Urban Forests: An Urgent Need of Lahore

Urban Forests: An Urgent Need of Lahore

    The city of Lahore, which once was called the city of gardens and trees, is now counted among the most polluted cities in the world. This is a dramatic change that millions of other people and I are witnessing. Today’s Lahore is not the one we saw in our childhood; our elders would tell our kids and us the stories about it. Despite its lavish greenery, Lahore city has become a jungle of concrete; constructions have defaced it and eclipsed its natural beauty. 

    The burden of unbridled population growth has radically changed the geographical, ecological, economic and social structure of this metropolis of Punjab. As a result, multipronged civic issues are on a trajectory to becoming a severe humanitarian crisis. Bad air quality, smog, fog, urban floods, extreme heat waves and other climatic episodes have already started affecting civic life at different times. And one issue, among other things, is the city’s diminishing green cover. This grim reality has been highlighted in the data provided in a research paper titled “Spatiotemporal urban sprawl and land resource assessment using Google Earth Engine platform in Lahore district, Pakistan”, published last year.

    The article says that between 1990 and 2017, Lahore city lost its tree cover at an annual rate of 2.06 square km, reaching 3.07 square km between 2010 and 2017. However, on the contrary, the city’s urban area increased at an enormous annual rate of 23 square km between 1990 and 2017. This massive loss of trees, even though the city requires a lot more new trees every year to keep its climate suitable for humans, is a moment of reflection for all those institutions responsible for expanding the city’s tree cover and taking care of those already planted. It is a critical time even for those individuals who are breathing in toxic air, living in a hot climate, comprising of the declining water table of the city, becoming forgetful of birds chirping around them, and even assimilating to the noise pollution and are ready to forego their right to a green piece of land to jog and spend a quality leisure time.

    But, the situation has not changed even today. However, it’s a bit different in big cities that provide shelter to more and more people, cities sprawling, and every tree coming in the way is fallen. The same is happening in Lahore. The Lahore district, whose population has ballooned by 76% between 1998 and 2017, is being increasingly overburdened, and the people of this city are estimated to be around 25 million by 2050. This necessitates the provision of housing and the related amenities for an additional population of approximately 12.6 million in the next 28 years. Although the smallest district of Punjab in terms of area, Lahore is the largest district of Pakistan in terms of population. Covering only 0.22% of the country’s total area, this district hosts 5.35% of Pakistan’s total population – and 15% of the country’s urban population. The population density here can be ascertained from the fact that the one-kilometre area of the city is populated by 6275.39 individuals, again the highest ratio in the whole country. Having only 0.86% of Punjab’s total area, it is home to 10% of the total population of the province – and 27.5% of its urban population.

    During the period between the fifth and the sixth population censuses, the number of houses in Lahore district swelled by a whopping 98%, and it is a manifestation of geographical expanse of the city. This sprawl is eating up the open spaces in and around the town where there are trees, or that can be planted. Moreover, the increase in the number of houses is a Prelude to the construction of other infrastructure, e.g. shopping plazas, shops, roads, schools, hospitals, marriage halls, places of worship, petrol pumps, etc., which means more space covered with concrete. But, what happens to the trees coming in the way of this expansion? If we answer this question keeping in view the above-stated state of affairs, it would be: perhaps, not different from the past. In such a case, what will happen to the trees that come in the way of this expansion? If there is an answer to this question given the situation described above, it may be that what has happened to them in the past will continue to occur in the future.

    What happened to Lahore’s trees in the past is an intriguing story, and a horrible result of this has been aptly depicted through a research paper “Spatiotemporal urban sprawl and land resource assessment using Google Earth Engine platform in Lahore district, Pakistan,” an endeavour of five researchers from Pakistan and abroad that has been supervised by Dr Hammad Gilani of the Department of Space Science, Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad. Dr Adeel Ahmed, the lead author of this paper, is a lecturer in the Department of Geography, University of Punjab.  

    This author contacted Dr Adeel to dig deep into the issues discussed in the paper. When asked how he would rate the severity of tree shortage in Lahore, Dr Adeel said it was “very high”. Explaining the results of his research, he said that between 1990 and 2017, a total of 55.48 square km of Lahore’s tree cover was lost as it fell from 71.44 square km to 15.96 square km, a 77.7% decline. He added that in 1990, 4.03% of Lahore’s total area was covered with trees, down to only 0.9% until 2017. It is even though the total built area of the district increased by 621.09 krn2 – an increase of 429.7%. Currently, around 43.21% area of Lahore district consists of built infrastructure against 8.16% in 1990.

    Dr Adeel has warned that, due to this, the ecosystem and air. Dr Adeel has cautioned that this mega city’s ecosystem and air quality have already degraded a lot, and if these conditions prevail, it may result in a catastrophic excellent human tragedy.

    Besides the sprawl of Lahore, a rapid increase in vehicle and industrial emissions in urban and suburban areas has resulted in several environmental problems such as urban heat islands, smog, air pollution, change in precipitation patterns and health problems. The faster Lahore spreads, the faster the number of motor vehicles in the city increases because the increasing distances in the town mean a growing need for motor vehicles. Whether public or private, the number of motor vehicles in Lahore increased by 535% between 2003 and 2019, far more than the increase in population.

    Currently, around 31% of the total motor vehicles registered in Punjab are in Lahore. Although they play a significant role in meeting the citizens’ travel needs, they are resulting in more air pollution, especially in the form of smog. This is because Sulphur dioxide emissions from vehicles and tiny solid particles are the primary source of smog. Another problem is the growing number of manufacturing industries; according to the Census of Manufacturing Industries 2015-16, more than 95% of industrial units are located within 2 kilometres of major roads and highways in Punjab, i.e. around the urban areas.

    Several policies have been formulated to alleviate the shortage of trees in Lahore, and several initiatives have already been started. But, pointing out the one aspect that warrants immediate attention, Muhammad Faisal Haroon, former Chief Conservator of Forests, Extension and Research Punjab, said, “Lahore is not within the purview of the Forest Department as it is the exclusive domain of Parks and Horticulture Authority (PHA) to look after tree planting and other related matters in Lahore city,” adding that “more space should be provided to the Forest Department for setting up nurseries in Lahore city because it has excellent expertise in this regard. Moreover, people can buy a plant from such nurseries for a meagre amount of only two rupees.

    It is perplexing and unfortunate that the department, a majority of whose employees have degrees in forestry and are blessed with extensive expertise in the fields of afforestation, tree plantation and all related technical matters, is not being utilized to make Lahore a verdant city.

    To alleviate the shortage of trees in Lahore, Miyawaki forests are being planted at 50 points across the city. In addition, the world’s most extensive Miyawaki forest, covering an area of 100 kanals and having 160,000 trees, was recently inaugurated in Lahore. 

    To reinforce the importance of tree planting and a green environment, the Lahore High Court recently directed the various departments of the Punjab government to update the existing laws to promote afforestation and deal with violations thereof. The court also directed the local governments, development authorities and all concerned departments to ensure that housing societies include tree planting in their allotment letters. The Secretary and the Registrar of Cooperatives were explicitly mentioned as the agencies responsible for implementing this order.

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