An Environmental Dilemma: Debunking a Development Myth

An Environmental Dilemma: Debunking a Development Myth

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It is fair to say that some development efforts of the past have been made at the expense of our environment. In the name of income generation and economic prosperity, natural resources have been exploited through activities like deforestation, mining operations, and off-shore drilling. While economic gains have been achieved through these efforts, they have almost always benefited only a small portion of the global population, leaving the majority to suffer with a lack of access to dwindling and polluted resources. In many countries, including Pakistan, development has assumed the form of industrialization in a relentless quest to increase exportable goods and open the country up to international investment. This tension between development efforts and environmental sustainability has led to a myth that pits efforts to improve human well-being against environmental stewardship, claiming that the two are in a constant opposition. In essence, the environment must suffer in order to improve human well-being: trees must be cut, minerals must be mined, and water-resources must be exploited. With the global population growing exponentially, and the once vast amount of natural resources being depleted at a rapid rate, we must ask ourselves a very important question; can development efforts be environmentally sustainable?

If this myth is to be believed, Pakistan, with a population of over 173 million[1], many of which are directly dependent of their environment for their livelihoods, is a country in which the consequences would be extremely apparent.

At the heart of this issue lies the agricultural sector, and subsequently, food security. With population increasing and average yields remaining stagnant, the dilemma of feeding the world’s hungry is pressing, yet complicated. In an effort to increase food security, many avenues have been explored. One of the most popular avenues has been input intensive agriculture, which requires high levels of irrigation and chemical fertilizers in order to increase yields. Yet, as the Green Revolution in neighboring India has shown, this avenue is usually not environmentally sustainable. While yield increases might be seen initially, the loss of biodiversity and other factors in environmental degradation are essential to take into account. Additionally, even with increases in yields and food security, the price of inputs and availability of irrigation water made for two insurmountable obstacles for many farmers, and proved, essentially, completely unsustainable.

With such a high economic and environmental cost, alternative avenues must be explored in order to increase food security, while preserving the very environment that it so heavily depends upon. It is here that this myth must be turned around; the environment must not suffer for the sake of development, but rather, true development cannot exist without a healthy environment.

There is such an alternative.

A more organic and small-scale approach to agriculture would decrease the impact on the environment. Yet this begs the question: can this form of agriculture provide for such a growing population? At the core of the criticisms of this alternative avenue of development is the notion that yields of organically grown crops are assumed to be lower than those grown through the industrial approach to agriculture. This is another myth that must be done away with; development does not have to suffer at the hands of environmental preservation, and there is much evidence to refute the myth that less chemical inputs will limit yields.

Sindh, Pakistan’s most southern province, has one of the highest poverty rates in South-East Asia[2]. With a large portion of the population working within the agricultural sector, it is an area where issues of food security and the environment converge.  There is a combination of large and small-scale farming activities in the province. However, the majority of the population working within the sector is made up of either small-scale farmers or farm laborers.

With a lack of access to the capital required to purchase expensive agricultural inputs and of power to control essential water resources for crop irrigation, many farmers struggle to survive in their agricultural livelihood. Alongside these factors, increasing food prices and expanding family size contribute to high levels of food insecurity in the province. Reports have indicated that about 90 percent of the population in rural Sindh had a marginal status in terms of food intake or access to healthy food, with 35 per cent of the population being highly food insecure[3].

Through CWS-P/A’s food security projects in both Mirpurkhas and Umerkot, project components have helped to show that food security does not have to come at the cost of environmental degradation. While many factors have contributed to the increasing levels of food security in the 150 villages targeted in Mirpurkhas and the 130 villages targeted in Umerkot, the use of chemical fertilizers and expensive large-scale irrigation systems is nowhere to be found. Instead, the use of bio-neem fertilizer, a completely organic fertilizer which reduces alkalinity in the soil while increasing soil fertility, is widespread. Unlike chemical fertilizers, which can harm sustainability, the use of these natural fertilizers increases the sustainability of farming practices. As food security is increased in this way, it provides the resources for future generations to continue to be able to be food secure.

Alongside the use of natural fertilizers, the projects have increased farmers’ access to irrigation water with the construction of community-based irrigation ponds. As industrial agriculture requires extensive amounts of irrigation water, it is usually pumped and channeled from public water systems, depriving others of the essential resource. The irrigation ponds, built through CWS-P/A, store water in order to increase the efficiency of rain-fed agriculture. Alongside the inclusion of other sustainable project components, such as the construction of community-based seed banks and Farming Resource Centers, both of which empower communities to move toward project participation and self-reliance, CWS-P/A’s food security projects in Sindh shed light on a pathway of development that acknowledges the importance of environmental preservation while striving to meet both immediate and long-term food security needs.

Since the introduction of the projects, farmers have reported an increase in yields, improvements in soil quality and fertility, an increase in access to irrigation water by 100 percent, and a decrease in their dependency on chemical fertilizers and the debt that usually coincides with their use.

With a history of environmental degradation, the state of our environment must persuade us to ask questions about what has been done and at what cost. The myth that efforts to improve human well-being are in opposition to environmental stewardship is simply that, a myth. With examples that show an alternative pathway to alleviating the suffering of those living with food insecurity, it should be clear that other similar avenues should be taken seriously and addressed as appropriate responses to meeting the needs of the hungry.

Can development exist without the exploitation of natural resources? Is sustainable development dependent on a healthy environment? Defining development is difficult; however, it is essential as the practices that we carry out today will affect future generations and the environment that we all depend upon.

[1] World Bank. (2010). Data by Country: Pakistan.

[2] Walsh, Declan. (2011). Pakistan flood crisis as bad as African famines, UN says.

[3] Shaikh, Saleem. (2009). Food Insecurity in Sindh.