Afia Salam's Blog

Life is a journey

How green was my city

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Reclaiming nature

How did Karachi go from being a city of green spaces to a soulless metropolis, and what can be done to make it green again?

by Afia Salam

I have vivid memories of my mother’s consternation when we moved to Karachi in the early ’60s. Coming to Karachi from lush green Wah Cantt, she found it annoying and tedious to dust the furniture twice a day — Karachi back then was little better than a dust pan; a windy city with billows of dust swirling in its wide open spaces, and into homes.

The newer settlements of the then capital city had more open grounds than parks, like the patches within neighbourhoods, as well as bigger spaces like Nishtar Park or Polo Ground, etc. The neighbourhood parks it did have, too, were more like dusty playgrounds, with a fringe of grassy tract skirting it.

Family outings to parks meant going to the ‘older’ areas of the city where proper parks had been established by the municipality. Be they the Zoological and Botanical Gardens, then known as the Gandhi Gardens, or the Jehangir Park, Frere Gardens, Jheel Park in PECHS, the park in Clifton just after Do Talwar or further down at Old Clifton, or the grassy terraces alongside the Jehangir Kothari Parade to name a few. Hill Park and Aziz Bhatti Parks were additions that came much later, when Karachi had already lost its status as the capital.

Tamarindus (Imli) indica pods -Photo by B.navez via Wikimedia Commons

These and some other patches of green, like the Gutter Bagheecha, complimented the sprawl of the city at that time. They had shady trees, water bodies and grassy tracts, as parks are supposed to have. However, the sudden and burgeoning growth meant that attention needed to be diverted to other sectors, and land became a diminishing commodity, generating its own push and pull dynamics, which slowly saw the encroachment of these parks.

The unbridled increase in population also meant that the balance between the people and green spaces, or tree cover was disturbed, and over the years Karachi became a concrete jungle, with only a smattering of green spaces, which were wholly inadequate. This, of course, I needed to state to just set a context to people who lament at the denuding of Karachi’s greenery, which is taking place, but is only a generation old.


Although most parts of Karachi were laid according to a plan, like Nazimabad, North Nazimabad, Federal B Area, etc, attention to tree plantation fell by the wayside as there was not a single master plan that was adhered to. Residents deserve more credit for the tree cover than the civic agencies; they planted fruit trees as well as flowering ones that gave aesthetics to the city, and nurtured them. Most of the older houses that had space still have large trees.

The concretisation of the city also jolted the horticulturists into action who wanted to cover the spaces, and that is when the city witnessed the first of its planned ‘mistakes’. Eucalyptus was planted everywhere in the city, as it was a fast growing, shady, ‘air purifying’ tree that also had commercial value, and could help lower the water table as its roots sought water. They were planted on road sides and medians, along storm drains, as well as in the newly-reclaimed land of the DHA which had a high water table.

No one had anticipated the thirst of its roots, which travelled a long way to seek water, breaking open the water pipes and popping up through the cemented storm drains. On the other hand, the trees planted along the road side in the early ’40s and ’50s, like the peepal, etc, were now entangling with the overhead wires that came to signify the utilities of the metropolis.

The proverbial fell swoop comes with just a few lines on an official paper with the signature of the competent authority, who ordered the cutting of the ‘offending trees’. This somehow seems to have become the order of the day for Karachi, whose green dream fails to materialise due to this ‘one step forward, two steps back’ approach. Not that the city’s citizens took such government decisions lying down; many fought back and succeeded (see The green dreamers).


The city’s ‘development’ and concretisation continued, and in mid-2000, the need for a green Karachi led to the massive planting of Conocarpus, a fast growing species that has spread to all parts of Karachi, despite there being clear guidelines against the planting of alien invasive species. It may have increased the green cover, but certainly not without posing health and environmental hazards. Why a species like Conocarpus was chosen is confusing especially since there are many native and local tree species that are more suitable to the city’s environment and weather (see Going native).

This species has been identified as a carrier of allergens that cause respiratory problems. Not only was the species chosen unwisely, it was planted in a manner that it overtook all existing local plants. Monoculture, or planting of only one species, is against all tree plantation protocols, but they were all bypassed so that all one sees around one are Conocarpus, to the disadvantage of the local trees like neem and lignum that had earlier dotted avenues and medians. Monoculture is known to disturb the bird population and that too has been observed in Karachi, with birds not preferring to nest in this tree.

While it did increase the green cover of Karachi, it brought no significant benefit as the tree offers little shade, or a lowering of the temperature due to the type of its leaves. In a coastal city like Karachi, it also posed a hazard to vehicular traffic in strong breeze because of its weak branches; and because of its fast growing nature, it hit the overhead electricity wires at a faster rate, requiring greater maintenance.

One reason could be that despite time, expense and effort spent in the preparation of plans by technical experts, they are sidelined or not fully implemented — horticulturists and plant ecologists were part of the technical committee that advised on the appropriate species for Karachi. Considerable work had been done to draw up a Comprehensive Plan on Forestation, Aesthetic Plantation and Landscaping for Karachi as part of the Karachi Strategic Development Plan 2020 during the time of the City District Government of Karachi. The report charted the planting potential in green belts along roads, rivers, highways, link roads, agricultural fields, blank lands, roundabouts and streets, according to the soil conditions and water availability.

Commericalism and ‘development’ also often trump the need for green space. Billboards, for instance, are a big business and there are many agencies involved in the entire operation. There are allegations of corruption in the way they operate to the detriment of the environment, and because there is no central control over the agencies, a measure taken in one area usually does not get replicated in the other. Not only do they pose a hazard and destroy the aesthetics of the city, they have contributed to the loss of the tree cover through clandestine cutting where only pruning was allowed.

Photo by White Star
Photo by White Star

Another issue that is now causing concern is the plan to strip the route of the Green Line of all its trees, almost 19,000 in number! One cannot stop progress, or deny the need for mass transit schemes. Does that mean that the rampant tree cutting we see due to the ‘development’ schemes and commercial purposes like advertising billboards should not be protested about? No certainly not. To quote an already overused cliché, two wrongs do not make a right. However, it is difficult to shed tears for plants that should not have been planted in the first place, like the Conocarpus. The maximum number of trees facing the axe because of this project belongs to this species.

There is a proper scheme outlined to offset the effects of this massive tree cutting exercise. It calls for planting of five trees as a replacement for one of some species and 10 in place of one for some other species. What the concerned citizens of Karachi need to be watchful of is whether this offset is being carried out. So, often an infrastructure project is initiated with complete disregard for the environmental impact, and by the time its negative effects are perceived and voices raised, it is presented as a fait accompli and completed.

Stripping Karachi of 19,000 trees will have a huge impact on the urban jungle that this city has become that needs these trees as its carbon sinks. Citizen groups must form monitoring committees that should act as watchdogs or we shall exacerbate the negative effects which will be severely felt when the temperatures are high.


So on to the present time, and once again we see rampant cutting down of a tree cover which is now absolutely paltry, given that Karachi is now a city of over 20 million. This is one issue agitating the citizens of this city because they have come to realise the importance of trees, especially in the aftermath of last year’s heatwave when so many lives were lost.

One of the key reasons cited for the devastation was the lack of green cover in a city of concrete, which resulted in the heat becoming trapped, producing the heat island effect. Most of the people who died were those who were exposed to it in open areas because there were just too few trees under whose shade they could have found some respite.

