Subh-e-Nau Magazine

Impacts of increasing floods: turning the tide with sustainability practices

Climate change is leaving us no quarters and floods are just one of its impacts which are increasing in both frequency and intensity. In the monsoon 2020, Pakistan and, Karachi in particular, faced record levels of extreme rainfall events. We have to act now and use water conservation and effective municipal services as a means to offset the large-scale devastation by these furies of nature.       

The 2020 monsoon wreaked havoc across Pakistan, with more than 400 people killed and 200,000 homes lost, and millions displaced as a result. Karachi faced a record level of rainfall with a whopping single day of 345 mm of rain drowning our “city of lights” in floods and misery. This broke the previous record set 298.4 mm set in 1984. Moreover, in a single week of August 28, another record breaking 760 mm of rain was recorded. With more than 41 killed in Karachi alone, the rest of the country also struggled with extreme rainfall in the North and Northwestern parts of the country also facing floods at another scale. Karachi faced shortage due to electricity outages, fuel supplies and the urban flooding due to blocked drainages.
Climate change is leading to these impacts, and to rectify the situation we have to change our ways and move towards sustainability practices to contend with these disasters in a planned and phased manner, else the continued impacts will only lead to further misery and mayhem. These include climate adaptation and conservation strategies which I outline below.

Adaptation via climate conservation practices

With climate change bringing disastrous events for many nations into death sentences like droughts and consequently slides into desertification, Pakistan is one nation on the receiving end of such unwelcome flux – which of course means disastrous consequences to its agrarian based economy. What is our response so far? Continued and unmitigated deforestation, unabated pollution of the skies and waterways, as well as no cultural, ethical or sensible considerations for the proper management and conservation of water.
Unfortunately, as trite as the whole idea of conservation of water has been made out to be, the time is now that such a philosophy guides all efforts in solving our current and impending water shortages. Rainwater harvesting, which as the words imply, is a most elegant and practical means to hold and not let drain the great gift to life from the heavens above and the monsoon season floods can be used to tap this precious resource systematically.The foremost lack of water mismanagement, in the shape of 60% leakages through taps and pipelines is a common occurrence. There is a lot of talk about the recurring water crises in Pakistan. Have we ever thought that besides investing in mega projects like dams, for everyday purposes we can use existing water by avoiding water mismanagement and using the rainwater? Efforts, instead, are directed more towards “advanced high tech” solutions like filter and desalination plants – that these too lie in ruin and misuse is adding more towards misdirected efforts in solving the water crises.
We are also rapidly depleting our groundwater sources, which is an unreliable and diminishing resource. However, what about the purest form of water that pours so mercifully upon us each monsoon season? As usual, we let it drain into our gutters and sewers – an ungrateful inertia that worsens both our drought and flooding situations. Not only will such actions ultimately render our rivers dry, but the resulting desertification of our lands is imminent, should we stick to letting our gifts literally slip through our fingers. Pakistan turning into a Sahara type desert is a nightmare we should all work towards avoiding and saving rainwater will be a most effective means to stem the desertification path we are on.
Then there is the water quality issue, and rainwater can at least partially address this problem. Lahore, Karachi, Kasur, Hyderabad, Islamabad you name it, every city has worsening water quality!  The public water supply systems are obsolete and defective both in terms of reliability as well as safety. The resulting environmental catastrophes have lingered in our memories as innumerable people including toddlers and children have either fallen sick or died since the inception of Pakistan.
In sum, water being the most basic human right can cost you your life, thanks to the extensive contamination.  In the recent past, the notable and deadly Hyderabad water crisis was not an isolated case.  The crisis was one of the many that have surfaced in recent years due to the lack of priority attached to safe water supply.  Islamabad, our capital city, suffers from similar ailments found in other cities in regard to both water quality and quantity. The city has regions and pockets of populations in slum areas that live without any supply of water. The poor inhabitants of these areas rely on underground water that is both capricious in terms of supply and dangerous in terms of quality.
 In short, water is by far the most important agent for health and development from all aspects of the word.  There can be no poverty alleviation if the issue of safe and readily available water is not addressed on war footing.
By working extensively on rainwater harvesting across Pakistan, we will make sure that we are not only addressing the drought situation by storing the monsoon rain, but, in addition taking into stock the most pure form of water naturally available to us from the skies above.

So, what is rainwater harvesting?

