On Sustainability

By Anjum Altaf

The more I read about sustainability the more I am puzzled by what it reveals and what it hides.

At one level, this is a new buzzword in the global discourse that all sorts of shysters are milking for what it is worth while distracting the gullible into futile avenues and dubious career paths.

Take the endless refrain about sustainable cities. Every day one reads a scare-laden screed about how our major cities are unsustainable. But what exactly does that mean? Lahore has been around for many centuries — Al-Biruni referred to it in the 11th Century and Xuangzang identified it in 630 CE. Delhi is even older — its history goes back to 50 BCE. Despite their survival through all sorts of calamities and troubled times, we are being told that they are not sustainable anymore. What exactly has changed?

Many of the writers refer to a falling water table and extrapolate it to imply that cities would die for lack of water. Add to this the inane statement that very soon water would start selling at the price of gold.

Why should we place any credence in such claims? There are cities in the desert like Phoenix and Riyadh that continue to source water. It also stands to reason that as water becomes scarce its price would rise forcing both a curtailing of demand and innovations in supply. In all probability, almost all used water would be recycled and made fit for drinking when conditions warrant. This is already happening in many cities including Singapore, a small island serving a sizeable population.

As for those hyperventilating about water at the price of gold, they are of the same ilk as those crying hoarse about Pakistan’s overpopulation being the cause of its poverty. These wiseacres are quite oblivious to their next-door neighbour with six times the population yet growing at twice Pakistan’s rate for the last quarter of a century and now spoken of as an emerging global power. Nor have they ever reflected on the fact that Pakistan’s population was halved when it ‘lost’ Bangladesh but its economic growth failed to take off like a rocket from the unintended ‘benefit’. The population babble serves only as a convenient smokescreen to camouflage a history of atrocious self-serving governance.

Three-fourths of the earth’s surface is covered with water and so its price can never rise above that of desalinated water plus the cost of transporting it to wherever it is needed. And there is no reason that water cannot be transported over long distances. If an oil pipeline can run from Tajikistan all the way to India via Afghanistan and Pakistan, surely so can a water pipeline from Gwadar to Lahore. Of course, the water would be more expensive than it is now but it would be nowhere near the price of gold. The price would even decline over time with the increasing use of solar energy. Once again, many cities already use desalinated water. In fact there was once a plan for DHA Karachi to set up its own plant but like most schemes in Pakistan that too was most likely the victim of a scam.        

The bottom line is that we would be much better off focusing on concrete issues — like ensuring that the water presently supplied is clean — instead of hand-waving about vague and poorly thought through spectres of sustainability. It is undoubtedly true that cities in South Asia are poorly managed and can do with a great deal of improvement but poor management is nowhere the same thing as unsustainability.

But what intrigues me much more is our amazingly selective use of the concept of sustainability. While everyone and their aunts are free to pontificate about the sustainability of cities, and of the world for that matter, we are in a very different ballgame if we shift the discussion to the level of countries when there is no conceptual difference except that of scale. If we can talk of the sustainability of Lahore and be considered enlightened citizens, why do we suddenly become anti-national traitors if we talk of the sustainability of Pakistan?

Consider that there are many more credible reasons to talk of the latter. The Pakistan that was created in 1947 did not prove sustainable and collapsed within 25 years. Perhaps this might have been avoided had we been allowed to freely discuss the issues of its sustainability. Are we continuing the folly by stifling discussion given all the issues in Balochistan along with those of rising fundamentalism, intolerance and populism?

What this suggests is that the concept of sustainability is a highly politicised one. We are free to shout it ad nauseum where it makes no difference but whisper it at our own risk when it threatens the interests of the powers that be.

This opinion was published in Dawn on January 30, 2019 and is being reproduced here with the author’s permission.


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11 Responses to “On Sustainability”

  1. Anjum Altaf Says:

    A gentleman named Umer posted the following comment on Dawn regarding this article:

    “Pakistan’s population was halved when it ‘lost’ Bangladesh but its economic growth failed to take off like a rocket from the unintended ‘benefit’.” – I don’t know much about economics but economy not taking off like a rocket probably had something to do with the fact that we lost half our economic resources/output as well? Bizarre article (bit like Trump’s stance on climate change) from such a learned guy.

    Did Umer try and verify if the resources/output were equally divided between the two halves of the country or is he making a Trump-like statement?

    What do you think?