Encroachment of the city’s parks means that there were fewer places offering shades. The unusual horticulture practices adopted over the last few years in some of the newer parks also saw them being developed devoid of trees and full of ‘sculptured’ decorative bushes. This meant that in the intense heat of the day, no one could visit these large parks as there was no shade to be found there, and these were populated only in the evenings when the temperature had already dropped.

While seasonal tree plantation drives were garnering more stakeholder support, the issue of greening of Karachi gained resonance with Karachiites who were really shaken by the devastation wrought by the heatwave. Many citizens groups have been formed to take matters into their own hands, (Mera Karachi Green Group, Voice of Karachi) seeing that the task could not be managed by government agencies alone.

At another level, a successful model of collaboration between the civic agencies and civil society (Sarsabz-o-Pursakoon Karachi) was put in place last year, which also contributed to the efforts to increase the green cover of Karachi during the regular tree plantation drives during spring and monsoon seasons. This brought diverse stakeholder groups like NGOs, civil society organisation, welfare societies, schools, colleges, mosques, mandirs, churches, community centres, villages as well as corporate bodies on the same table as the commissioner of Karachi and relevant government departments, including the forest department, cantonment boards, etc.

Targets were set and plants were very carefully chosen to make sure only native species were selected. This is a key issue because some years earlier the multi-stakeholder body decided to pay heed to its recommendations as well as those elicited from the plant experts.

There was a two-pronged approach to dealing with the issue at hand; one was through plans for plantation, in accordance with the different ecological zones identified in the city; and the other was through court action to stop tree cutting, especially due to erection of billboards. There is a mafia at work in the city that has been wantonly cutting trees to make space for billboards, and one theory about the removal of the commissioner, Asif Hyder Shah, is that he had taken a firm stand for the implementation of the Supreme Court order for removal of billboards. For the first time an FIR was lodged at his behest from the commissioner’s office against the ‘developers’ who were cutting trees and flouting court orders.


Here it must also be explained that awareness needs to be created among concerned citizens to discern the difference between cutting and pruning. While the protest against the former is something everyone must do, they should know that a cut tree means that only a stump remains. Some of the trees whose foliage and branches have been cut but are still standing have been pruned, which is a necessary practice to shed them of the biomass and allow for their rejuvenation in the next season.

Being a coastal city, it is encouraging to note that the tree cover of the mangrove forests is being increased. Recently the Pakistan Navy has undertaken the task of planting one million mangroves in collaboration with IUCN-Pakistan. In a country which has a pitiably low forest cover, barely moving beyond 4pc, and the highest rate of deforestation in South Asia, the growth in the area under mangroves is encouraging. This can be easily seen through the GIS mapping of the plantations by the Sindh Forest Department.

It’s true that there are incidents of logging by the coastal communities and the timber mafia, but these are far less than before through community stewardship. This method of stewardship by communities and organisations, wherein they take ownership of the management of trees planted by them during, and after the publicised campaigns, is the only way to the greening of Karachi in a sustained and sustainable manner.

People need to be educated to use all possible methods of urban gardening and by staying mindful of the diminishing resource of water. By choosing the plants wisely, in an eco-friendly manner, they can make Karachi’s green dream come true, and contribute to the aesthetics as well as the health of the city.

Here again the rehabilitation of some parks by reed bed methods undertaken by the Pakistan Navy is an example that can be followed at the micro and macro level. They have already rehabilitated the Aziz Bhatti Park in Gulshan, and the Golf Course at Karsaz also is benefitting through grey water harvesting, which is the way to go in a city that will have less and less water in future.


Written by afiasalam

July 31, 2016 at 11:10 am

Posted in Uncategorized

His Sabeen, and Ours’

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A few days after my article appeared in TNS on Sabeen’s first death anniversary, I received an sms from her mother saying I had made her cry… again, just like I had when she read my previous articles/blogs on her after she was so cruelly taken away from us. Without saying sorry in my sms reply to her, I told her that not just because I was a mother, but there was always a strange connection I felt with Sabeen and her loss had affected me at a deeper level than I could neither understand nor explain.

I meaSabeen with Mahenazn I could understand Mahenaz, her mom, Aunty Jo, when shecould remember Sabeen through her failing memory, or Zaheer and
Nuzhat Kidvai, or Ragni, Jehan Ara, Hareem, her team at T2F and her childhood friends, or all those she worked on so many of her fantastic initiatives in close collaboration.


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But yesterday, I received a clarity to this perplexing question from a completely unexpected quarter, and realized that one does not have to have a specific reason to feel her loss. Sabeen had touched different people in so many different ways that each person felt a personal, exclusive bond with her.

While giving training to some community and rights activists in a small town in Sindh, I mentioned the need to choose words carefully and be conscious of personal safety because of the mad, bad, sad world we are living in. Told them intolerance was rife and so many people either standing up for their own or other people’s rights had paid a price with their lives. So many journalists, in the line of their duty, so many activists. So many people who dared to challenge the ‘norms.

While naming names, of course there was mention of Qandeel Baloch, but while on the topic, and especially while mentioning names, one couldn’t not mention Sabeen, Khurram Zaki, Rashid Rehman.

In a room full of trainees, one does have to focus eyes at a particular spot and I caught a participant’s expression totally change on the mention of Sabeen’s name. I thought he was about to say something but he just gestured to me and whispered, Sabeen; my friend! I nodded my head and continued the session.FB_IMG_1469012779679

Once I had completed the session, he came to me and held his cell phone out to me with the picture of a young smartly dressed school girl. He said this is my daughter. Doesn’t she look like Sabeen? ‘She is like Sabeen’ he repeated.

While I could only look at the picture of that smart girl in sports kit with a medal around her neck, and smile at him weakly thinking he expected me to agree there was a resemblance, he changed the picture on the cell phone to show me another.


FB_IMG_1468981839422He said this was a tribute he had written when she was killed. He had chosen the words and made this poster.

FB_IMG_1468981849853Then he showed me another. This included a small blurb from her janazah. This was his facebook picture. He said I have not changed the picture from the day she died. I used to meet her every few weeks when she was alive. Now I just keep this on my facebook. I was too stumped at that time to ask him to let me have those images. But this was my ‘aha’ moment. Why was I even looking for an answer to the question of why Sabeen was someone special to me. She was that to so many people.

So here I was, sitting in this room, far away from home, almost in the boonies, furiously typing this away, and despite the perfect whether, with no clue as to why I was snivelling!

As for ‘his’ Sabeen, whose actual name is Tulsi Meghwar. She is a grade 7 student at a government school in Kotri, she proudly wears that medal as she participated in National Games and represented Sindh team that returned as Runners’ Up in the softball championship.

Like ‘our’ Sabeen, Tulsi loves sports, and wants to excel at them. Her father, Harji Lal,  is determined to be the wind beneath her wings. She is the first ever from the Meghwar community who has excelled and earned recognition for her talents. Maybe for him, therein lies the resemblance. Not physical, but in the spirit to move ahead, despite odds. Those who know the social structure of Sindh, especially among the Hindus, know that the Meghwars have not had it easy. Girls’ education has traditionally been a no no for them.

Just like the going wasn’t easy for Sabeen, though in a different manner. Maybe he knows that story too and draws a parallel. Whatever the reason, he is adamant that Tulsi will get all the chances in life that he can afford for her. She will not be held back by the disapproving societal glances…All I can say is: More power to his Sabeen… I mean Tulsi Meghwar!