Rainwater harvesting is the collection and storage of rain from roofs or from surface catchments for future use. The concept of capturing rainwater and storing it for later use is well documented from pre-Roman times and on all the major continents, although in industrialised countries, until recently, the practice had largely died away with the introduction of reliable mains-supplied water. With the ever-growing demand for water (and subsequent increases in cost), and the known adverse impacts this can have on local environments, the demand for rainwater recycling systems all over the world is on the increase. This is being done in many parts of the world, such as Britain, China, Brazil, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Germany and India, where there is enough rain for collection and conventional water resources either do not exist or are at risk of being over-used to supply a large population.
The water is generally stored in rainwater tanks or directed into mechanisms which recharge ground water. Rainwater harvesting can provide lifeline water for human consumption, reduce water bills and the need to build reservoirs which may require the use of valuable land.
Traditionally, rainwater harvesting has been practiced in arid and semi-arid areas, and has provided drinking water, domestic water, water for livestock, water for small irrigation and a way to replenish ground water levels. This method may have been used extensively during the days of the Indus Valley Civilization.
Currently in China and Brazil, rooftop rainwater harvesting is being practiced for use for all the above purposes. Gansu province in China and semi-arid north east Brazil have the largest rooftop rainwater harvesting projects ongoing.
Rainwater harvesting in urban areas can have manifold reasons. To provide supplemental water for the city’s requirement, to increase soil moisture levels for urban greenery, to increase the ground water table through artificial recharge, to mitigate urban flooding and to improve the quality of groundwater are some of the reasons why rainwater harvesting can be adopted in cities. In urban areas of the developed world, at a household level, harvested rainwater can be used for flushing toilets and washing laundry. Indeed, in hard water areas it is superior to mains water for this. It can also be used for shower or bathing. It may require treatment prior to use for drinking.
In New Zealand, many houses away from the larger towns and cities routinely rely on rainwater collected from roofs as the only source of water for all household activities. This is almost inevitably the case for many holiday homes.

Rainwater Harvesting Systems and recharging depleted groundwater

There are many types of systems to harvest rainwater. The type used depends on physical and human considerations. A mechanism can be used to send the initial water flow to waste, usually the first few liters. The Water Genie is one option, which may be suitable in the developed world, but simpler, lower cost versions can also be made using a bucket which fills up, the weight of which is used to change the direction of water flow. A small hole in the bucket allows the water to drain before the next rain. These methods avoid most of the impurities collected on the roof, and some of the pollutants washed out of the air. Traditionally, rainwater in rural areas of Australia, for example, is used without such a system, and without treatment, but this may be unwise in different environments.
In India, reservoirs called tankas were used to store water; typically they were shallow with mud walls. Ancient tankas still exist in some places. Rainwater may also be used for groundwater recharge, where the runoff on the ground is collected and allowed to be absorbed, adding to the groundwater. In India this includes johads, or ponds which collect the run-off from small streams in wide area.


As rainwater may be contaminated, it is often not considered suitable for drinking without treatment. However, there are many examples of rainwater being used for all purposes — including drinking — following suitable treatment. Rainwater harvested from roofs can contain animal and bird feces, mosses and lichens, windblown dust, particulates from urban pollution, pesticides, and inorganic ions from the sea (Ca, Mg, Na, K, Cl, SO4), and dissolved gases (CO2, NOx, SOx). The water may need to be analyzed properly and used in a way appropriate to its safety. In Gansu province, for example, harvested rainwater is boiled in parabolic solar cookers before being used for drinking. Appropriate technology methods such as solar water disinfection provide low-cost disinfection options for treatment of stored rainwater for drinking.

Solar Distillation for Ground Water

Once the water is collected through rainwater harvesting or through any other means, solar distillation can be used to clean the water. In this regard, a solar still is a simple and indigenous technique of distilling water, using heat of the sun to drive evaporation from container. Impure water in container is evaporated by sunlight shining through clear plastic.
The pure water vapor condenses on the cool inside plastic surface and drips down from the weighted low point, where it is collected and removed. The basic principles of solar water distillation are simple, yet effective, as distillation replicates the way nature makes rain. The sun’s energy heats water to the point of evaporation. As the water evaporates, water vapor rises, condensing on the glass surface for collection. This process removes impurities, such as salts and heavy metals, and eliminates microbiological organisms. The end result is hygienic water.

