Monday, November 13, 2017

Combating Smog

We were waiting for some respite from the heat and all set to welcome the winters but got blindsided by smog. The question is, did we really get blindsided by it or are we paying the price of ignoring the warning signs?
Human-made smog is a combined result of coal emissions, vehicular emissions, industrial emissions, forest and agricultural fires and photochemical reactions of these emissions. Punjab is witnessing the havoc that smog is capable of creating since late October. Yesterday I read in The News that, Dr Pervaiz Amir, an eminent environmentalist speaking at an event in Karachi said; “In the days to come, Karachi may face extreme dust storms, devastating cyclones and hurricanes in the Arabian Sea as well as smog.”
This should be a wakeup call for anyone who thinks that this is an isolated provincial or regional issue that they can conveniently ignore. Environmental issues have a snowball impact, if not catered to in time.
If the smog situation worsens, the consequences will grow in their intensity as well, from mild eye and throat irritation, minor pains to severe pulmonary diseases and potential cancer risks. The highly affected people include old people, kids and those with cardiac and respiratory complications as they have easy tendency to be at disadvantage of asthma.       
In 2015 only, almost 60,000 Pakistanis died from the high level of fine particulate matter in the air, among the highest death tolls in the world from air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). As South Asia’s most urbanized country, Pakistan contends with increasing challenges from the increase in motor vehicles in cities. In the last decade, more than 11m cars appeared on the roads in Pakistan’s most populous province, representing a growth of almost 30%, according to a report from the Punjab environmental protection department (EPD). The polluting practice on agricultural land is common in Pakistan’s Punjab, resulting in plumes of toxic smoke carrying over to the neighbourhoods of Lahore.
The WHO sets a standard safe PM 2.5 level (air pollutant) in a 24 hours period at 25 µg/m3, while the latest readings for Lahore are fluctuating between PM 450 and 500! 

Friday, October 20, 2017

A walk down memory lane: Three generations of nerds

There are some family relics that you know exist, but don’t quite remember which corner of the house they have been stored in. The other day, I stumbled upon one of my old scrapbooks. Skimming through it, I came across an old envelope from the British Council Library addressed to my Nana abu (maternal grandfather for the non-native readers). Opening it, I found two copies of his membership card and two typed sheets stapled together. From the same scrapbook I found two more modern versions of the British Council’s membership cards, one belonging to my mother, with her immaculate signatures on it, and the other one belonging to yours truly with the word ‘student’ stamped on it.This sight had so much nostalgia attached to it.
I lost my Nana abu when I was six, so my memory of him is mostly that of being dotted on and of how, being the first grandchild, I had liberties that no one else had. We didn’t have enough time together to make memories around books and this just adds to my list of what ifs. Despite this, I credit my love for biographies, history and historical fiction to him. While I was still indulged in my Nancy Drew, Famous Five, Hardy Boys etcetera, there were his books neatly lined in my mother’s shelves that were a source of constant intrigue. Once, the intrigue got the better of me and I read his copy of Mother by M. Gorky. My mother’s shelves ended up becoming a part of my library and as they say, the rest is history.
My mother, who is a doctor by profession, spent her career in her alma mater - Fatima Jinnah Medical Collage and Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. Once I grew out of the day care located in the pediatric department of the Ganga Ram Hospital, the British Council Library was my next stop. Mama had her own streak of nerd and it helped that the library was in her neighborhood, so no surprise that she was a card carrying member. 

Converging forestry and wildlife

Copy rights Fatima Arif
 A key aspect of any account of the British Raj in the sub-continent is the extravagant hobby of hunting that both the local and the foreign ruling elite indulged in. A glimpse of which can be seen in the following script taken from T. J. Roberts’s book, The Mammals of Pakistan.

‘The tiger is, of course, extinct in Pakistan but it should be a sobering thought that it has only become so within the last seventy years, in a region which cradled man’s civilization for over 4000 years. J. A. Murray, in describing the fauna of Sindh in 1884, stated that Khairpur State in the Indus riverine forest tracts was its last stronghold. The last survivor in Sindh, a tigress was shot in 1886 by Col. McRae (Eates, 1968). The late Amir of Bahawalpur, H. H. Sir Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi, related how his father had shot thirteen tigers within Bahawalpur State territory in the Indus riverine jungles and that the last specimen was shot by him in 1906 a few miles below Panjnad (pers. Comm., 1965).’