Sabeen on scooterScreen Shot 2016-07-20 at 11.45.38 pm


Written by afiasalam

July 20, 2016 at 7:23 pm

From physical to digital

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An exciting year-long project aimed at showcasing Pakistan’s rich cultural heritage that is not in the mainstream for various reasons on the digital medium

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Sometimes, a word, a tweet, a query you overhear or see between two people triggers something in your memory. So it happened when I saw a friend @Fifi Haroon talking to someone about the beautiful Wazir Khan Mosque in the Walled City of Lahore, and I couldn’t help but become a showoff for the moment by immediately posting this link. All because I had been part of an exciting, and educative project that allowed for the digital preservation of our cultural jewels on the Google Cultural Institute portal.
Now I know many acquainted with me would raise their eyebrows at the connection between technology and me because I am known as being somewhat tech-challenged. This is why when this young man, Badar Khushnood, who used to represent Google in Pakistan, and I had met through a common friend said, “Give up your job. In this age of Google, you should be working for yourself,” I just nodded with a faint smile, restraining the rolling of eyes, thinking ok, here’s another techie trying to rock my boat. Google indeed! Just because he represents that organisation, he wants me to give up the comfort of the physical world and traverse this nebula known as the digital world… no thank you!
Over the intervening years, I got to know this young man, and through him and his fraternity, got to know about the wondrous cyberworld. Little did I know he was keeping tabs on me, and six years down the road, suddenly one day called me and said, “I know you have just finished a project and have not taken on another yet… Don’t! I have to talk to you.”
Taken aback but curious, I let him introduce me to an enchanting world dotted with archaeological sites, art galleries and museums that I could ever dream of seeing or visiting, while sitting in the comfort of my armchair.
“What is missing?” he demanded.
Looking at my perplexed expression, he said, “Pakistan! The images that people get when they Google it, are NOT what Pakistan is all about. We have history going back thousands of years, rich cultural heritage, and art. There is art in every nook and corner, in every facet of our lives. We need to put it out there! Are you game?”
How does one not jump (despite my age) at an offer like that? Here was a chance to showcase the rich cultural heritage of Pakistan which people, due to a variety of reasons in the physical world, are not able to get to know. The digital medium now offered the means to be transported to this magical realm.
Thus began my personal educational journey towards learning more about the richness and diversity of the cultural richness of my country. After an evaluation by a team of Googlers in Singapore and England, and a lot of technical and administrative handholding by them and the small core team in Pakistan and India, I was on my way to executing an almost year long project that didn’t seem like a project. It was mid 2013.
It was a journey into the glorious past, on paths traversed by mighty emperors on their mounts and steeds, like along The Royal Trail, taking rest at one of the largest Turkish Baths outside Central Asia, known as the Shahi Hammam, or bowing their heads to the Lord at the beautifully frescoed Wazir Khan mosque, passing the colourful bazaars, and havelis of their courtiers while on their way to their abode at the Lahore Fort.
It took me to the winding, narrow lanes of the Walled City of Lahore inside the Bhati Gate, pulsating with life and vibrant with colour, into one of the oldest ‘living museums’ of the world known as the Fakirkhana Museum. This museum has been in the Fakir family since the 16th Century, and houses not only some of the holiest Islamic relics, but has the largest collection of the Sikh artifacts and relics right from Ranjeet Singh’s times.
I also received an education in art produced by so many artists of this land, some of whose pieces would have me transfixed before them, so powerful was the imagery, whether displayed by the AAN Collection, or assembled in the gallery of the heritage building of the Lahore Museum, the repository of Pakistan’s best cultural and historic relics.
And of course, how can one not be fascinated by the Mohatta Palace Museum in Karachi, which mixes so much of old with the new, or get that otherworldly feeling when walking the pathways of the world’s largest necropolis in Makli, where history mixes with mystery, and mystique of the mystics buried there takes you into another time zone?
But this journey was not just about the past; it was about the present populated by talented young men and women savvy in the use of digital technology adroitly and seamlessly placing Pakistan’s cultural riches on the world stage. These riches were captured by a crop of superb photographers across Pakistan who matched the technical excellence of their equipment with the artistry of their eye.
It was also about the breaking of some stereotypes, and reinforcement of others. Like how some government departments function through the maze of red tape, while others cut through the clutter and grab the opportunity coming their way to show the best side of Pakistan.
So why am I writing this story here? One, because of the memory that tweet I mentioned earlier triggered. But more than that, because far too few institutions and galleries in Pakistan know that here is a digital platform to advertise and market a physical space.
This is a great way to drive tourist and academic traffic to the country, so rich in cultural heritage. Yes, there are external factors that have a bearing on getting the numbers up; extraneous factors like issues of security or availability of tourist-friendly infrastructure. But it isn’t really all that much of a Catch 22.
The ‘product’ is there. It does not have to have a ‘USP’ as it IS the ‘USP’… the digital space acts as the advertising medium. The call to action, or the ‘sales pitch’ has now to come in a coordinated manner so that Pakistan’s best kept secret, its cultural riches, can be unveiled before the world.
Meanwhile, come visit some of Pakistan’s best places virtually, by visiting Google Cultural Institute – Pakistan.

Written by afiasalam

May 22, 2016 at 5:44 am

Posted in Uncategorized

World Cancer Day.. is just another day!

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For many years today was a day I would ring up Masood Hamid at Dawn newspaper, masood hamidand chide him on have let one more year pass without putting in place his plans to do something ‘big’ on February 4, to raise awareness about cancer. He and I shared two different bonds… our fathers were friends and colleagues at Pakistan State Oil. The yearly Paya (trotters)  parties at his place were a fixture on all friend’s calendars. Masood and I also worked for the Dawn media group.

Then we developed a third , very strange, very strong bond; over cancer. I was a cancer survivor, and so was his mother. As a family member and care giver, he had seen first hand what it meant, how it affected the patient and the family, and why it was so important for people, especially women, to be forewarned so they could be forearmed.

Hence those crazy calls from him at the oddest of times, when one was up to the gills in work, to ‘must meet urgently.’ Willy nilly I would drop everything and go, we would chalk out grandiose plans for a national campaign to raise awareness and he would put me in touch with his ‘boys’ in Dawn Marketing department because he was too busy in a zillion other things…. and nothing would come to fruition. Now probably nothing ever will, because he was so brutally snatched away from life, dashing all plans.

This is why instead of writing on cancer on this day, about the advances in the diagnoses and treatment, and the corresponding reduction in fear associated with the mere word, i will just send up a prayer for my friends and relatives those who fought so bravely with it before meeting their Maker, and to those who were able to overcome it. On this day I would also like to acknowledge the wonderful doctors and staff whom I had met along the way, but want to say that this is not the only day the thoughts stray their way. Bless you all… there are to many here to be named individually.

Instead of writing something new, I would like to replug two articles here. One I wrote many years ago, and one written almost a decade later by my daughter. Some people mentioned are no longer with us, some are. But one thing is for sure… World Cancer Day, is just another day… life is for living… to fight a tough fight.

So who’s afraid of cancer?

By Afia Salam

Four people give an inspiring account of their battle against cancer. Meet Afia Salam, editor, The Cricketer, Gul Hameed Bhatti, editor, The News, Faisal Sher Jan, CEO NTM and actress Yasmin Ismail.