Repair of Leakages

It is a misfortune that water brought to Karachi from distant source at high capital cost and of this precious resource nearly 35% is lost due to following reasons:
  • Leakages from water main pipelines and joints in particular and low efficiency pumps.
  • Illegal water connections where consumer do not pay user’s charges
  • Pilferage and illegal activities
A project of water loss reduction and strengthening of was taken up in Karachi but the results are not visible. Substantial quantity of water continues to be wasted, hence these leaks must be stopped and water conservation strategies must be put into practice.

Recycling flow

Water is used in everyday life, oftentimes wasted away due to inefficient means employed. It can be recycled, for example, we can save this precious resource after completing Wudu (ablution for prayers) for plants. Similarly, after washing clothes the same water can be used to wash the floors and toilets. Instead of washing cars with a pipe, we can use a bucket of water or wipe it with a wet cloth. As an example of how much water is lost in washing a car, a typical pail takes four gallons whereas about forty gallons are used when a pipe is employed. This means a tenfold increase in treatment and hence stopping such uneconomical behavior at the level of an individual and human being is of chief importance. In this case, in doing so we will not only save lots of water but will also secure our cars from rust and the roads from deterioration.
Tankers that supply water from public or private hydrants have free gate-valves, which leak this precious resource on their way and cause accidents. Introduction of new laws to check the leakage from water pipes and sewerage systems in multi-story buildings will prove to be beneficial in both the short and the long term. These leaks not only waste the water but also damage the building, so fixing these will prove the best solution to all concerned.
If we manage our dietary choices, we can also stop inflicting water losses. A move towards a vegetarian diet and cutting down on meat consumption, leads towards saving an estimated half of the water in the process. Whenever a need for hot water arises, the cold water already in the pipes is lost. We can save this water by using a bucket or other container. This clean water can be further used for watering plants and trees. This water can also be utilized in the pipes can be kept warm if the pipes are insulated. Another source of the losses incurred is by flushing water. Latest technology must be used to reduce water losses, for example, low volume flush tanks can reduce the water consumption to one third.
In this regard, drip irrigation (also known trickle irrigation) is very effective. This method saves water and fertilizer by allowing water to drip slowly to the roots of plants and is found to be more effective. Households, industries and developers need to follow drip irrigation.
Our existing system for taxation of water does not discourage water wastage, since everyone has to pay a fixed amount for the water consumed. Thus, nobody cares for saving or caring for the amount of water lost. To implement such laws, authorities can install meters so that people be charged according to their water consumption. On the aspect of litigation and taxation, this step will ensure a certain degree of responsibility amongst the public when usage of water arises.
Considering the various factors associated with water as resource, an emphasis on the simplest measures that comes to view, is common sense conservation of water. As an organization, Subh-e-Nau advocates this line of thinking as a common theme to all the solutions provided or in consideration.
The stresses due to climate change and changing weather are not good indications of what lies ahead. We must stop leaks, invest heavily in rainwater harvesting and into individual conservation measures as well. Installing rainwater harvesting units in a mass campaign is a key sustainable strategy to implement across the country, especially towards storage during the monsoon seasons. Solar distillation, repair of leaks and water conservation strategies will also be of immense help in alleviating the present situation.
In sum, rainwater harvesting, and allied strategies should be at the forefront of any authority or individual who seeks to alleviate the water crisis of Karachi and across the country. The steps taken should not be taken when we are literally or figuratively down to the very last few drops, but in the present and with due respect for this precious “blue gold,” which enriches us with vitality and life.

