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GVS exclusive interview with Taimur Jhagra on environment crisis

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Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What was the extent of damage to KPK’s economy as a result of these massive floods?

Taimur Jhagra: There was significant damage. There is no doubt that these floods are one of the worst times that the province has ever experienced. If you segment the damages into two and look at the overall economic losses, we believe that they will run north of a billion dollars. If you actually look at the amount of money that the government will actually have to spend, and that money, of course, is unbudgeted and will need to be financed, it is about 125 billion Rupees. According to current estimates and those estimates keep changing. This is about half a billion dollars, and I do not want to exaggerate that figure because doing so tends to produce its own side effects. For example, at the federal level, there are different numbers being bandied about and then being retracted, perhaps because of the lack of accuracy, but we stand by our numbers.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Were these floods worse than the 2010 floods?

Taimur Jhagra: They should have been; they could have been. But one difference that made them not as bad in some respects was the fact that the government was able to respond more proactively in KPK. Some of the investments that have been made over the last 10 years, which we believe is the first time that any government in Pakistan has actually invested proactively in the sort of interventions that can both help adapt and mitigate such challenges, paid off and paid off in a big way.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Has your ministry made any formal assessment into the financial calculations?

Taimur Jhagra: Yes, well, the figures that I quoted to you are based on our formal assessments. The formal assessments are actually not carried out by the finance ministry but by the Provincial Disaster Management Authority. I can give you these figures with a lot of confidence because we end up getting entities such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank to validate our estimations. KPK has been the province where the accuracy of our estimations has been validated to 95 percent.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: You are also a cabinet member, so has your cabinet made an assessment as to why you faced such a massive environmental disaster?

Taimur Jhagra: It is very clear that this is going to be a recurring occurrence, not just in Pakistan but across the world. We know that there are island states that are ultimately going to be submerged within this century because of global warming. These include the Pacific islands, Vanuatu, the Maldives, etc. These are typically the states that have shouted most vociferously about climate change, and we believe that countries such as Pakistan should have done so too because large swathes of land may be safer, but just the quantum of people living in Pakistan is 230 million, which means that the impact of the climate disaster in a country like Pakistan is greater than perhaps anywhere else in the world.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What kind of impact can it bring on Pakistan in the coming years?

Taimur Jhagra: Over the last 20 years, the magnitude of heavy rainfall days increased significantly. We have seen over the last five years that the impact on Pakistan is obviously great. This is a relatively arid country that depends on the glacial melt in the Himalayan Mountains, in the associated ranges that feed the Indus River system with Pakistan. With more erratic rainfall, the plains get flooded. The weaknesses of our governance get more pronouncedly highlighted. Millions of people get displaced, crops get affected, food security gets impacted, economic growth gets impacted, and millions of people go below the poverty line.

The impact, of course, is on all of Pakistan. However, the impact of food security in a place like Pakistan is felt beyond Pakistan more widely because of how big the market is. It is important to end this by saying two things. One is that our government certainly believes that the primary responsibility to fix these issues is ours. Secondly, in many aspects, these issues are not of our own making, and the world does owe a debt to countries like Pakistan that have not created this problem certainly in the form of carbon emissions but pay the price for it.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: You are the only person from McKinsey and Company who has joined Pakistani politics. No one else from McKinsey and Company has ever been in Pakistani politics before. What brought you to politics?

Taimur Jhagra: I was elected as the first partner on the basis of public sector work in Pakistan. I think just the conviction and passion to say that I think too much of the talent in this country tends to complain about what is wrong with Pakistan. And I feel that this is a country that has enough of a critical mass of people with the right capacity that need to put their hand up and attempt to change it. And that’s been the gist of my journey. Over the last four years, and it is for others to judge whether I have succeeded or not, but I think the most important thing is to raise your hand and try because you set an example for others. And I think if enough of us in Pakistan, who are privileged enough to either come from the right background or the right professional training, come back and contribute, we will solve many of our problems much quicker than we do.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What are the solutions to the crisis that you are facing in KPK at the moment in terms of environmental disaster?

Taimur Jhagra: We need to expand on the investments that we have been making, and that has paid off. I will give you four or five examples that actually made a huge difference in how well we manage these floods. Number one, and I got a lot of feedback not just from colleagues in the government but from people in the private sector and people in the development community, that what stood out about KPK’s response was the proactiveness with which we evacuated people. That is due to the fact that over the last four years, we have expanded a notional rescue service into one that exists in each of the 35 districts of the province. It is a basic service in Western countries, but it, for example, still does not exist in Sindh. We have it in all 35 districts, and they actually rescued thousands of people.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Thinking in terms of solution, finding many of the critics of the PTI government think that all the notions of the billion-tree tsunami and small dams were mostly slogans or basically plans on paper. And the government of PTI between 2013-18, between 2018-22, hasn’t really delivered small dams. What do you have to say about this?

Taimur Jhagra: One of our challenges in Pakistan is that many people who have a voice in opinion-making tend to speak without the relevant facts. Against the target of 1 billion trees, we are actually on about 1.1 billion trees right now. This is of the original target. As the second government came into place, Imran Khan had a vision of 10 billion more trees being planted, of which KPK had to plant another billion. And progress against that also is on track. The impact is, of course, in terms of the environment in terms of increasing forest cover, which was increased.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: You said that more than a billion trees in the last seven years have actually been planted in KPK alone?