12661899_10153923103738713_8299043159685790993_n“Not me, at least not any more. Cancer does not hold the same dread that it did when I was just a bystander. Two of my mother’s sisters and two of my nieces had gone down fighting cancer. That’s why, the moment I felt a lump, I was sure it would be malignant.

The biopsy simply confirmed my suspicion. While I was reading the report, I kept thinking, “I don’t want my mother to know!” She had been through three major surgeries, eight sessions of chemotherapy, and had suffered a relapse after a three-year remission. I was afraid my diagnosis would be the last straw.

It was then that I began ‘operation deception.’ My husband, a cousin and my boss, Riaz Mansuri, conspired with me. Mansuri called up my mother to say that I had to go out of the city on some cricket assignment and my cousin successfully convinced her to spend the weekend together with my children at his place.

During my stay at the hospital, Mansuri kept my mother posted about my ‘travel plans!’ Dr. Kishwar Nazli gave me the confidence to cope with the surgery in a manner so that upon my return home, neither my mother nor my children had a clue as to what I had been through.


It was only when I visited Dr. Imtiaz Malik, that I learned the cancer had spread to the lymph nodes. I was to undergo chemotherapy which would result in complete hair loss among other related side-effects. I knew I had to come clean with my mother.

Confiding in my mother gave me the support of dua (prayers) along with her dawa (medicines). My eldest child was just nine, the middle one eight and the youngest one only three. I tried making them independent of me, in case they had to fend for themselves. But with the support of my friends and family, coupled with an excellent level of medical care, I came to grips with the situation. My mother had done it earlier and I wasn’t about to give up now.

My doctor made it very clear that it was possible to function normally, as long as I didn’t take unnecessary risks. That was all I needed to hear when I came out of the hospital, I firmly took over the wheels from my driver as I used to before my treatment started. And that set the pattern for the rest of my life.

I suffered severe side-effects from my chemo. I felt nauseous. The bitter taste in my mouth put me off food. My nails turned black, my skin darkened and my toes pained so much that wearing shoes became a problem. At one point, I got blisters in my mouth and all I could consume was milkshake for 10 days. Talking was extremely painful so I had to communicate with a pad and a pen. But I went to the office as usual and the magazine came out regularly. I even went to Lahore for some interviews, despite the pain. It was these achievements that gave me the confidence to do more. The most difficult thing for me to come to terms with was hair loss. I had knee length hair, which I now miss despite the compliments on my ‘chic’ new short style.

Two years down the road and I am doing everything I did before my brush with cancer. However, I am wary of making any long-term commitments lest I am not able to fulfil them. I have become rather possessive of my time and I prefer to stay home once the children return from school.

I am grateful to God for the support of my friends and family who have been extremely positive throughout my illness. Not everyone has that advantage and that is why there is a need to organise formal support groups who can counsel people diagnosed with cancer. We must put the fear of cancer behind us, and be more positive about it. I do fear that some day my cancer might return, but I refuse to spend my life in dread.”


Gul Hameed Bhatti, editor, The News, is a heavyweight in the cricketing fraternity. About three years ago, his world turned topsy turvy with the sudden death of his wife, Razia Bhatti, founding editor of Newsline. It took Gul quite a while to come to terms with this loss. And just when he thought things were worse, life took another tragic turn: while he had no apparent health problems, there seemed to be a growth at the side of his jaw that started to swell.

“For six months, the doctor kept me in the dark. They couldn’t figure out whether this growth was serious. And this despite the fact that I had been going to the head of surgery of the country’s top hospital. In fact I had been told emphatically that the tumour was benign.

When I was referred to ENT surgeon Musheer Hussain, the first thing he asked me for was the report of the biopsy. He was extremely surprised to learn that none had been carried out. He was extremely surprised to learn that none had been carried out. He sent me off for a biopsy. When the report came, he tried to break it to me gently saying that it was positive, and that the tumour was indeed malignant.

After the surgery, I was told that the cancer had spread to the shoulder area and they had ‘cleaned’ it all up. The oncologists agreed that I needed no chemotherapy, but only radiation, which Imran Khan insisted I get done at the SKMT hospital.

This was a big decision, for with Razia no longer there, it meant leaving my children, Sara and Kamil alone. It also meant being away from my job for well over five weeks. Our maidservant stayed with the children throughout, while the management at the newspaper told me to simply concentrate on getting well.

SKMT in Lahore was remarkable. I went for radiation five days a week, and came twice to Karachi for the weekend to be with the children. After the radiation sessions ended, I couldn’t talk properly for days. The pain-killers didn’t seem to work and I had problems sleeping on my back. However, I knew this was a temporary condition which would go away Ð and it did.


Though there were no formal support groups, my son, especially, was a real help, and for the sake of my children, I put on a positive front. Am I afraid the cancer might return? Well, if it does, I will get it treated again. The only thing that worries me is that my children will be left alone if something happens to me but if God wants me to be there for them, I’ll be there.”

Faisal Sher Jan seems to be in a perpetual hurry. Meeting deadlines is what life is all about, and he isn’t about to miss any just because he has cancer. Most of his professional problems surfaced about the same time as his disease, and he had to battle on two fronts at the same time..

“When I went in to have a check-up for a stomach problem, I knew it might be cancer, for my father had it. In fact, we have a history of colon cancer. The oncologist was very blunt and made no promises. But he did tell me that I had to undergo chemotherapy.

I wasn’t really afraid because of the tremendous support from my family and friends. It helped me to be a very positive attitude about everything and just eight days after my surgery, I was battling in the court for NTM. In fact, I had a lesser reason to be negative about it than my mother, who had to bear the trauma of seeing not just me, but my two sisters, diagnosed with the disease at about the same time. If anyone should have cracked up, it should have been her but she has been strong and calm throughout and this helped us to be strong too.

If I hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer, probably my sister’s cancer would not have been detected either. She went for her check-up after my diagnosis, and was detected positive. We’ve had a tough time as a family. A few months later, my elder sister too had to undergo surgery. It’s having the right mental attitude that has helped us through.

My treatment has been interrupted because the drugs were affecting my heart, but I am going about my job as usual. My sister goes to Shaukat Khanum Memorial Trust Hospital to counsel patients who are to undergo a colonoscopy, for that is a traumatic procedure. Talking to her has helped many overcome their fear.


We have good doctors who can help the patients keep a positive attitude and live life to its fullest.”

Yasmin Ismail is a name synonymous with television and stage. A gifted director, Yasmin’s Grip’s theatre plays have provided some delightful moments for children and adults. Cancer stalked Yasmin stealthily, for ovarian cancer does not really have any symptoms…

“My first reaction was of disbelief … after all, cancer is a dreaded disease. I was apparently very healthy, and was working quite normally. However, I was having a lady coming in to massage me because my stomach felt distended. After that, everything happened so quickly that I had no time to think or react. My tumour burst and the liquid filled the entire stomach. The very next day they operated on me, and it was then that the doctors discovered that I had stage III cancer.

After the surgery, I had to undergo chemotherapy. It was quite a bad experience both emotionally and physically. Hair loss was tough to cope with, though, I did get around with wigs and even did plays wearing them. I reacted rather strongly to the chemo, for I felt miserable. With successive cycles, I lost interest in socializing.

But my commitments pushed me to meet deadlines. Once I was in bed feeling quite ill and the entire cast of a play we were staging for Civil Hospital was sitting in my bedroom rehearsing for it. Since it was for a worthy cause, I made the effort.