Adaptation and better disaster management via provision of municipal services

Lack of reliable municipal services are missing across the country leading to negative impacts on everyday lives including flooding events, much due to waste and pollution mismanagement that is a direct result of such gaps.
With local body elections on the horizon, we appeal mayors and associated staff that will be elected to actually work in their respective terms towards the uplift of our citizens.
Municipal services all over the country are in dire straits.  With people literally driven up the wall by the lack of basic services, contaminated water and overflowing sewage, the need to address these issues on an emergency basis is being increasingly felt. The latest floods happened due to blocked drainages which need to be fixed before the next flood strikes.
Clean water, invigorating environment, better roads, functional sewage system, recreational outlets and uninterrupted supply of utilities like electricity, gas and phone are what come to one’s mind when one thinks of municipal services. However, all but few, are deprived of these services. It’s no exaggeration to say that municipal services in real sense of the term are still a dream in Pakistani towns.
The sorry state of municipal services in Pakistan is no conundrum. Inundated roads and streets, choked sewage systems, diminishing recreational facilities, and peek-a-boo playing electricity supply are commonplace. Ironically, bigger cities face bigger problems. The booty of urban taxes collected by the municipal authorities makes no difference to the status quo. The very fact that municipal authorities fail to deliver better services to the citizens despite collecting a number of taxes, dismisses the common excuse that scarcity of resources is the reason behind the absence of municipal services. It is very much clear that lack of political will and traditional red tape hinders initiatives and barricades improvement.
Everyone knows that healthy bodies keep healthy minds, but a few realize that healthy places nurture healthy people. Metro authorities in Pakistan seem more oblivious to this fact. Big cities particularly present a dismal picture in terms of municipal services. Poverty reduction and increasing literacy levels occupy government’s priorities’ list these days, however, the dream is hard to realize without assuring provision of environment that is friendly to people’s health. One cannot think of social uplift without first taking into account the very basics needed for healthy human living, which in fact are nothing more than proper municipal services.
Scarcity of resources is often blamed for the absence of municipal services. An easy excuse, no doubt. Nevertheless, ill-planning, lack of political will and abuse of available resources are equally responsible factors playing behind the gloomy dearth of municipal services.
Hearing the word “emergency” drives us imagine pathetic scenes, devastation, or city roads thronged by country’s armed forces personnel.  However, taking up matters relating to municipal services on an emergency basis is something much needed today than ever. The ever-burgeoning population, especially in urban centers, makes ‘contingency’ arrangements imperative to meet the future needs. And this “emergency” perhaps is to become the most beneficial form of emergency in this part of the world.
The moment has reached when we need to plan something faster than ever, or to be clearer, on an emergency basis. In fact, saying that we need to move against the time would be no overstatement. Unfortunately, we by the virtue of human nature are resistant to things sounding different than what we have heard for generations.  Add to it the traditional lethargic attitude of the top-brass sitting in public sector departments, and the resistance of the municipal machinery against faster steps.
Luckily the concept of taking up municipal matters on ’emergency basis’ is something provided in the rules governing the functioning of the local governments.  The laws provide for taking up municipal matters on emergency basis when the situation seems to be out of hand.  And it is also beyond doubt that present state of municipal services in Pakistani urban centers demands urgent corrective measures. It may be to anybody’s encouragement that concept of emergency in this matter was conceived and later successfully executed by the Shahida Welfare Trust in Karachi sometime back.
The trust facilitated and lobbied for passing the legislation that makes it mandatory for the authorities to focus on the basics.  The legislation stipulates that departments responsible for provision of these services should shelve big ambitious projects, and not use funds for any purpose other than delivery of municipal services for which these departments were founded in the first place.  As a result, the municipal emergency imposed in the city of Karachi for a short period of time was able to deliver the results expected, but the initiative was not continued due to lack of political will.  It’s high time that the concerned authorities wake up to the cries of the people living under miserable conditions.  The successful example further highlights the need of embracing municipal issues for the collective advantage.  We need to focus on the basics before thinking about building big recreational places, food parks and convention centers.  If people don’t have safe water to drink, we cannot expect them to be entertained by these recreational facilities anyway!
The municipal services ordinance bill places basic services such as sanitation, water and drainage as the highest priority of civic agencies involved. The legislation enables the Government to target the prevalent problems in Karachi, while it is being pursued at a national level. Implementation lies with the Government agencies.
The MSO bill 1997 was passed unequivocally by the Sindh Assembly with the support of all parties, something that rarely happens in our legislative assemblies. This bill was initiated by the Shahida Welfare Trust, an advocacy body which now works with its sister organization, Subh-e-Nau: An Environment and Public Health Concern.
After the passing of the bill, a Municipal Emergency was imposed for 9 months in the city of Karachi. This historic step marked environmental upgradation and other works in parts of cities that had been neglected for decades. From lifting building materials to provision of water, this step brought relief to the citizens. This bill also enabled directing funds from entertainment activities towards provision of basic amenities and services, the basic role for which municipal authorities were founded on in the first place.
In the wake of the several years of disasters wrought by the short rainfall in Karachi, including the latest and devastating 2020 flood season, the significance of the bill can be realized even more. Do we need more entertainment in the form of all-night concerts, Sea Festivals, and the like? Or do we need to be out of knee-deep sewage – literally – as experienced by not the poor in sections such as Lyari, but the elite living in DHA?
In response, Subh-e-Nau has been advocating focusing on basic services in urban and rural areas before going for “mega projects.” The MSO bill lies with the National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB), which has yet to take it up at a national level and make the framework for getting it implemented in its true letter and spirit. Knowing this is a no brainer, one wonders when the Government plans to wake up from its deep slumber, and when the citizens of not only Karachi but all other areas will get respite from the mafias (bill board, land, to name a few!) to the inept local departments.
With the increasing impacts of climate change and pandemics, we have to act rapidly towards adopting sustainability practices which ensure the well-being of ourselves and upcoming generations.

