ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — For over two decades, Hussain Ali's house sat in the shade of a strip of greenbelt, one of many that were planted along Islamabad's avenues to help reduce pollution levels and bring some natural beauty to the sprawling city.
Now, however, the street in front of Ali's house is bare. The trees have been uprooted, cut into pieces, and loaded onto trucks to make way for a new bus lane.
All over the city, scenes of tall trees being felled as part of a planned expansion of the Metro Bus Service (MBS) have drawn the anger of experts and citizens who say the project goes against Islamabad's policy for climate-resilient development.
"It is heartbreaking how brutally thousands of trees have been destroyed, most of them over 20 years old, which I have seen grow from seedlings to full-blown maturity,” Ali said.
According to officials at the Capital Development Authority (CDA) in Islamabad, a total of 340,000 square feet of greenbelt has been cleared in the city to create space to build a 13.6 kilometre-long bus lane – a project that shows the potential conflicts between “green” efforts.
Construction on the 44.2 billion Pakistani rupee ($448 million) project, run by the Rawalpindi Development Authority and National Engineering Services of Pakistan (NESPAK), started in March, and aims to ease traffic congestion.
The project report says that by the end of the year, 60 buses will be travelling on the dedicated lane, serving about 70,000 commuters daily.
"We hope the project will encourage people to avoid using their cars and instead commute by bus, which should help stop the city from becoming a heat island due to rising emissions levels from the ever-growing number of private vehicles," said NESPAK Managing Director Amjad Ali Khan.
But experts and activists have come out against the Metro Bus plan, calling it "environmentally damaging" and saying it goes against the climate-compatible development principles that were put in place in 2012 to ensure infrastructure projects in Pakistan don't hurt the country's ability to deal with the effects of climate change.
“We are not against the project," said Ameer Malik, an environmental impact assessment specialist. "But we oppose the way it is being executed, which is entirely in violation of the master plan for Islamabad city."
Environment experts in the federal Climate Change Division say that according to the Capital Development Authority master plan for the city, not a single tree can be uprooted nor a single brick laid in the federal capital without approval from the Pakistan – Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA).
NO EPA CLEARANCE FOR PROJECT
According to Muhammad Khursheed, director general of that agency, construction of the new bus lane was started in Islamabad without anyone seeking clearance from the EPA or the development authority.
In late April, Pak-EPA told the Rawalpindi Development Authority it would not give approval for the project until the agency's 26 objections — including the lack of a body charged with managing the project's solid and hazardous waste, and the lack of a plan to replace destroyed trees — had been addressed.
None of the objections have been addressed so far, Khursheed said, and during a public hearing held in May a Rawalpindi Development Authority official acknowledged that the project still does not have the necessary approval.
Speaking to Thomson Reuters Foundation, Rawalpindi Commissioner and bus project director Zahid Saeed would say only that the development authority will eventually address as many of Pak-EPA's objections as possible.
In accordance with Pakistan's Environment Protection Act of 1997, an environmental impact assessment was carried out on the bus project — but by the National Engineering Services of Pakistan, a partner in the project, instead of Pak-EPA, which is usually responsible for assessing the environmental friendliness of new construction.
Aziz Chandio, deputy director of urban planning at the federal Climate Change Division, said the report is not comprehensive enough. For instance, it does not cover the environmental degradation and mitigation costs and benefits of the project, he said.
He said he was surprised it makes no mention of possibly turning the Metro Bus Service into a Clean Development Mechanism project, which would allow it to earn carbon credits from any emission reductions it achieves and sell them on the international market
THE NEED FOR TREES
With Pakistan suffering through increasingly frequent extreme-weather events such as heavy rains and urban flooding, experts have slammed the government and the bus service designers for not including climate resilience in their plans. Following the government's recent announcement that it will build upwards of 15 new coal-fired, carbon-emitting power plants, the country needs its greenbelts now more than ever, they say.
Former federal environment minister Hameed Ullah Jan Afridi said preserving and managing urban forests is pivotal to tackling climate change.
"By soaking up the carbon that would otherwise build up and trap heat in the atmosphere, trees and plants are key in staving off global warming," he said.
Capital Development Authority spokesman Asim Khichi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone that the trees cut down for the bus project would be sold to timber traders in Rawalpindi and all profits would go towards replanting trees in Islamabad.
Still, critics question why the greenbelts had to be destroyed in the first place. Asif Shuja Khan, former director-general of Pak-EPA, sees no need to construct separate lanes for buses alongside avenues that already have four lanes.
“One of the pre-existing lanes could be dedicated for the MBS without hurting any part of the greenbelt or cutting down a single tree,” he said.
In response, NESPAK's Kashif Bashir, who led the team that carried out the project's environmental impact assessment, insists the dedicated lane is required, "to prevent everyday commuter issues such as jaywalking and traffic congestion from slowing down the bus service."
So far, the protests of residents and fears expressed by environmental experts have not slowed the project.
“The citizens of Islamabad have a history of protecting the natural environment against irrational and unwise development projects," said Tauqeer Ali Sheikh, chief executive of LEAD-Pakistan, an independent environmental research and development organization in Islamabad. "But this time it appears the government has decided to pay no heed to public concerns and to forcibly push ahead."
Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development science correspondents based in Islamabad, Pakistan.
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