On the other end of this spectrum, were individuals fascinated by the natural gifts of the region and passionate enough to become soldiers for conservation. There are some incidents where hunters turned conservationists. A prominent example being Billy Arjan Sigh, the first person who tried reintroducing tigers and leopards in the wild from captivity.     

British Raj in the sub-continent spanned from 1858 to 1947. This long an association, albite a forced one was bound to leave its imprint. It did so not just in the form of architectural additions but in the forms of the bureaucratic tones set by the officers’ class and the laws that they devised to govern. However, once we got our hard earned freedom we were free to make our own rules; but in some cases we just decided to copy paste.  The Forest Act of 1927, is one such set of rules that we adopted to which different provinces have made amendments as per their needs. On the surface this might seem to be a non-issue but for a country that is in the top tier of those most effected by environment degradation; this is a reflection of priorities. 

Even though their work may overlap but forestry and wildlife are two very different fields that require separate skill set.  

Vultures: Environment's Unsung Heroes

Copy rights Fatima Arif
 The opening page of Arundhati Roy’s much awaited and extensively reviewed latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has the following lines:
“...white backed vultures, custodians of the dead for more than a hundred million years, have been wiped out.
Not many noticed the passing of the friendly old birds. There was so much else to look forward to.”
Indeed not many noticed the passing of these birds in our part of the world. In fact given all the negative connotations attached to them, many considered it good riddance. The state of these birds is sort of a symbolic representation of how humans in their superiority complex, create an environment that stimulates the cycle of their own troubles.
A linguistics tragedy occurs for those working in conservation every time lines like ‘human faced vultures’ and ‘acting like vultures’ are used to convey spiteful traits in someone. It is ironic that these notions define birds that by design act as our environment’s unsung heroes.
Vultures are ecologically important because they consume dead animals and clean the environment. The white backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), the specific species that Roy refers to in the opening page, once commonly occurred in plains and hilly regions and was regarded as the most common vulture species in the Indian subcontinent. It was frequently spotted in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, as well as Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam.
The population of the white-backed vulture has declined by up to 95 % in Pakistan, India and Nepal since the early 1990s, and it is now classified as critically endangered - just one step away from becoming extinct.
The decline of the white backed vulture is regarded as an un-precedent for any bird species.
Cause of this destruction?
Diclofenac Sodium, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), and other drugs like Ketoprofen and Aceclofenac used in livestock, are the main cause of mortality, causing kidney failure in vultures.
Vultures in Pakistan:
Pakistan is home to eight species of vultures. Two of these species, the white-backed vulture and the long-billed vulture are critically endangered. The white-backed vultures population in the wild is now limited to Nagar Parker and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, while the long-billed vultures stronghold in the country is Nagar Parkar only.
Contrary to myths:
Vultures are social birds. In the good old days, they were known to gather by the hundreds and thousands to roost. Their social life is not limited to their own sub-species but extends to other vulture species as well. They are found in forest trees lining rivers and in big trees around the proximity of towns and villages. Contrary to local myths, vultures are well adapted to live cordially in close proximity of humans.