The advantages of adopting rainwater harvesting

  1. Rainwater harvesting systems are integrated with the house which makes the water easily accessible.
  2. Rainwater harvesting systems are personal which prevents arguments about who should take care of maintenance.
  3. Installation costs are low; roughly some 250 US$ per system including a slow sand filter while sustainability of the construction is larger than that of a pump or wel.
  4. The required skills are present in ANY community which makes adaptation easy.
  5. The used materials can be kept simple, are obtainable nearly everywhere at local (low) cost price.
  6. The construction is easy and cheap in maintenance.
  7. In areas where there is inadequate groundwater supply or surface resources are either lacking or insufficient, rainwater harvesting offers an ideal solution.
  8. Helps in utilizing the primary source of water and prevent the runoff from going into sewer or storm drains, thereby reducing the load on treatment plants.
  9. Reduces urban flooding.
  10. Recharging water into the aquifers help in improving the quality of existing groundwater through dilution.
Writer: Dr. Farrukh Chishtie

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Seeds Can Be Eccentric    

I have seen people feeling dejected and unhappy when seeds that they planted did not sprout within a week, which they believed was the time they were supposed to, which is untrue.  

Some seeds like coconut take 4-6 months to show a green tip. Gul Muhar seed (Sunset tree also lovingly known by the alluring name of Royal peacock because of the unmatched glamour its blooms add to the environment) has to be soaked in water for two to three days for the embryo to soften, after which the germination cycle takes a start inside the seed.
The lotus seed, on the other hand is notorious for its obduracy in yielding to open up. It must lie for months in fresh water to soften before its DNAs will instruct the kernel to release the hormones to manufacture the root and the stalk.
As you read, you will appreciate that nature was wise and calculating in designing the reproduction cycle of different plants. The lotus lives in ponds where droughts are a possibility. In that case, the chances of revival of the species are at risk and the weaker structure would refuse to rise from the suffocating mud. In that case, the beautiful flora would be lost from that habitat.
That is why when you return to the lake where the lotus flourished, it will still be there even after ten years. The Wildlife authorities in Sindh had to spend tons of money to route lotus from the floral, fragrant and lovely lake- Haleji, the largest lotus producing freshwater reserve in the country. And yet it grows in a corner, a reminder of its fantastic past. If they let nature takes its course, the lotus will come back with the same pomp and grandeur it had done so in the past.
People of Islamabad and Rawalpindi are lucky to not damage the green and pink paradise of lotus in Ayub Park.
I am eulogising the elegance of the nymph of fresh water because there is no substitute for it, like other annuals and perennials growing in the wild and in our homes. I feel happy at the comforting thought that if it disappears from Sindh, as it is likely, it shall still be there’ with it hardy stock of seeds lying buried in stifling muck, still full of life and promise.
One has to watch a lotus flower from close quarter to feel its magic: it is gently fragrant, with lovely petals fringed pink by the most accomplished, deft creator. The raised plinth of ovary has a saffron halo with adorable anthers holding its precious treasure to safeguard the wealth inside.
You will be surprised to know that a lotus seed can stay dormant from 80 to 100 years, the longest period for any seed!
I will now bring up more about the longevity of annual seeds we see in parks. Delphinium takes 21-28 days to sprout and 20 weeks to flower. Ageratum takes 14 to 21 days to sprout while its flowers will appear within 14 weeks, Alyssum 10-11 days and 8 weeks to flower, Amaranthus 10-14 days and 12 weeks, Antirrhinum 14-21 days and 8 weeks; Aractosis (aurora daisies) 18-21 days and 12 weeks to 14 weeks; Aster 10-14 days and 16 weeks; Balsam 10-14 days and 12 weeks; Begonia 14-21 days (in pots) and 28 weeks; Calendula 14-21 days and 20 weeks; Escholsia (California poppy) takes 10-14 days to sprout and 8 weeks to flower; Carnation 10-14 days and 12 weeks; cockscomb 10-12 days and 12 weeks to flower; Coleus 14-21 days and12 weeks to bloom; Cyclamen 28- 42 days and 6 weeks; Dahlia seeds 14-28 days and 16 weeks (it is at times by dividing the roots); Delphinium 21-28 days and 20 weeks; Dianthus 10-14 days and 20 weeks; Forget-me-not takes 21-28 days and 12 weeks to flower; Gillardia 14-21 days and 16 weeks; Geranium seeds 14-28 days and 16 weeks; Gerbera 14-21 days and 12 weeks; Kochia 14-21 days and 20 weeks; and the case is likewise for Larkspur.
