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Environmental and economic sustainability of CPEC

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The China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has perhaps become the most talked about event in Pakistan and has been deemed as a game changer.

CPEC is a joint venture between Pakistan and China that promises to boost Pakistan’s economy significantly by creating a partnership between Pakistan and China. Building infrastructure throughout the country, making the Gwadar Port operational and bridging the power gap in Pakistan are the main objectives of this project. Such a large scale project is bound to benefit Pakistan economically in the long run as well.

CPEC has started some major infrastructure projects in Pakistan. The construction of vast new road and rail networks to connect the seaports of Gwadar and Karachi with China will facilitate the transport of goods and originate more economic activities in the region. It will help the local traders immensely and save their costs of transportation simultaneously increasing their sales. Improved infrastructure is also sure to open up new opportunities for local businesses as well. Furthermore, Pakistan has been faced with a long prevailing energy crisis which is a major obstacle in its path of growth and development. It is one of the major reasons why the industries of Pakistan are not able to work at their optimum levels. Moreover it is one of the biggest issues faced by the residents of Pakistan where load shedding has become part of our everyday lives. The various energy projects included in CPEC, mainly coal, solar, wind and hydel power projects are expected to help relieve Pakistan from its chronic energy crisis. If all the projects are implemented as planned it is expected that over 18,000 MW of energy will be produced.

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CPEC is also expected to create millions of jobs over the next few years and help reduce the unemployment rate in the country. As Pakistan is already facing high levels of unemployment with a growing labor force, CPEC may be counted as a blessing for some. Better job opportunities and better income will definitely improve the standard of living of people. Furthermore, it will benefit many local industries such as the cement and steel industries which have already started experiencing an increased demand since the project has been initiated.

There is a great untapped potential of tourism in the northern areas of Pakistan and near the Chinese border which could be exploited with the implementation of this project. The major drawback that the tourism industry faces is the lack of proper roads in the area. The expansion of the Karakoram Highway can help attract more tourists to this area and this could also create income earning opportunities for the locals. Making the Gwadar Port operational also has a number of benefits. The strategic placement of the port is why it can serve as a gateway to Central Asia and Europe as well. The outflow of goods from China and Central Asia can pass through Gwadar and Pakistan can earn millions of dollars as freight charges for import and export of cargoes. It has been estimated that CPEC will contribute 2 to 2.5 percentage points to the country’s annual economic growth rate. This is bound to make a significant difference in the growth of the economy.

Along with major economic benefits, CPEC will also create a strong bilateral relationship between Pakistan and China and promote social, trade and cultural relations as well. Pak-China friendship can emerge as one of the most prolific alliances in the world. Thus CPEC can prove to be economically sustainable and help Pakistan become an economic hub in South Asia. It has the potential to place the country on a well carved road to success.

This project may be surrounded by optimism but it cannot be professed totally without some major apprehensions. Proper implementation of the projects must be ensured by both the governments to reap the aforementioned benefits from the project. The major concern that CPEC poses for Pakistan is the debt it brings with it to an already heavily indebted country. Pakistan will have to increase its exports significantly to repay back the heavy interested debt from China. Moreover since CPEC allows an even easier access to Chinese goods in Pakistani markets it can seriously threaten the country’s local industries since Pakistan can’t compete with China in manufacturing.

The huge amount of investment from China will definitely create a sense of dependency on China in the future. China is getting a huge strategic advantage through CPEC and it is the greatest beneficiary from this project. Every country works for its own self interest and it will be foolish to expect something different. Furthermore, CPEC also seems to have a lot of political motives as well. There is also a lot of criticism on the fact that a lot of projects are focused on Punjab and other provinces are not being treated equally and fairly. There is also the issue of displacement of the local people where new infrastructure is to be constructed. People will have to be moved and it will be very difficult and costly to accommodate them to other places.

Another major concern that needs to be addressed is whether CPEC is environmentally sustainable. Majority of the investment in the energy sector has been allocated to coal projects. Producing electricity from coal is very harmful for the environment and has adverse effects on the health of people. It produces many harmful emissions which would degrade the quality of air and give rise to many different diseases like respiratory problems, premature deaths and cancer. Coal extraction from mines also creates a lot of noise and visual pollution for the people who reside near the mining sites. These negative externalities should not be ignored. The coal which is most commonly used for energy generation in Pakistan is lignite which contains a lot of impurities and hence emits a greater amount of greenhouse gases in the environment. These gases are one of the major causes for global warming and climate change in the world. Pakistan should not only engage in generating power from coal but also take China’s help in making this more environmentally feasible by reducing the carbon content in emissions etc.

Furthermore, CPEC should focus more on renewable sources of energy such as hydroelectric power for which Pakistan has a huge potential. Solar and wind energies should also be on the forefront as they not only produce cheap electricity but are also better for the environment and are more sustainable in the long run.

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Similarly, building of new road and railway networks not only requires the displacement of local people but also a large amount of deforestation as well. Already Pakistan is facing a loss of its forests and this will require even more trees to be cleared of. The increasing vehicles on the roads heading towards China will further contribute to degrading air quality and there won’t be enough trees to remedy this. The changing of natural landscapes also affects the wildlife of the region as well. There is also the question of ecotourism. The impact that the CPEC route will have on ecotourism sites is troubling and this matter must not be taken lightly. The northern areas of Pakistan will specially suffer where the beauty of the mountains, greenery and glaciers will be significantly diminished by the expanding infrastructure. The construction is also sure to bring many troubles to their population where increasing amount of vehicle emissions can create health problems. These significant environmental costs have to be addressed in order to make CPEC more sustainable for the country. Economic development should not come at the cost of our environment. Our natural resources are limited and for the survival of future generations it is important to take such measures which protect and preserve the natural environment that we so often take for granted.

To realize the maximum advantages of CPEC, both Pakistan and China have to execute a long term strategic engagement. CPEC should not just be a transactional collection of roads and power plants but it should be much more than that. CPEC is sure to be a game changer for Pakistan but only time will tell whether it is Pakistan’s biggest dream or its worst nightmare.

Manal Shahid

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