While the going was tough, it helped to talk about it. I know there are a number of people who hide it, and I wonder why. the wealth of support I received by being open about it is unforgettable. Being a known face, I came across so many people who could come up and say they included me in their prayers. It was really a wonderful feeling.

Soon after my chemo, my mother too was diagnosed as having breast cancer. Despite knowing that it ran in the family, I was not mentally ready when I suffered a relapse.

At present, I am not cancer-free, but I am feeling much better. And this is why you see me directing and acting in plays. I do believe that one shouldn’t be afraid of treatment. the doctors are there, the treatment is there, and people with cancer must shed their fear. That is the only way to overcome cancer.”


Mind Over Matter


01Pink_ribbon10-09It is with a sense of déjà vu that I write this first-person account of my brush with a name that instils fear in most hearts but has been like a subconscious presence for me for the past 12 years or so. I had done just that exactly a decade ago in this very magazine, and had also narrated personal stories of three other known persons coping with cancer at that time.

Of them, sadly, Yasmin Ismail, that talented theatre and TV artiste, is no longer with us for the disease overcame her, and Gul Hameed Bhatti, the doyen of cricket journalists, passed away earlier this year after a period of poor health due to repeated strokes. Mediaman Faisal Sherjan has been cancer-free despite other medical issues.

These past 12 years have seen me moving from the category of a cancer patient to that of a cancer survivor, but in these very years, this disease has crisscrossed my path in many different ways. It took my mother away, and I have known it to affect the lives of so many people I have known, and am witnessing a dear friend and her family battling with it bravely.

So where is the story in this? The story is that each cancer case is a story in itself; a different experience for a different person and the overarching moral of this story is that it is a case of mind over matter. And these are not mere words. The entire story is about management – of the disease – and of those dealing with it first- and second-hand.

This is a disease that has to be battled on all fronts. On the front of knowledge, information and awareness, on the front of the calibre of oncologists and treatment options available, on the psychological and social front, due to the terrible strain on the patient and family, and last but certainly not the least, on the financial front, as that, despite the presence of places like Shaukat Khanum hospital, is a drain on resources few patients can cope with.

Why I count myself lucky is that I had support on almost all those fronts. I was able to put mind over matter and live a life as normally as possible. In fact, I achieved a lot more in my post-cancer days than pre-cancer, as earlier one takes time for granted. Now I was able to focus and only go for the important things, and important people in my life.

Friends and family were the Rock of Gibraltar, while work was the therapy, and my young children, the youngest being only 3, the incentive to stubbornly disregard the fact that this disease could be a limiting factor.

And this is where one realises that in the absence of support groups, one has a definite role to play, even if on an informal personal level. Having cared for my mother throughout her battle with cancer, and having gone through the treatment myself, I was able to assume an advisory role.

Not that this was easy, the first step being the most difficult one – trying to get people to cross the hurdle of the trauma and shock and getting them to agree to see a specialist. It is amazing how many people simply slip into a fatalistic mindset and out of fear of the side effects, refuse to start treatment. Getting people past this hurdle took a lot of explaining, cajoling, pleading, and even deceiving. This was one judgment call I always view with apprehension, for to deceive someone by not telling them the nature of disease yet getting them to undergo treatment does not really rest easy on the conscience.

But in this case, forewarned is really forearmed. Knowledge that the discomfort, aches and pains are related to the treatment regime may be small comfort physically, but at least mentally one knows that it is temporary. Besides, some treatments lead to some other problems – in my case ostopenia – so one has to learn how to deal with that as well and start taking care of oneself in yet another manner. It stops me from going off on field trips to hills and valleys like in my ‘younger’ days, and even though I hate the thought of seeming like the begum sahiba who makes others carry her bags, I have to, or my joints and bones would give me a talking to.

What one has to remember is that this is not a ‘one size fits all’ scenario. Each person is affected in a different way by the same drug, and has to develop his or her own responses. This is something even the caregivers need to understand and not go by the stories they hear from ‘others.’ Existing general health before having cancer, plus the socio-psychological factors all come into play and, of course, they are different for different persons.

As far as the fear of it returning, well, I know that with the strong familial link, there is always a chance that it will return, but I would rather consider the 12 good years I have spent as a glass half full and cross that bridge when I come to it. The best thing is that I have seen my children develop a similar mindset, and so of course, I do not really have any cause for complaint from life.

Running in the Family


01Pink_ribbon10-09Cancer is a word I have been familiar with and heard in my home nearly my entire life.

In the case of my my grandmother, I have seen the grimmest side of cancer and memories of her with the illness are flooded with images of drips, injections, doctors and hospitals. But through my mother, a breast-cancer survivor, I came to see that cancer did not mean the end of life.

A workaholic and always on the go, my mother continued her daily routine as before, but cancer, combined with its immediate treatment – chemotherapy – and long-term treatment – a regular course of medicines – took its toll on her physical health. Had it not been for the headscarf she started wearing after her chemo, I would not even have known that she had been diagnosed with cancer. But as I grew older, I began to understand the implications of this illness. She no longer had the physical stamina to go on working and taxing her body as before. Also, she became more susceptible to picking up the smallest of illnesses, and something as simple as a flu or a cough hit her far worse than it did anyone else.

It was during my mid-teen years that I really awakened to what cancer was, and what it meant for us as a family. With my grandmother and two of her sisters, my mother and my maternal aunt, all diagnosed with either ovarian or breast cancer, all indicators point towards this being a genetic disease, putting me, so to speak, next in line. Although I haven’t as yet been tested for BRCA 1 and 2 – however I do intend to do so – the fact that so many close relatives have had cancer puts me at high risk for getting it.

So what does this mean? Two things: what I must do in a medical capacity and what social concerns I have to deal with. As far as medical goes, annual screening has to begin at the age of 18. And so I did. However, I cannot get a mammogram until the age of 40. But knowing I run such a high risk of getting it before that age, having to wait till 40 is not very comforting, so you want to know what else can be done.

Ideally, as recommended by doctors, I should – and this goes for all women who are high-risk candidates – get married at an early age and complete my family by the age of 30, and get a hysterectomy immediately. But at 18 one’s response to this is: really, how can you plan these things?

In addition to that, the reason why many families do not disclose such a medical history is out of fear: Who will marry our daughter? I have been fortunate enough to be married into a family who is above such biases, but there is a lot more that needs to be thought about.

Completing a family before the age of 30 poses a likely challenge to education and career advancement. Dreams of achieving so much in little time do face a setback. Also, nobody tailors their life in a manner where one has decided that they will get married at 24 and have a kid at 25 or 26. Relationships and life in general cannot be planned in that fashion. Besides, you are not the only person whose life this affects or whose decision it is to make. Your partner features most obviously in it. What ‘must’ be done sometimes stands in direct opposition to what one ‘wants’ to do, for both you and him. In addition, getting a hysterectomy at 30 or earlier inevitably means osteoporosis and arthritis – an additional psychological factor to deal with until the illnesses manifest themselves physically.

But what being exposed to cancer has done is to numb me from fear to some extent. Of course, sometimes it arouses fear, especially when you feel unwell, but otherwise, the possibility of getting it is not something you live with every day of your life – it doesn’t weigh you down like a burden every passing moment.

However, those who are at high risk and feel it may be a disease that runs in the family should be vigilant, and get themselves tested for the BRCA 1 and 2 as well as get themselves screened regularly. I don’t know myself how I would react to testing positive in the gene test, but I do know from all the cases before me, early detection is better than late, and can lead to less pain and a better quality of life.