The African marigold sprouts in 10-14 days and flowers in 12 weeks; ornamental basil in 10-14 weeks; petunia in 10-14 days and 144 weeks for the flowering; phlox 14-21 days and flowers in 10 weeks; salvia 14-21 days and 12 weeks; sunflower10-14 days and 12weeks; sweet pea 10-14 days and 14 weeks, zinnia 7-10 days and 12 weeks.
Verbena and viola take a long time to sprout, around 21 to 28 days. The zinnia is the shortest with 7-10 days and 12 weeks to sprout; Ageratum and escholzia only 8 weeks to bloom while portulaca six weeks.
Colour can cast a sense of distance in a garden. Cool and misty colours will extend the space if planted at a short distance between each plant. On the other hand hot and bright colours have a shortening effect.
These factors will make a difference in the garden of a colour conscious and person with aesthetic excellence in mind, while when it is a question of excelling the neighbouring plantation in the home next to you or when you are competing in a flower show.
Cities have horticultural societies which will lend a helping hand when needed.
To soften the monotony, here is a break.
Keep a diary or notebook solely for your garden. You should note the date of planting seeds, fix an envelop showing the name and picture of the flower clasped by a split bamboo shoot and the date expected to sprout. When the seedling has three to four leaves, gently pry up the whole lot with its delicate roots still in the mother soil, dig a small pit large enough to hold that scooped earth and the seedling; and then gently push the soil around the seeding.
Maintain a distance of six to nine inches between each seedling. When all seedlings are in place, spread a news paper by the flower bed to break the force of flowing water and gently release water on the news paper, wherefrom it will trickle gently towards the delicate seedling.
Irrigating them directly will uproot many and they will die by the next morning. This operation must be done in the afternoon, say at about 5 pm, so that they can rest for the night. Uprooting and transplantation generate a shock in the system of the seedlings which can detect the heaving up and transplantation from one site to the other.
The art of gardening lies in putting things in the right place at the right time and irrigating them correctly, neither too much nor too less; right manure and organic substance (well rotted cow dung that does not smell of dung, is friable and almost powdery; spreading it on surface, as is done in public parks, is neither nutritious for the plant nor good to look at).
After the season is over wait until the flowers have turned dry and dead, for that is the time when the seeds have matured and are viable. Before storing them throw away the small and sickly seeds; keep only the best as future seed stock and label the bottle; secure the lid tight so that no moisture enters the bottle until the next year. Fungus can enter the bottle with air and spoil them if the lid is opened every now and then. The tubers can be left in the ground if the soil is well drained (sandy loam) or they can be stored in a strong plastic bag with label dropped in it for reading without opening the bag.
If you have a farm, do take the help from the forester to obtain the best seedling of the species and follow the instructions strictly. Gardening or developing a farm is a healthy hobby and keeps the mood level.
Take time and patience with this activity and it will pay back a lot more for the wait when the first glimmer of life appears in front of your eyes.
Writer:  Dr. A. A. Quraishi


Eco-Friendly Transportation in Pakistan: Gaps and way forward

Vehicular emissions are the major air pollution contributor. Aging vehicles, lack of mass transit in metropolises, lax emission control laws and poor-quality fuel are making the bad situation worse in Pakistan and other developing countries.

Improving air quality is the need of the hour as it causes SMOG to form and is injurious to biodiversity and public health. We have recently learned some positive news of the government taking the right steps to transform Pakistan’s inefficient transportation. Those green initiatives include upgrading poor quality fuel to cleaner Euro-V grade fuel, inaugurating the country’s first-ever Electric Car charging station in Islamabad and introduction of clean Diesel-Hybrid buses in Peshawar. The plans are looking so promising, but will this clean and green Pakistan dream ever come true? Let us find out how things could go wrong and where improvement is needed to achieve our green goals:

Could Euro-V fuel really help cut harmful vehicular emissions?