    • Faizaan Qayyum Says:

      This statement competes with some of Trump’s pearls of wisdom because it ignores the inequities that we bestowed on Bangladesh between 1947 and 1971, the fact that by 1971 West Pakistan was ahead in industrial and other output by most accounts, and the fact that Bangladesh has fared better since 1971 on all counts (including, ironically, population control). Even if we take his argument to be valid on face value, why does Bangladesh outrank us today on most human development indicators?

      The problem clearly does not lie in an isolated measurement of population size or in a comparison of economic resources. You are right in pointing out our perennial battle with governance which can give a more plausible explanation of these outcomes.

      • Anjum Altaf Says:

        Faizaan: I appreciate your taking my side but I am afraid you have missed the point. One is not making a determination of whether the secession of East Pakistan was right or wrong, justified or unjustified. Nor is one trying to explain subsequent outcomes, whether they were better or worse.

        The issue is purely one of facts: Were resources equally shared between the two wings whose populations were roughly equal? If they were, then the argument I made was wrong and Umer’s critique right. If not, it would be the other way around.

  2. Muhammad Aitazaz Qureshi Says:

    This article on sustainabilty is very enlightening. The point that you made about the sustainabilty of Pakistan as being more important to discuss deserves an applaud. Geoffery West has explored a similar idea in his book ‘Scale’. He probes that what makes cities survive for centuries after so much damage and pain has been inflicted upon them but it only takes a single recession or downfall to flame out even a big corporation. Turns out, it is the diversity of community; presence of an opportunity; and a strong relation of people with that place as their home, that leads to sustainability of the cities. On the macro level, these are the issues that need to be addressed immediately and of the rest the country will take care itself. Pakistan has been struggling on all these fronts. Whether it is the persecution of minorities or religious extremism, lack of opportunities for millions of young people or the weakness in relationship of people (i.e baloch, Fata etc) with this country; who feel their rights and resources have been exploited by this country without giving them their due share. It is high time we address these issues at hand rather than shying away from them.

  3. Faizaan Qayyum Says:

    Let me state this at the outset: there is very little to disagree with in your description of issues with sustainability, availability of water, and political sustainability (if you allow me to call it that). However, I will make four main points here:

    1. Scale. You talk about scaling up, from the city to the country. In talking about sustainability, particularly physical sustainability, I would prefer the city. Countries are very recent entities which may or may not last long on the historical scale. Cities, like you pointed out, are ancient, and have survived or even thrived under very different regimes. They have come and gone, true, including for reasons that you point out. But the construct of the city seems more durable to me than the construct of the nation state.

    The scale of the city is also important in making an argument about sustainability because that allows people to relate their lived experiences with any argument on sustainability that one may make. For instance, if I talk about private car usage leading to congestion and higher emissions, people can immediately visualize areas of high congestion in their city. When I talk about air quality, people in many Pakistani and Indian cities can relate it to smog.

    The country, or the nation state, may allude to a grander, common identity which we may feel bound to place higher than our association with a city (or other place we live in). But I feel the experience of poor governance, or unsustainability, is more likely to be rooted in the urban experience for many people.

    2. Things have changed, and poor management today can lead to unsustainability. This will probably not mean that these cities will just poof and disappear. It does mean that life would not be the same anymore, and for those at the bottom of the money ladder, it may not be survivable anymore.

    What has changed? Let’s start with privilege, wealth, and lifestyles. From having one emperor and one governor and a handful of lieutenants, we have gone on to thousands of people who now have those lifestyles (think DHAs, or Bahria Town). The most marked shift in Lahore, for example, was with the development of the Cantonment, Model Town, and GORs outside the original walled city to clearly segregate the different classes of people. Older ideas of economic superiority did not necessarily involve multiplying the ecological footprint of the city until the British came and showed us how to do it. From then until now, we can see where Lahore has headed.

    You don’t need me to make the point about sprawl and how it is inefficient for resource provision. Nor do you need me to point out that in the situation you described, where water will always be available at the cost of shipping and desalination, those who cannot afford those costs would literally be left without water. A city that can already not house, clothe, or feed all its citizens charging for water?