We Are Connected To The Ghost Of The Mountains

The mountains fascinate me; have always done so, as long as I remember. They have an aura of holding hidden treasures and untold stories to them. One such iconic treasure of the Central and South Asian mountains is the majestic snow leopard – and its story is troubling.
Known as the ‘ghost of the mountains’, the snow leopard is rarely seen by humans. One reason being that they are solitary, shy and elusive in nature. Their movements are often largely dictated by the human presence in their range, focused on either avoiding encountering people or directed towards their hunt. Another key reason for a lack of interaction is the fact that the altitude at which this big cat is most comfortable, is where people in general need assistance in breathing. Recent research has shown that the snow leopards have a special physiological adaptation to survive in low oxygen environments.
Despite these barriers, human activities have had a negative impact on this species, to the extent that they are now in crisis. They are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
A single snow leopard’s home range is of a few hundred square kilometers. There are only some 4,000 of them left in the wild, who claim a combined range of twelve countries (Pakistan, India, China, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan) their home. Out of these 4,000, between 200 and 400 are found in Pakistan’s northern mountains of Karakorum and Hindu Kush mountain ranges.
The home of the ‘ghost of the mountains’ is shrinking and if it continues at this pace, it is feared one-third of their habitat will become unsustainable. This loss is bad news for homo-sapiens too. Snow leopards play a vital role as a top predator and as an indicator species. Its healthy population is a definite indicator of vibrant and healthy high altitude ecosystems; which translates into a thriving population of other species and millions of people who depend on their survival on the rivers flowing down from these mountains.
Before you dismiss the gravity of the situation, a polite reminder that we humans can only survive for three days without water!

Intricate web of Climate Change

Despite the writing on the wall, many still cling on to their consistency and keep denying that our environmental issues are part of a vicious cycle of issues. Issues that won’t go away, returning time and again with a vengeance fueled by our arrogant ignorance. 

Pakistan is ranked as one of the top ten countries most affected by climate change. The ‘affect’ is not a hypothetical scenario in the distant future. It is our present that can feel the impact and much more in store for the near future, if we continue at this pace. 

Our agri based economy is at the front line. The backbone of Pakistan’s economy is made of agriculture, contributing 21% to the GDP. Climate change has a direct impact, from lowered yields to a drastic change in the overall cropping patterns. As estimated loss of 30% in production is expected in the coming years. For anyone with even the basic knowledge of how agriculture production works, the recent disturbed patterns of rain should be a sign enough to start considering climate change and related environmental issues a considerable problem. 

The buck doesn’t stop at agriculture. Climate change affects the determinants of the rest of the food cycle, health and even the social fabric. 

Globally, each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than the preceding one, since 1850. From the last few years we have been breaking the wrong kind of record, with each passing year being declared as the hottest year so far, further accelerating the problems. 

As per a recent report of WHO, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress between 2030 and 20150. These are ailments that we have already found remedies for, however, their climate change induced intensity is still capable of creating havoc. This is something that we have witnessed in Pakistan. The consecutive monsoon floods of 2014, 2015 and 2016 are a permanent fixture of our memories. Zahid Hamid, Minister for Law & justice & climate change in March 2017 shared with a senate session that these floods affected a total of 4.5 million people and claimed 1,029 lives. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Return of the Winged Visitors

Copy rights Fatima Arif
In a world where humans are constantly shrinking boundaries under the disguise of warring ideologies, one of God’s creation calls a stretch spanning from Siberia to South Asia its home.
The migratory birds arrive in the country, covering an approximate distance of 4,500 km via the Migratory Bird Route Number 4, commonly known as the Indus Flyover. This famous route takes the birds from Siberia’s extreme winters and pushes them over the Karakorum, Hindu Kush and Suleiman Ranges along the Indus River to warmer delta areas.
Given Pakistan’s geographic location, we lie at the crossroads of the bird’s migration. Hosting them should be considered a privilege as these guests bring beauty and ecological benefits for our wetlands. One such spot is the triple complex, which consists of the Uchali, Khabeki and Jhalar lakes (Uchali being the biggest lake among covering an area of 950 hectares). The triple complex was declared a Ramsar Site, a wetland of global importance in 1996, giving it the status of a wildlife sanctuary.
The triple complex is situated in the Soon Valley, a key biodiversity hotspot in Punjab province. Part of the Salt Range ecosystem, it is the highest section of the entire range, with an average elevation of 800 metres above sea level. In addition to the lakes, the area boasts a forest tract, which is the largest single compact block of scrub forest, known as “sub-tropical broad leaved evergreen forest” in the province. In 1984, the Chinji Forest was notified as a national park.