We are in a transition phase of switching from Euro-II to Euro-V compliant fuel in Pakistan. Some filling stations have already started selling Euro-V regular and hi-octane petrol at the same price while others are still selling old Euro-II which is going to be phased out soon. Considerably low sulphur content is what makes Euro-V grade fuel more environment friendly. EU-2 fuel may contain up to 500 ppm of sulphur while it is just below 10 ppm in EU-5 grade fuel. Now you may start if our atmosphere will become super clean once we completely phase out dirty high sulphur diesel and petrol. Unfortunately, this may not happen anytime soon because switching to a cleaner quality fuel alone would not make any considerable improvement in the air quality index.
Firstly, the adoption of the fuel standard upgrade is very slow. Only fewer filling stations are selling new cleaner petrol in big cities. It may take several months to fully implement the Euro-V fuel standard. Ideally, it should have been completed before the SMOG season to help researchers study the difference of air pollution levels before and after switching to cleaner fuel. Also, the most anticipated Euro-V diesel is yet to be introduced. The unavailability of ultra-low sulphur diesel fuel is adversely affecting modern diesel engine vehicles in Pakistan leading to poor performance and higher maintenance costs. If everything goes as planned, Euro-V diesel fuel would finally be made available from January 1st, 2021. We may finally say goodbye to 500 ppm sulphur diesel by end of 2021.
Secondly, even when the Euro-V grade fuel becomes standard throughout the country, it may not yield the desired outcomes. This is because low sulphur fuel only works well in Euro-IV compliant (or better) engines where we have thousands of decade-old vehicles with engine specs of Euro-I (or even worse) plying on our roads. Using cleaner quality fuel may slightly reduce harmful sulphur emissions when used in decades-old engines. For example, a Hilux Revo pickup truck will run smoothly on EU-V fuel with significantly lower harmful emissions because it’s equipped with Euro-VI compliant GD series turbo diesel engine. However, filling up a 1980s Bedford TJ lorry with the same quality fuel would not make it any cleaner, it may only experience unnoticeable smoke reduction. Older vehicles are here to stay for decades thanks to poverty and ever-increasing car prices. What is more worrying is several Chinese automakers are locally manufacturing motorcycles, 3-wheelers, and commercial trucks and buses with EU-II compliant engines. Poor fuel quality in Pakistan was their excuse for fitting vehicles with obsolete engines as of now. Nevertheless, they may refuse to upgrade their engines even after EU-V fuel becomes standard unless they are legally compelled to do so. Consequently, upgrading fuel quality without having a clear and practical plan for phasing out older vehicles is unlikely to yield optimum results.

Here comes the charging station is but where are the electric vehicles?

Pakistan’s first electric car charging station in Islamabad has been made functional since July 2020. It is a good move indeed but more needs to be done to encourage the masses to switch to electric cars. The most crucial step is to make affordable and reliable electric cars available in Pakistan. There is no good quality electric or plug-in hybrid car available in under 2.0 million Rupees price bracket. A few high-end electrics have been imported to Pakistan are very costly. Audi E-Tron is an amazing electric SUV available for 1.66 Crore (16.6 Million) Pakistani Rupees as of September 2020. Interestingly, some Chinese small “cars” are also available in the local market at a very cheap price tag, even less than that of an entry-level petrol engine car. But the problem is, these tiny toy-looking cars are very fragile, unreliable, impractical for Pakistani streets and offer no value for money. So, the bottom line is there is no affordable car with decent specs available in the Pakistani auto market. Some of the cheap electric cars are like a 4-wheeler auto rickshaw while others are too expensive a common man cannot afford to buy. A brand-new Prius Hybrid (which is not even a plug-in electric vehicle) is available at a whopping price tag of 9,270,000 Rupees, nearly 3 times more expensive than Toyota Corolla powered by a conventional petrol engine. Most Pakistanis who can afford to buy an expensive car would usually prefer a vehicle with a more powerful conventional diesel or petrol engine for different reasons. Let us take an example of Toyota Prius 1.8 Hybrid and Fortuner 2.8 Diesel, the price of both are nearly the same but the latter is Pakistan’s hot-selling car while the former model is consumers’ least favourite choice. Although the hybrid sedan offers better fuel economy and cheaper to register than diesel SUV, these factors still fail to attract more consumers to buy Prius. The basic logic is if you have 9 million Rupees to buy a car, saving a few thousand Rupees on fuel should not be your priority. Used imported electric cars are relatively inexpensive; a Japanese Prius PHV can be purchased for around 6 million rupees but without an aftersales warranty. Lack of qualified auto technicians also is another reason which discourages Pakistani people to buy modern electric vehicles.