    Perhaps we’ll then see riots, where those who cannot afford water will “seize the means” of those who can. The city as a collective entity may still find its way through the political upheavals of unaffordable or unavailable water (even though one wonders why a city like Mohenjodaro died… local tales associate it to a shift in the Indus, and I am seriously curious if it was important for water or as a navigable channel… But that’s a different topic)

    3. On governance, it is true that most of our ‘sustainability’ problems are linked to poor governance. Karachi’s water crisis may be significantly ameliorated if the government can crackdown on the tanker mafia, for example. But that will not solve Islamabad’s water crisis, for example, which you may have heard of.

    Arguably even sprawl and unplanned or poorly planned expansion of cities is an artifact of poor governance. In that sense, we are on the same page – just reading from different translations. Is it too much to ask for public will around making cities physically more efficient spaces?

    4. On political sustainability, the nation state has spoken more than once: it does not care. The Pakistan project was not sustainable and we exacerbated it, so much so that the Bengal crisis probably hit us in fast forward. We can feel loyalty towards the people, and towards places, but how loyal can one be to a construct that refuses to be loyal to itself? The boat is sinking, but if the captain and the guards must insist on also setting it on fire, would you rather explain to them their follies or try to save those onboard?

    • Anjum Altaf Says:

      Faizaan: Let me refer to just one your points (No. 2) to illustrate the serious lapses in your thinking. My objective is not to give a point-by-point response to all the issues you have raised (I leave that to others) but to highlight the importance of thinking through an argument.

      The failing that weakens all your subsequent argumentation is that you have not defined your key terms sufficiently before employing them for what you wish to do with them. Much as you might want to, you are not Humpty Dumpty who could choose a word to mean whatever he wanted it to mean. These terms include ‘survivability,’ a variant of sustainability, but let me just focus on the latter.

      So now you say: “Things have changed, and poor management today can lead to unsustainability. This will probably not mean that these cities will just poof and disappear. It does mean that life would not be the same anymore, and for those at the bottom of the money ladder, it may not be survivable anymore.”

      So “unsustainability” means “that life would not be the same anymore, and for those at the bottom of the money ladder, it may not be survivable anymore.”

      Whatever gave you the idea that life in cities would remain the same forever? Has that ever been the case? Did you expect the London of 2000 to be the same as that of 1900? And if it has changed has it become unsustainable?

      As for a city not being survivable at the bottom of the money ladder, has it ever been survivable at the bottom ever since the rise of the market economy and the commodification of labour? Do you know the number of homeless in London’s winter this year and the trend over the years?

      You also make the elementary error of projecting the one dimension of interest to you while holding all others constant without any logical justification. What if the price of water rises? Why might riots be the only outcome? There is an entire world of policy responses out there. If public transport and public education can be subsidized so could water and sanitation, at least in theory. Otherwise how would you explain the massive public investments in environmental sanitation in European cities after the plagues? The entire history of welfare capitalism can be seen in the mirror of such policy reforms to contain the damage caused by the commodification of labour on which the market economy rests.

      I hope you get the drift of this critique. As I said above my main interest is to figure out how someone as smart as you can make such weak arguments. My guess is that like most of your generation in Pakistan you are completely unused to serious public discourse (despite personal requests I could not get you to enter the chicken debate and the others opted out after the obligatory nod to sir). You write and move on and after a bright start that always leads to a deterioration of quality — achieving a weekly column is the final kiss of death.

      Writers who are cognizant of and value public discourse write with the possibility of being challenged in mind. As they write they are self-consciously asking themselves: “Can I defend this argument I am making?” Take away that challenge and it ends up like your cities that are unsustainable because they have changed and where the poor might not be able to survive.

      • Faizaan Qayyum Says:

        You’re right, perhaps my choice of words leaves much to be desired. And it probably does have to do with the lack of engagement one experiences (and the violent nature of engagement that does sometimes happen). That said, I enjoy the rare prodding email I receive and make it a point to question both the sender and myself in responding.

        I stayed away from the chicken argument because I was (am) not acquainted with the literature and found myself in unfamiliar territory. Instead, I used the article and the social media debate it generated to get a better sense of public perceptions. I also kept up with some of the responses that were subsequently posted (at least one of them was of fairly high quality).

        But – all of that apart – what are you suggesting? Are you saying we should wait until problems (like that of water) reach a crisis point before we try to build momentum around them?

        I am aware of London’s rough sleeping problem and also of the chronic homelessness in many American cities. But is that what we’re aspiring to? Life is not friendly at the bottom of the money ladder, but need we wait until people freeze to their death before we set the alarm bells ringing?

