Pakistan's Environmental Nightmare

Millions of Refugees Deepen a Nation's Ecological Woes

Other recyclers include Karachi's 600,000 heroin addicts. Their bounty is the thousands of used hypodermic needles they scavenge from the medical waste dumped on city streets. The addicts shoot up openly on the sidewalks, an army more than half a million strong, men like scarecrows dressed in rags. They are left alone to their desires: Their lives are regarded as punishment enough. There is no money for treatment, and the Karachi city jail does not need more mouths to feed. One morning last week, an addict, who identified himself only as Pervez, pulled from his pocket a dirty plastic bag filled with needles. "These syringes we got from the hospital garbage," he explained, as a friend rolled up his sleeve to reveal a needle hanging idly from a vein. "They're perfectly good; they've only been used one time." Pervez and the other men claim the needles can be used for up to a week before the sharps get dull and the rubber plungers begin to leak their mixture of blood and heroin. Warned of the dangers of sharing needles, he said simply, "Our life is already dangerous, we do not worry about that."


It was a year ago, on the second day of Ramadan, that Mohammed Ayub left Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance and the Taliban were fighting in Nangarhar Province, where he lived. "We knew that soon we would have nothing," he explains. And so Mohammed and 30 other families, all relatives of his, left for Pakistan. In Nangarhar, he had made his living as a wood seller, cutting the trees from the nearby hills. In Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province, in the Shamshatu refugee camp, Mohammed resumed his business in a vacant lot next to his mud hut.

Trash fires burn along the banks of Karachi's lifeless Lyari River.
photograph by Michael Kamber
Trash fires burn along the banks of Karachi's lifeless Lyari River.

The UN high commissioner for refugees gives the refugees flour, lentils, and some cooking oil every month, but no fuel with which to cook. For the Afghans, as for the majority of Pakistan's 140 million people, wood is the fuel of choice. International environmental organizations recommend that a country have 20 to 25 percent of its land covered by forest. The official figure in Pakistan is about 4 percent. Dr. G.M. Khattak, former chief conservator of forestry for the Northwest Frontier province, estimates the real figure to be about 2 percent. "In the poor areas, the people are desperate," he says. "Not a blade of grass stands, not a tree, not a shrub." Pakistan is losing timber at the rate of 5 million board-feet a year. In a decade, the country's forests may cease to exist altogether.

Many conservationists tell tales of corruption almost comical in its blatancy. Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, served as minister of the environment in his wife's administration. Now jailed on corruption charges, he was known as "Mr. 10 Percent," for the kickbacks he demanded from companies seeking government contracts. Large "timber mafias" are still allowed to illegally cut wood from government lands in exchange for cash payoffs. It is from these mafias that many refugees buy their wood. "All orders [from top forestry officials] came in over the telephone," recalls Dr. Khattak. "Nothing was put in writing. They'd call and say, 'Let Mr. X cut 500 trees, let Mr. Y cut 200 trees.' If you protested, 'This is against government policy,' they'd say. 'Do you want to serve, or do you want to stay home?' "

Though the war has interrupted operations, the same mafias have cut wood in Afghanistan for years and smuggled it into Pakistan. Still, even without these mafias, it is the people's need to cook that fuels the demand for timber. All over Pakistan, in the evening time, a thick layer of smoke blankets the towns and villages as people prepare meals. "I've gone to villages and told the people, 'Look at this beautiful forest. Why are you cutting it down?' They say, 'You come here in the winter when it's cold. We can't eat the beautiful forest, but we can cook with it,' " says Dr. Khattak. "We are talking about deforestation, but what we should be talking about is poverty."

A Ray of Hope

In 1980, the squatter settlement of Orangi, on the outskirts of Karachi, was awash in sewage. Residents built "soak pits," but the ground quickly became saturated with waste, and many relied on open sewers in which dysentery and malaria flourished. Eventually, inhabitants attempting to solve their own problems formed the Orangi Pilot Project, a nonprofit organization designed to aid the residents' cleanup efforts. Dr. Akhter Hameed Khan spent six months organizing one street. He showed the residents-many of them illiterate immigrants-how to form an organization and collect money for construction materials. And he provided technical assistance-teaching residents to dig a trench and lay the sewer line themselves. Block by block, Orangi residents laid their own sewage system with OPP guidance.

From this beginning, the OPP branched out into education, helping residents to construct their own schools, then set up a credit union, provided low-cost immunization, and trained local midwives in family planning. Today Orangi is largely self-sufficient. In fact, OPP discourages foreign loans and recently helped defeat a $100 million Asian Development Bank loan to build sewers in other Karachi neighborhoods. According to Perween Rahman, OPP's director, the loan would have increased Pakistan's staggering national debt, replicated work that was already done, and cost taxpayers approximately 35 times as much as work done under the OPP model. "Last year," Rahman says, "56 percent of Pakistan's budget went to loan interest payments; 32 percent to the military; 10 percent to running the government. Only 4 percent was for development." A model of development, the Orangi Pilot Project is being replicated in cities throughout Pakistan, and in other countries throughout South Asia.

Related story:

"Environmental Devastation in Pakistan: A Photo Essay" by Michael Kamber

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