Eco-Friendly Public Transport Initiative Requires Urgent Attention

An adequate urban mass transit system is not only good for the environment, but it also improves the city’s living standard. Ministry of Science & Technology have recently signed an MoU with the Capital Development Authority to launch electric city buses for Islamabad. Initially, 30 buses would be plied on 4 different routes within the federal Capital.  They are “hopeful” to launch the pilot project within the following 3 to 5 months. It is relevant to mention that CDA has been miserably failed to develop a decent mass transit system in Islamabad since ever. The administration had planned to ply hundreds of CNG-powered buses in the mid-2000s, and again in the early 2010s but failed to roll out a single city bus for the capital city. The only operational main metro bus line is Punjab Government’s project while the still under construction Airport-Kashmir Highway rapid bus line is developed by National Highway Authority. Where Islamabad is yet to get its first urban transit bus service, Peshawar has become Pakistan’s first-ever city to have diesel-electric hybrid city buses. It was a proud moment indeed, but the joy was short-lived as those high-tech buses started going up in flames. TransPeshawar was forced to ground the entire fleet following 4 buses caught fire within 4 weeks of launch. Luckily nobody got hurt in those mishaps. Electrical short circuit or overheating battery pack could possibly have ignited the fire. Chinese technicians are still investigating the source of fiery mishaps. Electric buses are virtually emission-free but frequent electric fires could destroy the dream of green transportation.
The availability of enough electricity to power passenger buses (and other electric vehicles) would be another big challenge. Energy crisis is not unfamiliar to Pakistan, although we are now producing enough electricity for domestic and commercial needs, yet Karachi still is facing power cuts during heat waves. Shifting public transportation to electricity without adequate power generation could prove disastrous. Electric buses would not run, or they may have to use a diesel generator to charge their batteries which is more inefficient than plying a diesel engine bus.
Urban flooding may also hamper transport companies and the general public to switch to electric vehicles. A conventional bus can pass through flooding, but an electric vehicle is more prone to stall requiring expensive repair to bring it back on the road.

How do we boost the eco-friendly transport revolution?

Here are some suggestions to achieve clean and efficient transportation goal in the shortest possible time:
  • A suitable plan should be made to phase out aging vehicles with dangerously high emissions. It should be practical and acceptable for all stakeholders. Starting with commercial vehicles including decades-old trucks and passenger buses, older vehicles should finally be replaced by eco-friendly green equivalents. This would be possible only when the government provides new vehicles in replacement by offering subsidy or at least full tax exemption. Commercial vehicle lease at lower mark-up can also attract people to buy the latest vehicles equipped with a cleaner engine.
  • Local automakers should be asked to upgrade their product line up to be Euro-V compliant as soon as possible. The government should also encourage automotive startups to offer after-market engine swap or any upgrade to reduce emissions from older vehicles fitted with obsolete Euro-II (or worse) compliant engines.
  • Emission test should be made mandatory in the entire country. Non-compliant vehicles shouldn’t be allowed to ply on public roads.
  • The government and business community should encourage electric car production in Pakistan to provide masses safe, affordable and reliable cars, motorcycles and commercial vehicles.
  • Electric vehicle repairing should be taught in vocational training schools to help young auto mechanics learn to fix modern cars with sophisticated electronic components.
  • The state should also consider allowing duty-free import of used budget electric vehicles for a shorter period to promote EV culture in Pakistan.
  • The government should focus on launching adequate urban transit buses in all metropolitan cities. Instead of investing in the multi-billion rapid bus or railway line projects, the focus should be to ply safe and comfortable city buses on all the major routes. Bike-only lanes should also be constructed to bring vanished bicycles back in Pakistan.
  • The bus charging stations should be powered by clean and renewable energy sources e.g. solar, wind, or biogas. Charging the electric buses off giant diesel-powered generators would be a terrible idea.
  • Infrastructure upgrade also is needed for smooth running of high-tech electric buses. Poor drainage leading to urban flooding could prove lethal for the electric transport project.
  • Finally, the government and relevant stakeholders should focus on vehicle quality and safety. The recent incidents of TransPeshawar buses bursting into flames is a serious hazard to public safety. If the Chinese company is found to be involved in providing substandard buses, it should be blacklisted and never be contracted to procure buses for future projects.
Writer: Sultan Kiani
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