In the China Pakistan Economic Corridor CPEC long tern plan (LTP), the “Transport Infrastructure” has been identified as one of the four priorities as well as key area of cooperation of the CPEC. The investment/resources put into CPEC are huge and most obviously it would also have been part of the plan to keep the environment cost to the minimum possible as well as not at all putting at risk, the health of the population in the surroundings of the CPEC activities across the country or that of huge Chinese and
Pakistani workforce involved/would be involved in the project. The environmental and health impacts of the road construction activities are different and vary with the
process, equipment and the material use. The magnitude of the resulting detrimental adverse effects depend upon the size of the exposed environmental segments (forest area, cultivated land area, population, water resources etc.) as well as the road length within a specific district area.
A recent study at sustainable development policy institute (SDPI), keeping a very narrow focus only on CPEC northern route road in KPK (334.2km, excluding tunnels & bridges)), along Kohistan, Shangla, Battagram, Mansehra, Abbottabad & Haripur (map below ) has been completed. The study supports the earlier very general studies reported last year (2017) by the two Chinese research teams, Huang et al and Zhang et al. According to these reports, air quality was found to be one of the top two challenges upon Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI), particularly given the existing environmental problems in Pakistan. However, specifically at the district level along the CPEC KPK northern route road, according to our study, both water and noise seem to be the second biggest challenge, resulting from road construction activities (SDPI study details are accessible at www.sdpi.org).
As part of the SDPI study, the impact of road construction activities on environmental segments are assessed by considering the extent of emission/releases from different phases/processes during road construction. Relative district exposure to these impacts are assessed by taking into consideration the district road length, population, forest and cultivated areas. The overall districts categorization (in terms of most resistant to most vulnerable vis-a-vis CPEC road construction activities) is based on the collective exposure to the studied environmental segments (population, forest & cultivated areas) of each district. The comparative data is shown in the graph below,
The CPEC route road length in Mansehra district is about half that of Kohistan district, however, among all six KPK districts studied, it has the highest population, largest forest and cultivated areas (see graph) and as such, Mansehra district population (including vulnerable children, women & elderly) and environment would be most adversely affected from the CPEC route road construction emissions & releases. Although the road length in Battagram district is of about the same length, as that of Abbottabad, among all the six districts it could be least adversely affected, as it has the lowest population (about one third of Abbottabad) and 2nd lowest cultivated area. Kohistan, Abbottabad & Shangla have the 2nd largest forest area, population & cultivated area, respectively and these would be more exposed/affected compared to the other districts (except Mansehra).
The process of road construction involves a lot of water usage, resulting in possible stress of water availability to the local populations of the studied districts. Such stress could be maximum for Kohistan (longest route road) and minimum for Shangla (smallest route road). Mansehra and Abbottabad, despite shorter route road length, could also face water availability stress due to proportionately higher population in these districts. A total of six tunnels will be constructed in the study area that could make the surrounding ground unstable with increased risk of soil erosion. Use of explosives and the resulting releases may also affect the air quality. Noise arising from the drilling and blasting of mountains in tunnel construction and from function of heavy machines working on site could be a nuisance for the locals and could also scare the wildlife in the area. Mansehra will have four tunnels constructed and thus will experience high levels of noise. Haripur and Abbottabad districts have parts of CPEC route passing through the highly dense populated areas and the population there could suffer the effects of substantially enhanced noise pollution
It is also very obvious that to meet the additional energy, equipment and material needs for CPEC road route construction, the need and production of the same would have to be considerably enhanced which would result in further risks to environment and public health, also at their production site/s (close or away from the road construction sites), especially in the absence of adequate environmental legislation or lack of its implementation in the country. To minimize the exposure/impacts of the releases/emissions from these construction activities, there is a dire need for effective mitigation/control measures (during & post- CPEC project completion) in place (a few also recommended in the study report), if not already taken care of, to protect the environment and safeguarding health of the Chinese-Pakistani workers and of the population in the CPEC activities areas.
CPEC is considered a very beneficial project for both China and Pakistan as well as the region and as stated by His Excellency Yao Jing, Ambassador of China to Pakistan, “The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has achieved tangible results and created a new economic miracle.” However, environmental degradation causes irreparable economic losses due to resulting deterioration of public health, productivity and life quality.
To maximize CPEC benefits, it is, therefore, most strongly recommended that “District Specific EIA” be also carried out, for all CPEC projects in the country (including transport infrastructure related) in all provinces, to identify the likely affected specific areas, with necessary and appropriate mitigation/control measures to protect environment and safeguarding public health and of the work force. Environmental standards (Pakistan, China or international) for CPEC activities (including infrastructure development) be agreed, adapted and implemented by the two countries. “Connectivity” being the core objective, same may also be facilitated by China & Pakistan, between all stakeholders of the two countries, including researchers and academia. It is very much expected that environmental consideration would be most likely included and assured in the CPEC LTP, as it is a live document and recommended to be reviewed every two years by both sides, inshallah.
This article is authored by Dr. Mahmood A. Khwaja, Ph.D Senior Adviser, Sustainable Industrial Development & Chemicals, Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), Islamabad. Pakistan.