Thursday, March 20, 2008

Dawn Op/Ed

I leave you with my op/ed for the you have "food for thought" in the days ahead.

National priorities of another kind

By Aneela Babar

AS March madness descends upon Pakistan, our nation watches our politicians (and a prominent gatecrasher) occupied with a round of Mad Hatter tea parties. Somehow the moment of sanity and national pride that Feb 18 had brought along seems just that — a fleeting moment. What is tragic is that as our politicians dither, the crisis that has engulfed our country continues to spiral beyond control.

Our previous regimes had distorted the classic ‘guns versus butter’ equation that forms a part of a responsible economics of defence. Sadly, even their emphasis on the gun at the expense of our bread and butter did nothing to secure external or domestic security. For today we are living in a time when our land seems to produce more suicide bombers than the grain that feeds us. The prime minister who takes charge next will be required to have as his first priority the matter of food and water security.

Pakistan, like the rest of South Asia, is reeling from global and national forces that have not only influenced our agricultural sector’s productivity but also left us with few policy options to cope with the impact of food pricing. So as a matter of urgency the government has to bring on board researchers and members of civil society to review specific aid and policy initiatives that can redress the current situation, identify a policy that can assure rural livelihoods, reduce the impact of food insecurity on Pakistan’s poor and vulnerable, and analyse the dynamics of the country’s trade in essential food commodities.

When it comes to the matter of ensuring that our taps do not run dry, I have to confess it is dependent not only on responsible government policies but also water-efficient practices amongst us ‘mere mortals’. Water scarcity is a way of life for South Asia today and households all over the world have to watch how they consume their water. When it comes to Pakistan, sensible water consumption has to be in place irrespective of whether dam levels are high or low.

One fails to understand why there is no advocacy programme in place to explain to our populace what should be their ‘rational’ water consumption per day. According to the Sphere Project guidelines that identify minimum living standards, an individual needs 15 litres of water to fulfil essential requirements of daily life. Anything over that amount is just frivolous use of a vital resource in today’s precarious water situation. This is where the real crunch is, to instil good water-saving habits in our nation.

With summer on the horizon, what this plan needs to succeed is public trust, a feeling of community. However, what is more important is a change in perspective towards Pakistan’s shared natural resources and the country’s sustainable future. It is very difficult to do that when we still believe in the unit as in our chardevari and what lies beyond our four walls as definitely not our problem — the average Pakistani would rather expect of the family next door to conserve water for Pakistan if that is what they want.

It is also very difficult to expect the larger public to save those three buckets of water every day when they see other sections of society maintaining their ‘spendthrift’ lifestyles. So unless GHQ and the Prime Minister’s Secretariat decide to forego washing their fleets of cars every day, one shouldn’t be expecting the average Malik sahib to keep a watchful eye over his water tap.

Last year we had shuddered at the possibility of being regarded as the most dangerous place in the world and discredited all reports that suggested that we were living in a failed state. But as a populace that sees angry queues breaking into daily violence for their daily handful of grain, how long can we ignore the ominous clouds on the horizon? Add to that the grim probability that the next round of violent conflicts would not be over oil resources but rather water.

Are the honourable members of parliament that will be sworn in on March 17 prepared for these very real challenges ahead? Any bright spark who suggests building more dams has to be cautioned about the number one criterion for a failed state, namely ‘demographic pressures on urban centres and the massive movement of refugees and internally displaced people’. Any government should think twice before displacing more villagers from their lands or stirring up new inter-provincial tensions and ‘group grievances’ in the country. As it is our track record in compensating for lands and livelihoods lost due to development projects is not brilliant.

There has to be some personal responsibility on our part as well. Denise Leith, editor of Bearing Witness, comments: “Through our actions and inaction — even inaction has moral and political consequences — we make statements every day about who we are, what we stand for, and for what sort of world we wish to live in. Our silence, our indifference, and our apathy become the slow poisons we feed our beloved democracy daily”.

These are words which should strike at the heart of many in Pakistan who have developed apathy when it comes to civil society. It is up to a responsible civil society to think of more efficient ways to live within our ecosystem to ensure a secure future.

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