Written by afiasalam

February 4, 2016 at 12:48 pm

Six years after the Attabad disaster, adaptation is still name of the game!

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Some of the most stunning mountains of the Karakoram range circle the Attabad lake in Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan

The mountains of Gilgit Baltistan are like a petulant teenager still trying to find a place. They are still experiencing growing pains and rock and rattle all those around them like the teenager slamming doors. Just like that teenager, they need to be watchful of, because of the potential to do harm.


Hunza river snaking though the valley

On this day in 2010, the young Karakorams stretched themselves to release some of their tension, but that one stretch had nightmarish results. The villagers of Gojal valley in Gilgit-Baltistan, heard a rumble, that quickly turned into a roar, the earth trembled, and billows of dust triggered by a huge landslide raced down a disintegrating mountainside, and slammed into the path of the Hunza river down below.

This disaster,  resulted in the loss of 19 precious lives, displacement of thousands of villagers from  Attabad, Shishkat and Gulmit, and complete destruction of many miles of the Karakoram Highway that linked Pakistan to China, and the bridges linking the villages in the valley.

It was not unexpected. This is a seismically active zone. Human activity, especially infrastructure construction disturbs the fragile environment. Humanitarian groups like Focus along with the environmentalist working in that area had been warning the people of the valley below of the widening crevices. Warmer temperatures due to Climate Change have also impacted the integrity of the glaciers in the northern mountains.

The people were warned of the dangers, and  advised to relocate. Many heeded the warning, but not all could. They had no idea where to move. They also had no other alternatives. The political leadership was also reactive and there was no disaster preparedness.


Tree tops indicating the presence of the submerged village


Tree tops protruding out of the water are an eerie reminder of a thriving village having become a watery grave

The mountain-side that had fallen into the river had dammed it completely, and soon the accumulated river started forming a lake that encroached on the homes and hearths, and business of the villages, completely submerging the village of Ayeenabad, and parts of Sishkat and adjoining villages.


Only a row of tree tops serves as a haunting reminder of the live that flourished along the banks of the Hunza river. Where people must have tended to their livestock, and reaped the fruits of their harvest. Now, there is an eerie silence of the watery grave of a thriving village.

Today, 6 years later, all the information that one needs of how the disaster was handled, of the evacuations, the airdrops of food and relief supplies, the construction of the spillway to release the rising water threatening to engulf more land is easily searchable.


Temporary shelters given for a period of 6 months are still there abode 6 years after displacement

This is about the people. The people who have been protesting each year on the frozen Attabad lake that was formed in the wake of the disaster. Protesting because promises were not kept. Because relief and rehabilitation did not come in the manner promised. And because 6 years after this disaster, there are still people living in the Altit village in temporary shelters.


These shelter were put up in is 2016, and the ‘Mutasareen’ or the affectees are still living in them

People with means moved elsewhere. The paltry sum of 600,000 was given out at one time. Chinese provided them dry rations for a year. Many moved to other villages, started their life anew, set up businesses. But the people who were given temporary shelters in Altit and Karimabad village, some in Gilgit, for six months are still living there after 6 years.

There is a great sense of community in these areas. People help out. The displaced persons in Altit were given these shelters on the land of the small farmers. However, this ‘temporary settlement’ of almost 60 shelters in this small town brings a double jeopardy.


IDPs cultivating potatoes , something the owners of this land used to do

The farmers are without their land; cultivable land which was used for growing potatoes which serve not just as a food but a major cash crop. They were expecting the use of these shelters once the IDPs left, but now they do not even get to benefit from their own land, which they had given temporarily

Most of the people of this area either are farmers, or in the Army. The people displaced from the disaster now do odd jobs to sustain their families, with only the well to do among them having established businesses like shops or transportation services.

They yearn to be in a place of their own. They feel that because they are so few in numbers, they do not even matter to the politicians when they go out seeking votes. The only hope they have is from their National Council of the Ismaili community in Pakistan.

One father spoke of the psycho-sociological effects of this temporary living. Children of the village, brutally honest and blunt as they are, call his children and those of his displaced neighbours as ‘mutasareen’ or disaster affected. He said his child was born in this village, but wants to know the meaning of this label of mutasareen. He can understand it is not being said in a nice way so does not go to school willingly.

Many adapted to the life after disaster. The infrastructure rehabilitation was going to take a long time but there was a daily trek of villagers from Gulmit and upper villages to cross over to Gilgit. This spawned a thriving road and river transportation network that had been unseen and unheard of in those areas.


Boats served as a only means of transportation for villages cut off due to damage to the roads and bridges

The awe inspiring pictures of cars and even trucks travelling astride two boats going at synchronized speeds fired the imagination of the adventurous, setting in motion a mini tourist boom. Interestingly though, when asked, this turned out to be a classic case of adaptation.

None of these people had owned boats or ran such a business there before. The locals eased into this earning opportunity as owners of boats, and tourist guides. They know the area so are comfortable in that role. However, water transportation in the upper reaches of the rivers is rare, so this was something they had to learn. Many preferred to outsource it to people who were more adept at this skill.


People with distinctly different features from the locals are boatmen from the neighbouring KP province

This is why while they became business owners and operators, the boatmen employed by them were mostly from the nearby Hazara division of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. No wonder they had features so different from the locals! These became the migrant workers who found livelihood opportunity in a new land.

It is another story now that with the inauguration of the tunnels built through the surrounding mountains by the Chinese, the road link with Karakoram Highway has now been established.


Trucks like these, bearing testimony of the pervasive presence of China in the area, will no longer have to straddle two boats to get to the other side

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 12.12.55 pmThis no doubt meets a great need. But this also means that once again the people have to adapt to another kind of a life when these boats would be used only if tourism is sustained and people want to travel on the stunning blue waters of the lake, surrounded by some of the most captivating peaks.


Those in a hurry will now be using the road going through the Pak-China Friendship Tunnels.

Those wanting a comfortable ride will also be using it. But how many will be able to keep themselves from climbing onto the boats to experience the wonderous surroundings which only a boat ride will offer. Not everyone will be able to afford letting go of the boats to buy means of road transportation.

For this to happen, and tourism to thrive, rudimentary facilities around the lake will be needed so it progresses from ‘adventure’ tourism to include the less adventurous, especially as now ease of access is not a problem.


Majesty and grandeur of nature in its full glory


Pakistan’s flag flutters atop a boat, with the view of the drowned village, a makeshift one, and stunning locale behind. A mixed message of hope.

The vistas of breathtaking beauty must be made more accessible. Unless this is done, within a short span of 6 years after the Attabad disaster, the lives of its displaced persons  will be  topsy turvy once again, and they will remain in this cycle of adaptation.

Do they have to protest on the frozen lake every year on the anniversary of the disaster to make themselves heard?

*All pictures except those already with due credits have been taken by the author


Written by afiasalam

January 4, 2016 at 3:54 pm

Benazir.. the woman, the mother, the Prime Minister… the martyr!

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Benazir arriving in Pakistan just prior to the elections

Benazir arriving in Pakistan just prior to the elections

It was around this time when the enormity of the incident had finally sunk in. She was no more. I could hear our senior reporter Mubashir Zaidi‘s chillings words over and over in my head saying that doctor’s had confirmed that Benazir Bhutto had passed away!