Taimur Jhagra: Indeed, people pick up small pieces of data that they do not understand. So, for example, the way that this works is that a certain proportion of the tree plantation in terms of the overall target are regenerated, you plant a certain number of saplings, there is a natural growth from that saplings, and you keep on auditing them.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: I see some international organizations had also praised the KPK government for that. But given the lack of belief within Pakistan and given the polarization of Pakistani politics, can you give us where the bulk of these trees have gone into which parts of KPK?

Taimur Jhagra: They are actually across tribal districts. There are trees in southern KPK, in the Peshawar Valley, and all over the province. All of these are geo-tagged. All of these are available to see. And as you said, the program has been audited multiple times, including by the World Wildlife Fund. Currently, we are actually in the process of trying to see how we can use the net positive environmental impact of that in terms of carbon credits, carbon credits for the province, becoming a source of revenue because I think it’s an incredible achievement.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Are you going to file the carbon credit request?

Taimur Jhagra: We want to think about this in a big way. What we have to do is to create an entity that can actually act as an accreditation entity that can then apply to these carbon markets that can beyond this, also, that can also propose these projects and other projects to the Green Climate Fund, which is the primary source of green climate financing worldwide. So, I think that we want to think about this in a big way. Now, similarly, in terms of the micro hydel dams that you talk about. The first phase of this and again, this was an indigenous idea. The billion tree was an idea by the political leadership. The way that I have seen Imran Khan and his core team work shows that there is a lot of media and a lot of brainstorming. There are people that come from outside, and ideas also grow organically. Being personally associated with the Sehat Card, which may not be the subject of this particular interview, but I have seen how we can compound these ideas and what really filled me with pride is that these ideas are indigenous.

Read more: KP Assembly to pass a bill to give permanent and legal status  to the Sehat Card Program

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Looking at this disaster, how has the initiative of forestation and the small dams really helped KPK?

Taimur Jhagra:  They helped spillovers and help prevent flooding. This is for sure; they, of course, help protect against soil erosion. It is not just this, one of the biggest investments that was made- I think we are talking about 15 to 20 billion rupees- is a large embankment around the Peshawar Valley, specifically in the Nowshera district. That was also derided for a while because it was in the district of the former Chief Minister. And there is a lot of casual criticism about it not necessarily being needed. That particular project has actually saved the entire Peshawar Valley because the embankments create a protective wall that allows the river to hold more water in the case of flooding.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Imran Khan has been saying that this tree tsunami will prevent climate change. He has been on record saying these many times. What did he exactly mean by that?

Taimur Jhagra: I think we know that Pakistan is one of the least forested countries in the world. Of the different administrative units in Pakistan, KPK is the one with the most forest cut. Because of the billion tree Project, forestation has gone from 15 percent to 21 percent. Well, you are not going to have a lot of forest cover in Balochistan, which is about half of our land, 43 percent, but I do think the target is a big deal. If you look at some of the targets of countries like the UK or Canada, they tend to celebrate planting 10 million trees. The ambition for a country like Pakistan was huge. And for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to deliver on it has also been huge. I think that you look at the larger scale. Firstly, the more forest cover you have, the more you are actually fighting against the sort of increased carbon dioxide or carbon emissions in the environment.

For us, what that specifically means in the long term, because I think we have set the foundation for being able to forest more area, is that if we play our part in this in the world, we also help save the glacial melting of our glaciers. We know how much we rely on that for our water system, and given our population growth, perhaps our biggest problem is water scarcity and effective water management. So, in a very direct way, increasing forest cover can help stabilize the environment. And there is nothing more important than that for Pakistan in the coming decades. We are taking the lead in this; you saw that the 10 billion-tree tsunami followed the billion-tree tsunami. If there were no billion-tree tsunami, there would be no follow-up 10 billion trees either. So, the point is that it set up the stage for the country to increase its ambition on big climate change initiatives.

I personally believe that as we recover from these floods, what is our challenge, and I will certainly make sure that we try our best to do it not just on paper but really to build back better and greener and to do more of what actually saved Nowshera and the Peshawer Valley- invest more in services like our rescue service, that can actually help save lives in times of natural disaster, or indeed local disasters, such as large fires, and so on. We have also proven this with the Sehat Card, which has helped revolutionize the health industry. It is very clear as we start to make long-term investments that improve service delivery, we in KPK can prove that these investments certainly pay back in the ways that they are intended to pay back. We also take our voters typically for granted and tend to think that they do not understand bigger issues because I personally feel that it is these large investments that have led to the PTI’s popularity in KPK because people have perceived the work we are doing in climate change. I believe that people perceive large, game-changing initiatives that we make that are not run of the mill, that is not business as usual, that actually signal intent and demonstrate that we can actually change the way that this country works.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Climate change is a big global subject from Europe to North America, so has the KPK government had help from international partners?