Along with 173 avian species that are the highlight of this area, there are mammal species (Punjab urial, wild boar, Asiatic jackal, cape hare, mongoose, pangolin and the red fox) which have been reported from here, adding to its diversity. The winged guests grace the lakes from November to March annually. This important wintering ground hosts a wide range of birds including the greater flamingo, common coot (maximum population during the season), common sand piper, great cormorant, common teal, mallard, northern pintail, gadwall and common black headed gull. There are a number of globally threatened and near threatened species as well including the white headed duck, ferruginous duck and common pochard.

Copy rights WWF-Pakistan
Dr Farooq Ahmed, a local of the valley who has worked with WWF-Pakistan for approximately a decade as conservation officer, shared that more than 50 different species visit the area during the season and at any given time there are approximately 50,000 birds on these lakes. He also added that the most important bird that visits the area is the white headed duck, whose population is endangered globally. During the 1990s, its population that used to visit was estimated to be more than 100, however in the recent years it is sadly limited to around 10 to 12 birds.

In recent years, environmentalists have noticed an alarming decrease in numbers of migratory birds.This habitat has multiple threats that are damaging the ecosystem both individually and collectively.

One of the key issues is illegal hunting. It is believed by locals that this practice caused birds to change their route as they avoided the area where they didn’t feel welcomed. In Dr Farooq’s words, in the recent times illegal hunting has decreased considerably and a lot of credit goes to the work done by WWF-Pakistan on ground with the local communities. With increased awareness they now take full ownership and understand that the health of this natural resource is connected to their own. A few years back, due to the community’s strong opposition, the provincial government had to stop issuing hunting permits for the area. 

Other threats include deforestation, land reclamation and degradation of the habitat due to climate change, pollution and intensive agriculture.

Deforestation adds to the issue of climate change by aiding rising temperatures and at the same time causing erosion resulting in sedimentation turning the lakes murky. Climate change is a very serious threat and the area underwent a drought during this year’s migratory season, a repeat episode that was faced between 1997 and 2003. Intensive agriculture is another looming problem. Cabbage and potatoes are planted off-season in the surrounding areas which puts additional pressure on the water bodies.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Party Worker - A Gripping Tale of Karachi

The Party Worker by Omar Shahid Hamid, is my first book by the author and I sure am going to pick up the other two in my next book haul session. With its pinch of humor, the novel narrates a tragic gripping tale of Karachi.

I like my crime fiction as a pace runner and The Party Worker fits the bill. The story starts with an assassination attempt gone south, in the heart of New York City, on Asad Haider. He is a United Front Party (a political organization based in Karachi!) loyalist, considered to have betrayed it after investing 28 years and helping turn it into a Frankenstein. The mystery of who is behind the attempt on his life is resolved early on in the book. This gripping tale revolves around a bunch of people spread between Karachi and New York, working to bring down the leader of the Party, Mohammed Ali Pichkari, generally referred to as the Don. 
The Party Worker gives you a window into the intertwined relationship shared by politics and senseless violence in the city of lights. You don’t have to a resident Karachiite to get flashbacks of the 90s when frequent blood bath in the city was being discussed nationwide. 
Hamid’s bio can be credited in part for the realistic feel of the narrative. He works at the Counter terrorism department of the Karachi Police and have recently returned to active duty after a five year sabbatical. His intimacy with the city with all its shades of grey transpires on paper and are a treat to read.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Climate change is a human rights issue

Start discussing environmental issues with someone who is not part of the subject and the discussion is usually going to end with the statement that we have far worse issues to deal with and giving priority to environmental issues is the problem of the first world. This is far from the truth. In fact climate change is a human rights issue and it is time that we own it. According to German Watch Climate Risk Index 2015, Pakistan is the 6th most affected county by climate change.

Following five major risks related to climate change have been listed in a World Bank report:
  • Rise in sea level
  • Glacial retreats
  • Floods
  • Higher average temperature
  • Higher frequency of droughts
Unfortunately Pakistan faces all these risks first hand. Recent reports are suggesting that with the current rate of increase in sea levels, Karachi would be completely submerged by 2060. Last year was declared the hottest year, breaking all previous records. Not to forget the massive floods and droughts that the country has seen in recent years.
The consecutive floods that hit Pakistan in 2010 and 2011 have been termed more serious humanitarian disasters than South Asian tsunami and earthquake in Kashmir and Haiti. One-fifth of the country was swamped by these floods affecting 18 million people. The death toll touched 1,985.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Ambassador of Hope

Public figures are constantly battling between their actually personality and their projected public image. Add the terms ex-American army and mixed martial arts (MMA), add your fair share of Hollywood imagery and you have your stereotypical image of Bashir Ahmad.