I had also witnessed the mayhem on the road outside when immediately after hearing the news of the attack I went to pick my daughter from her office which was just a few minutes drive away. The angry, charged crowd waving sticks and whatever else they could wield was on a rampage, and i could not even cross the road.

Had to phone her to tell her to stay put in office, and then to go to her uncle’s house close by when things calmed down and spend the night there. As it happened, she witnessed more horror from the roof top of her office with all the auto workshops on the main road set ablaze. They even had to give sanctuary to a terrified family fleeing the mob.

Being in the news channel (Dawnnews) meant that while one was rooted to a spot seeing things unfold , rather, unravel, all around, one also had to keep one’s wits about to plan the next day.

The morning after started with a call from the anchor of the breakfast show saying his wife wouldn’t allow him to go. There was no question of guests coming in to discuss anything. The only thing we could do was to put one of our news anchors in with an analyst who had been flown in to discuss the forthcoming elections, with a pile of newspapers which of course, had only one thing that could be discussed.. Benazir’s murder!

The rest of the day in the newsroom was surreal. Amid real time news, there was the running to and fro from archives to pull things about Benazir to prepare small packages on different aspects of her life. The longest it took was to work on a longish documentary as the editing of its script was proving to be heart wrenching. It was one of the most difficult editing jobs to date!

One just couldn’Benazir 2t get the images of her saying goodbye to her children our of the mind.. when she was leaving to board the flight to Pakistan. Those images didn’t affect me as a journalist but as a mother. The journalist in me knew she was coming to a life fraught with danger, as the Karsaz blast proved on her arrival.

Another image that just stays with me is of her hands going up in prayers when she landed on Pakistani soil. What must have been going through her mind. What hopes and aspirations did she come with for herself, her party, and her country! Her resolve seemed almost palpable to be able to something for the country.. to make it better.

She emerged from the Karsaz disaster almost unfazed, showing grit and determination and went about her campaign across the country….. and then, on that fateful day to ‘Pindi. And then the rest, as they say, is history! History that has become another name for tragedy not only for the Bhutto family, but for this country, and indeed for the world which lost a woman, a leader who was exceptional, and had exceptional potential.

I have never been a PPP supporter, for a variety of reasons. But Benazir transcended the persona of a PPP leader. As a woman, it made me proud to see her reach where she had, and develop as a politician, out of the shadow of her father, which was her first springboard. It made me feel good to tell people that Pakistanis had elected a woman twice as their PM, despite being a patriarchal, misogynistic sBenazir 3ociety.

But of course not everyone shared that pride. There were people who resented her presence, and the possibility of her calling the shots again.. this time more forcefully, against the forces of darkness.

And they cut her life down brutally. Who are they? will we ever know? Doesn’t the nation deserve closure? Don’t her children deserve to know who were the enemies and if they are still around to pose a threat to them too?

Benazir the politician was not flawless. There is a long list of mistakes. But Benazir the person, was truly that… Benazir… without parallel! May she rest in peace, and may her killers never find any peace

Written by afiasalam

December 28, 2015 at 9:31 am

Climate Cop-Out?

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Climate Cop-Out?

000_Del6375094One of the most important international conferences on climate change – Conference of the Parties (COP21) to be held in Paris – on December 7-8 is less than a couple of months away and shockingly, Pakistan does not have a minister for climate change. And this, despite the fact that Pakistan has been assessed as one of the top 10 countries vulnerable to climate change. It is a multi-threat country – and no, here one is not talking of India or the Punjabi Taliban!

Leading think tanks of the world have placed Pakistan fairly high on the vulnerability index. It faces disasters as varied as floods, due to unpredictable rains, as were witnessed in 2010 and 2011, and from the glacial melt, as seen in Chitral earlier this year.

At the other extreme are the onset of disasters like drought and desertification that are hitting parts of Sindh and Balochistan, and the spectre of inundation of coastal areas due to a rise in the sea level that will exacerbate the already dire situation being faced due to the intrusion of the sea in certain districts of Sindh.

Add to this mix the unpredictability of the monsoons, and the level of vulnerability of an agricultural country like Pakistan increases manifold. Then there are the ‘non-traditional’ climate change events, as listed by Dr. Pervaiz Amir, agro-economist and climate change expert, who drew the Planning Commission’s attention to them. They include heat waves, hailstorms sandstorms and duststorms; tornadoes, fog, landslides, Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF), and wildfires.

Does Pakistan have the resources to tackle all or even some of these climate change eventualities? The answer is a resounding no. Does Pakistan have the human resources or the capacity to deal with them? The answer to that is, yes… but!

It is this ‘but’ that is the reason why Pakistan finds itself lagging way behind single threat countries like the Maldives or Bangladesh (which are threatened by the rise in sea levels), in presenting its case forcefully before the world.

Qualified people need to be appointed at decision-making levels, and then they need the backing of people at the helm – the main decision makers – which unfortunately has not been the case. We have scientists, planners, environmental experts; even research bodies who have more or less mapped out the threats, as well as the measures needed to cope with them.

There is a growing realisation that despite the devolution of the environment sector to the provinces post the 18th Amendment, matters relating to environment and climate change need to be taken cognizance of and addressed at the national level. Policy and legislation must be complementary to the needs of Pakistan.

So where will COP21 figure in Pakistan’s scheme of things? COP is an annual meeting to review the response to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that was put together in Rio in 1995. Subsequent milestones include COP3, where the Kyoto Protocol was signed that put a cap on emissions. Unfortunately, the biggest polluters – China, India, USA – did not sign it.

Since then, each successive COP has seen this push and pull between what the polluters need to do to stop global warming, and what the affected need to do to deal with a problem which is not of their making. Along the way, certain concrete measures like creating a Green Climate Fund were taken.

Now, most of the nay sayers have been convinced, and those offering the stiffest resistance to reform, namely the US, China and India, are willing to take mitigating action. Also, there is money in the kitty to help the affected countries to cope.

Where does Pakistan figure in all of this?

P4170147-copyNot nearly as out there in the centre as it used to be. This is the lament of some of those who had been a part of the deliberations over the years. COP21 is about cutting emissions to keep global temperature increase below two degrees centigrade. The commitments, in the shape of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) for emission cuts post-2020 that have so far been submitted to the UNFCCC secretariat, indicate that this is not going to be the case. Some countries have refused to take any new action, to mitigate the problem. For them, it will be business as usual.

Even the highest officials have expressed pessimism about achieving the desired emission cuts to contain temperatures and this conference may end up being another cop-out which dashes the hopes of environmentalists across the world and leads to a blame game and finger-pointing at those countries whose commitments fall short of what is needed.

Pakistan is aligned with the Group of 77 and China, comprising mostly developing nations. Initially China, as a nation careering towards development, was one of the leading polluters in the world. Now it is seen as a country serious in emission reductions.

In the global context, Pakistan’s emissions are a miniscule 0.8%. The breakdown, sectorwise, is as follows: transport and energy (51%), industry (5.8%), waste (1.8%), agriculture (39%) and forestry (2.9%). Since the Paris COP21 is all about commitments to cuts in emissions, Pakistan will be making its declaration of intent, and also highlighting some voluntary measures it has taken towards mitigation, adaptation, institution-building and knowledge-management. Naturally, it will be looking to get a piece of the pie from the Green Climate Fund to assist in taking adaptation measures.

