has become a commodity that is sold in the market and that has made many people wealthy. But there is no guarantee that bottled water is always safe for drinking.

The root of the problem lies at the source. Alas, rivers have no rights in Pakistan. But neither do the citizens, not on paper but in reality. This is certain though, when the rivers die, so will the citizens.

Source: Dawn

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No hope is suicide

By Zubeida Mustafa

ACCORDING to the World Health Organisation, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 29-year-olds worldwide. It has also been reported that the incidence of suicide has been on the rise in Pakistan. WHO put the figure at an estimated 13,337 for all ages in 2012. It would certainly be higher today.

Only recently, this paper reported three students killed themselves in Chitral after receiving their examination results, while another survived. The Human Rights Programme’s chairman reported that 40 to 45 people commit suicide in Chitral (population 447,362) every year. Continue reading No hope is suicide

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Whither feminism?


IS feminism changing in Pakistan? That is the question that should be asked by those who are interested in women’s issues. That is the question that I pondered over at the Women’s Peace Table I attended recently in Karachi.

Organised by Tehrik-e-Niswan (TN) and a few other civil society groups, this gathering was the third in the series that was launched in 2015 on the call of the Peace Women Across the Globe. The idea is to encourage women to be involved in the peace process in regions in the grip of conflict. Continue reading Whither feminism?

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New horizons

By Zubeida Mustafa

NEARLY 60 years ago, an epic Partition novel was published in India. It became an instant hit. Jhutha Sach narrated poignantly the epochal events of the time. Its author, Yashpal, a communist revolutionary who had spent many years in British jails, also captured the disappointment of the masses at their failed expectations. They had been promised much more than what they received.

This powerful book, written in Hindi, received a second lease of life after 50 years. The author’s son Anand translated the book into English. This is not that Dawn, the English title, has certainly introduced Yashpal to a new generation of international readership. In this journey, involving the crossing of borders that Jhutha Sach has undertaken, lies the importance of translation of literature. It is increasing as the book trade goes global. Though in the world market only 4.5 per cent of the books sold are translated works, in different non-English speaking countries the ratio is significantly higher. Thus a third of the books published in France are translations from other languages. In the Netherlands, this ratio is 45pc. Continue reading New horizons

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The magic crop


By Zubeida Mustafa

THE existential threat that Pakistan faces today is the insidious devastation of our human resources. It is a silent crisis, yet to be recognised, as an entire generation of children faces a slow death by malnutrition.

Denied basic nutrients — especially protein — essential for their physical and cognitive growth in the critical first 1,000 days of life, the majority of children never enjoy the same health and mental growth as that of a normal well-fed child. Paediatricians tell us that the damage done during this window of life — from conception till the second birthday — cannot be reversed. We have been warned, but nothing stirs us out of our complacency. Continue reading The magic crop

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Right vs wrong

IN a society as morally perverse and corrupt as ours, does a centre of ethics have any relevance? A cynic’s answer would be a resounding ‘none whatsoever’. The idealist/reformer would say, ‘all the more’. That is a dilemma that faces all activists in this country seeking to light the spark of change.

In this context, the SIUT’s Centre for Biomedical Ethics and Culture (CBEC) faces a daunting challenge. It has been struggling for the last 13 years to introduce an ethical perspective not just in healthcare but also in the non-medical sector. Its endeavours became meaningful and received international recognition when last week WHO declared the CBEC a Collaborating Centre for Bioethics — one of the eight to receive that prestigious status worldwide. Continue reading Right vs wrong

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A hill station in decay

The snow covered Thandiani mountaintop in the background  can no more be seen from a point of one's choice due to buildings like this one.
The snow covered Thandiani mountaintop in the background can no more be seen from a point of one’s choice due to buildings like this one.

By: Nasser Yousaf

guest-contributorAbbottabad. The name sounds romantic. But romantic it is no more. The small hill station, named after its first district administrator, is not even a shadow of its former glory. Sir James Abbott had been so greatly enamoured by the pristine beauty of his place of posting and temporary abode that he wrote an emotional poem in its praise. Continue reading A hill station in decay

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No trashy issue

TWO seemingly insignificant events could amount to the writing on the wall for our municipal administrators all over the country. It is plain, the public will no longer turn a blind eye to poor sanitation. People are now beginning to understand the implications of environmental pollution.

Recently, the inhabitants of a village in Fatehjang tehsil (Punjab) protested against the garbage dump which the district municipality had created near their homes. Some of them actually travelled to Islamabad to meet the director of the National Commission of Human Rights to lodge their complaint. They were not happy with the odour that pervaded their homes. Even more encouraging was the fact that the inhabitants of neighbouring villages refused to allow the DMO to pile garbage near their homes when he tried to shift the dumping site. Continue reading No trashy issue

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The politics of public policy

javedBy Zubeida Mustafa

Is Pakistan a failed state?

This question has been debated ad nauseam with no definitive conclusion being reached. It has been conceded, though, that there is something wrong with the process by which public policy is formulated. Self-serving rulers – both civilian and military – have projected their style of governance as being democratic, whereas in reality, both have ruled with a heavy hand.

Take the case of education. It would seem strange that after the experience of formulating 10 education policies dating back to the very inception of the country in 1947 – none of which were fully implemented – the present government has failed to announce the eleventh policy which was due in January 2016. Continue reading The politics of public policy

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Walls of peace

The walls of Rustom Baugh have images of Karachi's famous spots
The walls of Rustom Baugh have images of Karachi’s famous spots

By Zubeida Mustafa

IT is said that art heals and colours are therapeutic. As if proof were needed, one has to only see the transformational effect of a beautiful picture on a distressed child.

In this context it was a brilliant idea to paint Karachi’s graffiti-marred walls with pretty pictures. I am not an art critic but have enough sense to prefer a picture of beautiful animals to slogans declaring adherents of different faiths/sects ‘wajibul qatl’ (liable to be executed). More harmless but equally uncouth are the ads of obscure dawakhanas promising to restore to men their manliness. Continue reading Walls of peace

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