However, rest assured that the godfather of MMA in Pakistan is anything but the type caste martial arts athlete. His fighting career has been well documented but here we get to see the other side of his personality.

Bashir was raised in the United States of America in an expat Pakistani family and the culture was an integral part of his upbringing. There has always been an emotional connection and his frequent trips also helped further cement the bond. His earliest memory of the country is of his first trip at the age of six when he stayed with his extended family for a month or two and when his mother informed him that it was time to go back home, he ran under his nani’s bed and cried his eyes out.

“When I am here I don’t really miss the United States, I do think about my family and home for but not the country as such. However, when I am in the U.S or anywhere else I do miss Pakistan.” 

Copy rights WWF-Pakistan
From an early stage he knew that he would be doing something for the country, even though it was not clear how it was going to happen. Deep down he believed that destiny was going to bring him here, someway of the other. In the end MMA because the source of his journey, but becoming a professional athlete was never on his cards, it just happened.

During his elementary school days, one day the kids were asked to come dressed up as what they wanted to become when they grow up and Bashir went geared up as a zoologist, with his tranquilizer gun!

So when he recently, signed up as a Goodwill Ambassador for WWF-Pakistan, for many this might have come as a surprise, but for Bashir this was not a decision that he needed to think about. His interest in environment and wildlife has been quite intrinsic as far as his earliest childhood memories go. He has been reading up on global wildlife and issues faced by planet earth, be it our deteriorating natural resources or the impacts of over population. His passion for environment and wildlife conservation is not something that he got from his parents or anyone else, it has always been a part of who he is.

So how did a zoologist aspirant ended up becoming a professional MMA fighter?

The Libraries of Lahore

Lahore has always maintained an aura of a city that is comfortable in its place in the realm of history. Christened as the Paris of the Orient during the British Raj, the city of gardens has been at the centre of power and a force of culture throughout history, which according to some experts dates back to some four thousand years.

Known as the cultural hub of Pakistan, along with it culinary and architectural heritage, Lahore had (or has depending on one’s personal taste) a rich resource of libraries as well. However, given the overall declining trend of reading, sadly libraries went from flourishing to stagnation.

Public libraries for the most part now act as monuments, echoing the tales of a glorious past. Most of the foot traffic they get is of civil services aspirants.

Punjab Public Library can be considered the oldest one, established in 1884. It is home to a variety of books, old gazettes, bounded volumes of old newspapers, magazines and manuscripts dated before pre-partition. Constructed in the reign of Emperor Shahjehan, under the supervision of the then Governor of Lahore, Nawab Wazir Khan; its architecture holds equal importance to the contents it holds within. 

Sardar Dyal Majithia established the Dyal Sing Trust library in 1908. It has a collection of some 108 books and is known to have been involved in some scholarly publishing work as well. During partition due to the transfer of trustees is was shut down and re-started its operations 1964. This too is more of an architectural attraction now compared to the treasures it protects.

Then there is the Quaid-e-Azam library inside the Jinnah Bagh, originally built as a botanical garden modeled on the Kew Gardens. Along with a vast collection of dated books the library also contains some 125,000 microfilms of rare newspapers, journals and documents in English, Urdu, Persian and Arabic languages. 

Copy right Fatima Arif

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Protectors of our Environment

If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a generation. This famous quote aptly explains the potential of positive impact women are capable of contributing to society. Women are known to be better multitaskers and long term planners. When they are economically stable, they spend more resources on improving their family’s hygiene, health, education and on the betterment of their communities. 

By nature, women play the role of protectors of the environment. According to a survey conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme on public attitudes towards environment, women are more likely to choose a lower standard of living with fewer health risks than opt for a higher living standard with greater health risks as compared to men.  