Taimur Jhagra: We are certainly working with international partners at this point. I think we are really at the cusp of creating the capacity to be able to raise more finance for climate change. And where we engage with large partners is really going to be on the basis of how quickly we can do that.

Read more: Pakistan’s 10 Billion Tree Tsunami project praised in the UK parliament

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: Who can these partners be, World Bank, Asian Development Bank?

Taimur Jhagra: Certainly, the large multilateral banks and bilateral donors, such as UKAid, and USAID, but also climate-specific initiatives. KPK would also be happy to contribute more to the national conversation on climate change that happens at the Conference of the Parties.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What’s happened in the last nine years? Has KPK engaged European Union, World Bank, Asian Development Bank, USAID, etc.?

Taimur Jhagra: Yes, we have, for example, the micro hydel dams. The Asian Development Bank got so excited about them that they actually told us to build them while they will fund. About 300 of these are built, and all of them work. They are owned and managed by the community and not only allow for places that are off-grid to get cheap electricity but also have effects such as reducing the amount of illegal woodcutting in these areas because people get fuel and energy, and electricity. In most places, and again, in places like Chitral, there is evidence that the communities managed this micro hydel station themselves. They have a system through which they collect payment for electricity. They have differentiated rates between domestic consumers and commercial consumers. It’s a project that I’ve only looked at from a financial perspective, but we want the scale up to the second round of up to 1,000 more micro hydro dams for which the Asian Development Bank is also going to help us, and this is the example of one partner.

Something like the bus rapid transit project was unfortunately made controversial in some areas of the media because the media thinks that it has remained stuck for so long, but the reality is that there are 300,000 customers across Peshawar that use the bus service every day. Those 300,000 customers leave their cars or bikes at the station. I was just going to the office day before yesterday and suddenly noticed that there was a swathe of about 500 motorbikes at what used to be a petrol station, which has now become a park-and-ride facility for the middle class.

Read more: World Bank, WAPDA to setup Pakistan’s first floating solar farm

I have taken the bus on occasion; I have also thought of actually cycling to work on occasions. Sometimes, there are time constraints, but I would use the service if the bus went next to my office because most people who take it are able to take it to places of work. We want to extend the feeder route. It is in the cantonment area of Peshawar, and we have had trouble getting clearance from the cantonment authorities. When we do get clearance, I will be the first person on that bus because not only will it be more convenient, but I will also be able to reduce my carbon footprint.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: The critics from PML-N basically say that first, the PTI criticizes the Islamabad Metro project as being wasteful, useless, and very expensive. And then, PTI started making a metro service in Peshawar, which they could not complete in time, whereas the Shehbaz Sharif and the Nawaz government were able to complete the project in 12-14 months. What do you have to say about this?

Taimur Jhagra: I think it came into the spotlight of the media. I was not part of the government when it was conceived and started, but I can tell you that it has finished in a very, very good time. When it was started, the then Chief Minister had set a target to do it in six months, which was frankly unrealistic. However, as the project has been completed, we have proven the difference. Our buses are greener because they are hybrid buses; they do not just run on diesel. They are part electricity. They are a gold standard BRT and what that means is that the corridor itself is integrated with off-corridor routes. So, it actually covers the entire city. You do not have to get off the network, walk, take a taxi, or drive. It is the beginning of something like a London Transport Service. We have gone from phase one to phase two, where we are actually connecting it not just to different areas in Peshawar but also outside Peshawar to Charsadda to Nowshera – connecting the entire Peshawar Valley. And in the third phase, we have actually already commissioned a survey where we want to look at all of the Peshawar district so we can expand it from the main route and the eight feeder routes that we have.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What is the ticket fee?

Taimur Jhagra: it is 50 to 60 Rupees for an end-to-end journey. It starts from about 10 rupees in Peshawar, and we have a smart fee system. The capital investment of the project was financed by Asian Development Bank; we have deliberately kept the fees low to allow people to take transport but get value. What we do right now is that we subsidize the costs so that people get off their cars and motorbikes and travel by bus, and that is happening. The demand that we are getting for additional routes shows that we are creating a culture where people want to take public transport rather than travel in their own motor vehicles. The economic impact of that and the climate impact of that, by itself, means that, in this case, the subsidy has a positive economic impact. So, it is done deliberately.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada: What were the legal problems? Are the legal challenges over?

Taimur Jhagra: There are some legal issues. We had issues with a contractor and frankly, what I saw coming into the system was Peshawar had not done a project of this scale that actually ran through the entire city. Hence, it was the first time that the capacity of the entire public and private sector available in the province was going to be tested on a project of this scale. But a lot of the other accusations are thrown at it. The project actually is not more expensive than Punjab; it is cheaper than Punjab. The road belt is cheaper than Punjab, but the model is different. So, we actually bought our buses. When people quote the sort of exaggerated cost figures, they quote, the figures with the capital investment in the procurement of the buses as well. We have eight feeder routes that are actually included in the cost that is overall being built. We have three or four commercial plazas that actually bring revenue, so this is a much bigger and much more complex project, but it is one where the core service is working better and actually having a very positive impact on the environment in Peshawar.

A slightly different version of the interview will appear in October 2022 Magazine issue.

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