        Public subsidies are of course a way to deal with resource allocation especially for something like water. Perhaps having to pay for it will force users to rethink their water usage patterns. But how effective have we been in providing this subsidy on other services including education? You wrote a scathing response to Miftah Ismail’s thoughts recently – are we prepared for the debate around water to hit that level before we can make something of it? Thirst can kill you in 48 hours in the Lahore summer. Poor education can probably render you irrelevant in 48 years, but can you really get any subsidized education when you’re desperately thirsty and the state’s subsidy mechanisms for water are as bad as they are for education?

        And then what of vegetation, which is directly linked to accessible groundwater, and the air quality that some urban vegetation can regulate? Are you implying that no matter how our cities grow, and what their environmental impact, the ‘market’ will ensure they can survive and welfare capitalism will manage the survival of the poorest? Will people like me with asthma get subsidized air-conditioned cars to ride out the humid Augusts and smoggy Decembers?

        Am I assuming that our governance problems will persist? Yes. Can you convince me that they won’t, and that somehow everything would magically function efficiently because we ran out of local sources of water and did nothing about it while we could? I did not suggest that rioting is the only outcome in such a situation – I implied that it is one possible outcome. We can of course expect the state to try all forms of policy interventions in that situation. Why should we not be thinking about this problem before we get there?

        In any event, should we reach a “Day-Zero” on water like Cape Town, it would necessitate a complete shift in attitudes from the top to the bottom. I don’t see that shift happening without considerable social unrest, and the prospect of it does not excite me.

        The argument for better-organized cities that manage their resources efficiently is certainly defensible, even if I’m doing a poor job of it. I don’t see why we should conflate it with zoomed out ideas of sustainability which we can, of course, deal with concurrently and separately.

        P.S. I don’t have a regular column (and I don’t intend to have one). I write what I feel like, and the editors decide what and when to put up. Some pieces will invariably turn out worse than others, and I deliberately frame some in a way to incite strong opinions. I write and move on, yes, but not because I have a spot to fill. I move on because at some point the forums I have available for engagement dry out.

        • Anjum Altaf Says:

          “What are you suggesting? Are you saying we should wait until problems (like that of water) reach a crisis point before we try to build momentum around them?”

          No, I am not suggesting that. You can raise any problem — describe it, identify its causes, its implications, assign responsibility, suggest solutions, etc. What I am suggesting is don’t wrap it in something nebulous that you have not defined and that diffuses the responsibility. I gave the example of lack of development whose real causes are being swept under the rug by the rhetoric of overpopulation which is just a clever way of blaming the victims. Sustainability is a similar red herring — especially when you assert that something is unsustainable when it changes and when the poor are worse off.

          “I stayed away from the chicken argument because I was (am) not acquainted with the literature and found myself in unfamiliar territory.”

          This is a cop-out. The debate was not about the science of poultry rearing — I am not a poultry expert either. It was a methodological investigation in logic and feasibility analysis. You have worked a lot on RCT — you should be able to provide input on how to design a robust RCT for the purpose and provide a critique on the one that was offered.

          Suppose you were given this question on your MA Development Studies paper — ‘Would the distribution of 5 desi chicken per rural family help to reduce poverty and/or improve nutrition? How would you go about determining the feasibility of this proposition?’’ Would your response be that you will refrain from answering because you are not acquainted with the literature and find yourself in unfamiliar territory?

  4. SouthAsian Says:

    Wow! Can you imagine something more pathetic than this – “Steps should be taken.” Tell us why steps are NOT being taken — just as they were NOT being taken in East Pakistan.


    This is the flip situation: A part of the country with very little of the population and the bulk of the natural resources. What would it have been like as an independent country — which its rulers wanted it to be in 1947? Could it have been like the states across the gulf where tribal structure seems to have been no constraint General Sahib?

    • Faizaan Qayyum Says:

      One has to be very wary of serving generals writing and publicizing their books. My understanding is their code of conduct does not allow any public engagement except that done by ISPR…

      Somebody like Tariq Khosa is already calling it “glasnost” to General sahib’s face. Maybe that’s the trick: use words that they will find the meanings to in a week. By then you would have moved on to new ones…

      P.S. We bought a large (coastal) chunk of Balochistan from Oman. What would it have been like had we not bought it, and it had stayed under the Sultanate of Oman?

  5. Anjum Altaf Says:

    Japan’s population is falling in absolute terms. So why isn’t the country overjoyed?


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