Environmental degradation has and continues to have devastating effects on people’s health and quality of life and women are at the forefront of this battle, especially in the developing world. When women are affected so are their children - a given co-relation. 

Previously, it was considered that women were only passive recipients of aid and had nothing to offer in terms of active participation in the development process. This perspective has undergone a u-turn with the realization that there will be no sustainable development without their inclusion. In fact, some experts have a staunch belief that one of the key reasons for stunted progress so far has been women’s exclusion. 

Traditionally, women have often shown their leadership skills when it comes to keeping a check and even reducing the wastage of resources, recycling them and promoting environmental ethics. As home makers, mothers are in many cases economic providers at the same time for their families, they are more sensitive to the need for conservation. 

Around the globe, irrespective of whether a country is developed, developing or under-developed, if the topic of environment conservation is being discussed or action taken on it, we will get to see many local female voices. There is growing evidence that women are taking up key roles in the implementation of environment friendly practices at the grassroots level and are getting involved in policy making too, an indication that we are headed in the right direction.

Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist and conservationist, is credited for advancing the global environmental movement. One of her books, Silent Spring, was a table turner in instigating discussions on the use of synthetic pesticides, which resulted in a nationwide ban in the USA on DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and other pesticides. The associated grassroots environmental movement also led to the birth of the US Environmental Protection Agency. It is important to note that this happened between 1955 and 1962, a time when not many were talking about the subject. 

South Asia too is witnessing an increase in the number of women conservationist, especially at the grassroots level. These women are home makers, farmers and professionals working in various industries in the day but taking out time to contribute towards environment conservation as well. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

My Sheldon Cooper Train Moment

Earlier this month I had my Sheldon Cooper train moment! (Big Bang Theory fans will get the reference).

Railways as a mode of transportation has a great history. It is known to have played a key role in the economic development of nations. Talking about innovation and big businesses, railways was one of the corner stones as documented in the series, 'Men who made America'.

The sub-continent got its first railway track in 1853, at the time being developed by the East India Company. The task was later on taken by the Colonial British Raj like the rest of the region. This was done mainly for the transportation of the troops to the war fronts and raw cotton for export purposes to the British mills. Locals were not even allowed on the trains and even when they were, majority were not allowed to share the same compartments as those of the ruling elite.

1947, the world saw the bloodiest mass migration to date. My generation grew up with stories of the trains crossing between the new countries bearing the signs of new found hate, trampling the aspirations of the founding fathers.

Fast forward to the present and what is now Pakistan's Railways. Given the feather conditions with dense fog playing havoc with the road and air travel schedules; and a must do one day trip from Lahore to Islamabad landed my family at the main Lahore Railway Station. With a bit of imagination, tune in the grey scale of your mental eye and you will be back in the good old days. Nothing much has changed in the name of infrastructure. No one has paid much heed to our population explosion, but then what can one expect when the official figures are being used based on the 1998 census!

First sight before you enter the main railway station of Lahore

The green nostalgia

A scene right out of a period film
Given that our last train trip was sometimes back in the 90s, this trip gets all the credit for adding on to the family jokes that will surely be handed over to the next generation!

One should always be content with their present, lesson well learnt. While there were seats outside the cabins, which thankfully went empty, giving people an opportunity for a change in scenery and to respond to the cry of the cramped legs; this luxury was missing from the compartments on our way back. As we were educated by the frequent travelers, the distinction between old and new compartments is the absence of the metal support to get to the upper bunker and addition of the outer eating space.

The symmetrical lights and their impact looked prettier in person!

Vantage Point
Not too sure what to expect at the Rawalpindi Station, we were pleasantly surprised.

The station looked part of the current times, with proper sitting space and much much cleaner.

Rain always helps spice up the pictures

 Charging ports, another reason the Rawalpindi station wins!
All and every traveling situation can be made enjoyable with the following ingredients:
  • My current read. Freedom at midnight was apt.
  • Music
  • Coffee
  • Any form of chocolate. This time around I had Pizza Hut's chocolate chip cookie  

Until next time....cheers!