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Lahore is losing its green cover – fast

Uncontrolled and unplanned urban expansion has taken its toll on Lahore’s historic tree line.
by Amel Ghani

Trees and greenery have always been a matter for pride for the city of gardens, Lahore. Over the past few years, the city’s tree cover has also featured in a large number of discussions on development and urbanization. The conversation was started by the Lahore Bachao movement in 2008, which focused on tree cutting in Model Town. With the canal project also announced that year, the group banded together adding more voices and experts and started asking the government more policy oriented questions.

At the time World Wide Fund (WWF) Pakistan decided to conduct a study along the canal to identify various species of birds and plants that existed in the area. The study was conducted in collaboration with Kinnaird College. Even though it does not attempt to scientifically analyze the impact of cutting over 5,000 trees in the area, the study does identify over 10 types of birds that are part of the habitat and over 12 types of trees in the area.

More alarming is the fact that the study counted a total of 14,873 trees which means over 36 percent of trees in the area were cut as a result of the Canal Widening Project which has now been implemented.

At the time the civil society took the Punjab government to the court. The court took into account the ever increasing cars in the city and rapid urbanization but also asked the canal to be declared a heritage park. Subsequently, in 2013 the Punjab Assembly passed The Lahore Canal Heritage Park Act.

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This, though, did not stop road expansion projects from cutting 5,299 trees along the canal. On the third advisory meeting of the board meant to discuss and approve any further projects along it, a request was put in to build a U-turn along it. This was in 2013. Other widening activities were also carried out in a similar manner after seeking approval from the advisory committee of the park.

The loss of trees over the intervening years in the city is an undeniable fact. Hammad Gilani, a remote sensing analyst, and his student Adeel Ahmad pulled freely available Landsat satellite images to assess changes at 30m spatial resolution. The  data looks at tree cover, greenery and built area from the years 1990 to 2017.  It clearly shows that the depletion of green cover in the past 7 years (2010 – 2017) has been more than the two decades before (1990 – 2010).

Looking at the satellite data given by Gilani, the line of trees, in the map, which is the canal has seen a significant decrease. The U-turn was not the last project along the canal that required chopping off more trees.

Hammad Naqi Khan, Director General WWF Pakistan, chalks this massive loss in tree cover to bad urban planning. Khan has been involved in discussions with various government departments over the years on issues of development, often raising the civil society’s concerns in front of them and providing solutions.

Photo credit: Hammad Gilani and Adeel Ahmad

When he speaks of the development along the canal he remembers it as if it were yesterday. “You know the first thing we told them was that this ad-hoc stop gap arrangement will not work here. Expanding the road network has not worked in any geography we gave them the example of Europe of Latin America,” he says.

One recurring issue that Khan points to is the poor quality of Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports. He refers specifically to the canal widening project, one of the first projects by the PML-N government which raised concerns amongst the civil society.

“They don’t prepare it beforehand and don’t use the EIA as a planning tool but treat it as a formality when civil society and other organizations raise concerns about them,” says Khan.

He gives an example from the EIA report of the Canal widening project, where he says some of the bird species listed in the report has never existed. He also points to the fact that most of the time EIA reports are prepared by the very company carrying out the project. This is not the first time that the civil society representatives have questioned the process of preparing an EIA report. On the project for the building the Orange Line Metro Bus in Lahore and the Metro bus along Ferozepur roads, the reports were considered inadequate. On the Ferozepur road project, public hearings were also conducted after the project had already started.

The larger issue here that Khan points to is poor urban planning. This is echoed in the opinions of other experts on the issue and the amended version of Lahore Master Plan itself. A lot of the mega development projects part of the city now, such as signal free corridors, road widening, rapid bus and rail systems were not part of the Lahore Master Plan 2021. It was this and another small glitch:

“Moreover, the enforcement agencies had also not been able to implement the said plans, and Lahore has now taken an unforeseen geographical shape. Lahore was expected to grow towards the southern direction (between Multan Road and Ferozpur Road) up till Raiwind, and the area beyond Ferozpur Road in the east was declared as Agriculture Area, and development was prohibited in this direction. However, in contradiction to the anticipation of these plans, more urban growth has been observed in the eastern direction across Ferozpur Road (in frozen/ prohibited area) during recent years.”

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The population of Lahore has also grown exponentially over the past three decades. The census results from 2017 show that Lahore’s population currently stands over 11 million, showing a 117 percent growth rate from 1998, when the last census was done. Even though the census results have been contested by different political parties, there is no denying that Lahore has grown and with this there is a need to cater to this population in terms of infrastructure.

Mega projects like the Orange Line, the Metro bus and the road infrastructure such as canal widening and signal free corridors have been the government’s response to such infrastructure problems arising from a growing population. For instance one of the reasons cited in the canal widening projects or Lahore ring road the growing number of vehicles in the city and the need to cater to housing societies developing on the periphery of the city. Critics, though have disagreed with the government’s development plans and idea of a what a cities should look like, centering around models that do not require reducing vegetation and tree cover.

Rabia Ezdi, an Associate Professor at the Department of Architecture of the National College of Arts (NCA), says the urban sprawl of the city has little to do with urbanization or population growth. “These housing societies simply cater to the upper-class and don’t do anything to solve problems related to urbanization or population growth and neither do they have anything to do with either of these phenomenon,” she says.

Ezdi says they cater to a very business oriented approach to urban planning which is based not on a long-term plan but rather a project based approach. “Land is the new gold,” she says.

She also points to other problems, issues that already seem to be arising from a loss of tree cover – the urban heat island being one of them. The idea is that paved areas like concrete and roads absorb heat and retain, increasing the entire temperature of cities.