Pakistan has already declared its intent to submit a proposal to obtain readiness support from the Fund by October. This will mostly be used to enhance the capacity of its Ministry of Climate Change, and kick-start many low-emission and climate-resilient initiatives, including those for renewable energy. Pakistan is also looking for funding for adaptation measures, like the one undertaken in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral to cope with GLOF. This project was credited with saving lives and minimising damage when the glacial burst occurred in Bagrot Valley in Gilgit.

While it is all very well to wave the victim card, Pakistan’s hopes from COP21 are not something to write home about. Yes, we have done some remarkable work at the policy level. There are adaptation success stories dotting the country, but the bigger picture shows many gaps. Pakistan needs continuity of policy and skill-development of the human resource that represents the country at these key negotiations. Many countries are represented by their presidents and prime ministers, with legal and diplomatic aides in tow. Not so, with Pakistan.

The musical chairs played at the bureaucratic and political level is what deprives Pakistan of the advantage which countries like Bangladesh and Maldives are able to gain. Two years ago, at COP19, Pakistan was represented by the minister of state for railways! This time, a few months short of the important conference, the Minister of Environment, Mushahidullah, was forced to resign for making a statement against a former ISI chief. As these lines go into print, the Ministry of Climate Change is without a minister.

This is yet another tragedy for this beleaguered country. As former Pakistan ambassador Shafqat Kakakhel, who has been part of the COP negotiating team in the past said:

“The forthcoming climate change conference in Paris is extremely important for every one, but more so for the poor who lack the resilience to cope with calamities of all types, including the by now well-known impacts of climate change such as floods, droughts, less food and water, and inundation of coastal areas and small island states.”

Newsline put two basic questions to four of Pakistan’s leading
experts on environment.

Q. 1:  What will Pakistan take to Paris? 

Q. 2:  What does it hope to come away with?

“Pakistan is one of the most impacted and vulnerable countries of the world in relation to climate change, though it remains one of the lowest contributors to the global problem with just 0.08% of the green house gas emissions. We can truly be termed a victim of climate injustice. Our case at COP21 is also premised on this stark reality. We must focus on our needs for adaptation and climate finance, while also elaborating on the considerable voluntary steps Pakistan has taken, such as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s voluntary commitment of targeting zero carbon economic growth through clean hydro-energy as well as afforestation. Also noteworthy is the Quaid-e-Azam solar park development scheme, with 100 MW already installed and 900 MW in the pipeline.”

“Pakistan hopes to establish its extreme climate vulnerability on the global stage, while seeking new avenues for climate finance for both mitigation and adaptation. Pakistan’s financial needs to cope with the forced impacts of climate change are estimated at between US$ 6-14 billion year, while for climate mitigation it needs between US$ 9-17 billion worth of investment to shift its future growth trajectory onto a cleaner and low-carbon pathway. We do not have the luxury of time on our side, and the world needs to understand that Pakistan, like other developing countries, has to be wary of the demands for voluntary cuts and ensure that our future development does not, in any way, become a hostage to emission limitations as is premised by the founding principles of the UNFCCC – namely the ‘polluter pays’ and the ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ principles.”

— Malik Mohammad Amin Aslam, former minister of state for environment, IUCN global vice president, and author of the green growth strategy of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, which includes the ambitious billion-tree plantation programme.

“Pakistan must provide a clear statement that if no action is taken to curb CO2 emissions and restrict temperature rise, non-traditional impacts will cause colossal loss. The recent Karachi heat wave is an example.”

“Pakistan is energy-hungry, we need international help in green technologies with low carbon emissions. If not, we are poised to join the coal-fired plant club. We are the frontline state in two wars: climate change and terror. Climate change decisions cannot be deferred. Our way forward is water, renewable energy and a greener Pakistan.”

Dr Pervaiz Amir, agro-economist and former member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change. 


“Pakistan’s policy-makers need to understand that the Paris 2015 Conference is a defining moment, with respect to medium-and long-term economic growth and social development objectives of Pakistan. Sustainable, climate-resilient and inclusive development is the only viable way forward for Pakistan and we must be well-prepared for a meaningful participation in the conference. The agenda and scope of the Paris Conference contains many elements which are of particular importance to Pakistan. In the framework of existing and evolving mechanisms of adaptation to climate change, international climate finance, technology transfer and the Warsaw mechanism of loss damage, the case of Pakistan’s exposure to climatic threats should be compellingly and convincingly presented.”

“Pakistan has enormous potential for reducing emissions in a cost-effective manner. Similarly, adapting to the harmful impacts of climate change has become a necessity for a large segment of our population. We are at the stage of forced adaptation, and we should highlight this fact before the global community. Our meaningful participation is critically important in the loss-and-damage mechanism, which within Pakistan’s perspective, is a multi-dimensional issue.”

— Bilal Anwar, a climate policy expert, who has worked at the UNFCCC Secretariat.

“Unfortunately, Pakistan is no longer a consequential player in international climate change negotiations. We dropped the ball. Pakistan put climate change on the back-burner and now climate change negotiations have put Pakistan on the back-burner. This is unfortunate because in 1992, and for many years after that, we were a consequential player. It is also unfortunate because we still have many talented professionals who could make Pakistan a consequential player.”

“Pakistan will not take much to the table at Paris. We are likely to bring back even less. This is a great loss to Pakistan’s own very pressing climate change challenges. But it is also a loss to Pakistan’s foreign policy because we will, once again, be on the sidelines at a negotiation that the most important powers of the world are now taking very seriously – USA, EU, China – and where we could well have been an actor of consequence.”

Dr Adil Najam, former dean of LUMS and now dean of the Pardee School in Boston University. He is also the lead author of the UNFCCC report on Climate Change in 2007 that won the organisation the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Al Gore.


This is the view of the Pakistan Government’s representatives on climate change and COP21.

“Pakistan has taken many measures to voluntarily cut emissions. The fact that we have still kept the coal underground should be appreciated, especially as the country is facing a serious energy crunch. There is a development policy vision 2025 that is taking cognizance of the green development imperatives. We also have the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN) going, even though it is in the initial stages. We are also one of the few countries which has the Initial National Communication process in place after a multi-stakeholder, inter-ministerial dialogue.

 “Pakistan also plans on holding a side event at COP21, where we will be focusing on the policy and institutional mechanisms that have been developed to cope with climate change. The Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) came into being as a disaster management mechanism and as a social safety net. We need to come up with more bankable, saleable projects in the field of energy, agriculture and waste management to show climate compatible development initiatives.”

— Irfan Tariq, the Director General Environment in the Ministry of Climate Change.

“COP21 will be a weak deal if there are no binding mechanisms to enforce emission targets and, at best, it will be a course correction for 2020 when the targets and their effects will be assessed. Pakistan has taken voluntary measures at emission reductions despite being a negligible emitter. The Bahawalpur solar power is one such step towards energy efficiency, development of renewable energy resources, and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is an example. We can manage a 5% reduction but can go up to 10-20% by 2030 if climate financing is provided.

“Pakistan has also embarked on a technology needs assessment, though that is still in its infancy and may not yield much benefit in Paris. In the future, climate financing will become more clear as the Green Climate Fund is making good progress. Pakistan is seeking 6-7 million dollars, for its GLOF II project. Other financial mechanisms, like the Asian Development Bank’s support against vulnerability through its Disaster Response Management Fund can feed into NDMA for rehabilitation recovery and climate insurance. This is a totally new field that needs attention. “

— Dr Qamruzzaman Chaudhury, former Director General Met and author of Pakistan’s Climate Change Policy.  


This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2015 issue.