Facing the urban challenges ahead

Ahmad Rafay Alam

A few newspaper reports from last week, taken from various publications, when read carefully, reveal the challenges the new government of Punjab will face when it assumes charge and comes face to face with the challenges urban planning before it.

The first is a report that an open drain in DHA Lahore is causing health problems to nearby residents. Originally planned to channel storm water, this drains is now, like the 16 odd other open drains in the city, a floating cesspool of raw and untreated sewerage. The drain that passes through the DHA, like all the other open drains in Lahore, easily offends and can overwhelm even the heartiest of men. Not only that, since the noxious and toxic gases emitted by decomposing waste are well known corrosives, the newspaper report reveals that the open drain is a constant source of attrition on any metal kept outdoors. No air conditioner or, worse, generator, is safe!

But the olfactory displeasures of the well ensconced rich are not the only point to note. The writer of the newspaper report quite dutifully interviewed all the usual suspects. He spoke to residents of the area, the secretary of the Punjab Environmental Protection department, the managing director of the Water and Sanitation Agency, the district officer of the Solid Waste Management, Lahore, the secretary of the Defence Housing Authority and even a doctor at Mayo Hospital.

While all agreed that the open drain was a nuisance and an environmental and health hazard, each one disclaimed any responsibility about doing anything about it. The DHA said that it was planning to do something about the drain. The DO SWM said WASA was responsible for brick lining drains. The MD WASA said that it was the SWM’s responsibility to clean the solid waste dumped in the drains. The Secretary EPD said that his department was getting ready to do something about the drains, but that the cost of any cleanup operation would have to be shared by the DHA.

The second bit of news is about how the absence of proper road safety devices is causing accidents on Lahore’s bridges. According to the report, light-reflecting “cat’s eyes” were either missing or worn out on several of the city’s bridges, including the ones that are curved. Apparently, this lack of road markings is are said to be the cause of many an avoidable accident.

The writer of this report also did his homework. He spoke to the chief engineer of the Traffic and Planning Agency, the executive district officer (Works & Services) of the city district government as well as local motorists. Just as in the previous instance, each government officer interviewed was quick to disclaim responsibility. The chief engineer of TEPA laid the responsibility of maintaining the road safety devices on the Lahore Development Authority and the EDO (W&S). This is astonishing because the TEPA is an agency of the LDA and the chief engineer’s explanation is, in reality, an aspersion cast on his parent organization. Equally quick to lay the responsibility anywhere but before him, the EDO (W&S) blamed the TEPA for not doing its job and failing to keep the cat’s eyes in good repair.

Forget the fact that the city’s 16 open sewers are a health and environmental hazard responsible for untold illnesses and disease; forget the fact that they smell; and forget the fact that un-repaired road markings are dangerous. Both these instances are horrifying examples of the level of sophistication currently employed in urban management. Lahore is the second largest city in the country and the problems in governing it are proportionately difficult, if not impossible. Yet the people responsible for basic government functions like traffic safety and sewerage management don’t even know the ambit of their responsibilities.

This casual approach to city and urban planning may have been justified 30 years ago, when, other than Karachi and a handful of sleepy metropolises, Pakistan was largely a rural country. But things are no longer the same, and the principles which may have applied to urban planning then do not apply now.

This is a serious matter. The year 2007 was a watershed year because it witnessed, for the first year in the history of human civilization, more people living in urban areas than not. Pakistan, in turn, is South Asia’s most urbanized country. According to the experts, anywhere between 35-50 per cent of the people in our country live in urban areas. More recently, a report published by the Planning and Development department of the government of the Punjab revealed that over 50 per cent living in the province’s urban areas live in slums (P&D’s economic report for 2007). That’s right. As more and more people cram into our already overcrowded cities, most of them will live or already live in poverty and face the harshest and most inhuman of living conditions.

This is the time to act. The next government faces urban challenge the likes of which have never been thought of in these parts. With most of the people living in our cities living in slums, immediate steps need to be taken lest our cities turn into environmental disasters or worse, necropolises — the dismal future painted by revolutionary urban thinkers like Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs. And no step forward is possible if civic agencies still don’t know what the nature of their responsibilities are.

Nothing approaching an effective sewerage system, nothing close to effective solid waste management, nothing close to smooth and efficient traffic can ever be achieved unless the massive overlaps of jurisdiction between urban and local government authorities are not clarified. One way or the other, it must be made clear who is responsible for sewerage and drainage. It must be clear who is responsible for the planning of traffic (note, not engineering, which is simply another word for constructing more roads). Only when these baby steps are taken can the larger strides — like widening the local government tax base so that the increased revenue can be spent on public utilities without provincial government interference — can be taken. Only then can we think of effective decentralization to local governments. Only then will these governments have the strength to reform the urban property tax system so that it gives incentive to urban re-development. Only then can each city identify its strengths and feed them. Only then will we be able to do sensible things like set city limits so that the exhausting urban sprawl can be put to an end. And there is much, much more. We have to start somewhere and we must start now. To continue with the status quo is to invite catastrophe.

The writer is an advocate of the high court and a member of the adjunct faculty at LUMS. He has an interest in urban planning.
First pulished in the NEWS

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3 responses to “Facing the urban challenges ahead

  1. Pingback: Facing the urban challenges ahead | Tea Break

  2. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Pakistan: Chaos in Lahore

  3. Syed Mubasher Salim

    Hello,
    My name is Syed Mubasher Salim. I have worked as District Officer Roads . These days I am in USA on a Fulbright Scholarship doing my Masters in Finance. I am not trying to defend anyone. Do you want to know what reality is?
    I have first hand experience in that. Majority of Lahore has a sewerage system as old as early 1970s. I was surprised to find sewage pipe of 9in dia in most of the places in Lahore. The design of the sewerage system in subcontinent has been laid on best pratices laid by the British Engineers. The main rationale is to get an economical solution for sewage disposal and consequently no provision for storm sewage is being made . The cost goes up by 1.5-2 times if provision for sewage is being made. For the last four years sewerage is being laid on almost emergency basis. The system is not working as sufficient time has not been given to Engineers to connect all the trunk and distributaries. The engineers in Pakistan are best in the World not dump and always corrupt as most people imagine. The engineers are hardly given a time to properly complete a project that it is being opened. The problem of ponding of water can be easily solved if right upfront the engineers are given right time frame to properly design and execute the project. I am in a hurry now. If interested I can write a detailed article.
    Mubasher

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