There is no denying that tree cover and green spaces especially within cities can help reduce heat, countering the heat island effect and reducing pollution. Various government policies, such as the Clean Air Policy produced by the Environment Protection Department of Punjab put forward trees as one way of countering smog.

One study published in the Pakistan Journal of Meteorology in 2015 uses GIS imaging to understand how land use/land cover impacts land surface temperature. The study focuses on Lahore district, like Gilani’s satellite images. What the authors find is that “Lahore has witnesses rapid urban sprawl. The built-up surface area (High Density Built-up + Low Density Builtup LULC) within the city district in 2011 turned out to be 25% larger in than what it was in 2000.”

The high-density and low density built up areas in simple terms are the urban centers of the city with more buildings in a given space than suburban areas, outside the city, with less buildings in a given space. They also found that the overall temperature of Lahore had increased by 0.73°C. In 2000 the temperature has been 32.71°C while in  2011 it turns out to be 33.44°C during summer time.

Another study, also conducted in Lahore points to trees as a solution to not only counter rise in temperature but also combat pollutants. It concludes that the presence of green spaces, with clusters of trees, as opposed to singular trees are far more effective. The study takes the example of Nasir Bagh, a park located in an area with a high population density.

Naseem ur Rehman Shah, Director at the Environment Protection Department (EPD) says the Punjab government has already taken quite a lot of measures to encourage environment friendly practices in the province, especially growing trees. He points to the Chief Minister’s scheme that one percent of the cost of any developmental project should go towards environmental mitigation and tree growth.

Apart from this Shah says that EPD is only a regulatory and policy making body. “When we find people not abiding by laws, we take them to the environmental tribunal. That is what our role is. We are a regulatory body,” he says.

The burden of tree plantation within Lahore district largely falls under the jurisdiction of the Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA), which has control of all parks, green belts and any other green spaces within the city. A department which Khan says did not really fulfill its role because their mandate was never an environmental one. “For PHA the target is beautification and they have their own definitions exotic grass and flower beds,” he says. He is not against PHA’s beautification mandate but feels it should be more holistic.

Photo Credit: Hammad Gilani and Adeel Ahmad

This is reflected clearly on PHA’s website in their Vision of PHA section which states “Develop an integrated approach to bring about uniformity in the sector of horticulture for the beautification of Lahore.” The second role is to develop parks and green belts.

Khan says the PHA’s mindset has changed slightly over the past few years but the damage has already been done and it will take time to reverse. A lot of indigenous species like Amal Tas, Gulmohar, Sheesham have been cut and replaced with exotic species like palms or fast growing species like Conocarpus.

Allowing green areas to flourish, increasing green spaces within cities, and even having areas within cities which allow rain water to replenish groundwater sources are important to prepare Lahore for the ultimate challenge of global warming. Last year, the country recorded one of its hottest summers and with heatwaves and temperatures already soaring to 42°C, it is hard to deny that Lahore is also heating up. There is also a threat of the city losing its ground water source by 2040.

A study, one amongst many, relates this amongst other issues to “the urbanization, industrialization and land development have reduced the recharge as a significant portion of the land has become impermeable.” This is something which has also been said by other experts.

Khan, who also has expertise in engineering and water management, and Ezdi also cites this as a major reason to decreased concrete within the city, since surrounding agriculture land, which could replenish aquifers has been built upon. Ezdi points to areas like the Doongi ground on  MM Alam road, the purpose of which was to let rain water sit, and be absorbed into the ground over time. The ground area is now an abandoned construction site.

It is when arguments of global warming are brought forward when the importance of planting indigenous trees becomes even more important. While most activists agree with what they mean by indigenous species. Dr Amin ul Haq Khan, a botanist and Professor at Government College University (GCU) Lahore, says what they call indigenous trees are actually transported species brought from the East side of River Ravi to the West side by the British.

The original species is that existed in this region is, a prickly slow growing tree, which still exists in old graveyards and small pockets outside the city of Lahore. This variety, called Rakhs, Khan says is more suited to Lahore’s arid climate and is more resistant to drought.

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“Before the irrigation system Lahore was very close to Multan and other places, this was not like the East side of Ravi places like Amritsar, Jalandhar,” he says. Khan adds that species like Pipal only ever existed near wells and such because they need water to grow and it was only after the canal was made that these species became more common in the area.

He says this doesn’t mean you don’t plant trans-indigenous species like Pipal, Sheesham, Boar but it is also important to safeguard the small number of trees that existed even before our imagined versions of this city. “If you take out the irrigation system these transported species will not be able to survive,” he says. The dry thorny Rakhs is also important to plants because says Khan, “In case there is disaster it is these desert species that will save you. We are trying to save them in different areas.”

He says this first wave of bringing in species that weren’t really indigenous to this side of River Ravi were brought during colonial rule but then, more recently, there has been another wave of bringing in what would be termed as exotic species. The transported species are still from the same surrounding but these exotic species are not from the sub-continent. One popular name among them is Conocarpus, a fast growing tree, which has led to its popularity in tree plantation drives throughout the country.

Khan says Conocarpus is the least harmful of the bunch. He says species like Paper Mulberry, which are not only fast growing but also invasive have been doing more harm than good. “People don’t usually cut them because they are very thorny and then the Forest department and such can also show them as green cover in satellite imaging,” he says. According to Khan it is these types of species that we really should be wary of.

For Khan the question is larger than just Lahore’s green cover. He places trees in the larger battle with climate change and says that in cases of drought or extreme climate, it is this thorny slow growing indigenous Khas that will really help us survive.

Amel Ghani is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.