Climate gets an anticlimactic letdown as environment falls on the lowest rungs of policy. The myopia is damaging: precious land and logs are being bartered away for construction and concrete while destroying valued ecospheres
SOS from Abbottabad
Unchecked development is altering the very landscape of the city
In March 2015, the Peshawar High Court’s (PHC) Green Bench in Abbottabad slapped a stay order and stopped construction of multi-storeyed plazas on Pine View Road in response to a petition filed by Abbottabad’s civil society. The PHC stay order was a rare success in present day Khyber Pakhtunkhwa: the norm today is “privatisation for profit” of public spaces, green belts, and parks and gardens under relentless attack by the timber and commission mafias.
Almost a year on, the destruction of Abbottabad’s biodiversity continues apace, irrespective of the stay.
Some 60 shops were constructed along the Pine View Road, felling several mature camphor trees in the process. Plans for a huge plaza were approved by the cantonment board authorities. The destruction of Abbottabad cantonment’s green belts and ravines continued too. The Green Bench’s verdict forestalled a concrete monstrosity from being erected through a timely verdict but its order was not implemented by the authorities concerned.
Named after its founder (and its first deputy commissioner), Major James Abbott, Abbottabad came into being in 1853, as a summer resort and training camp for the northern command of the colonial army.
Under the Raj, highly-trained and competent experts developed gardens and green belts of Abbottabad. Local craftsmen contributed their share by bringing their finesse to construction: beautifully grained local stone was used in the construction of environmentally-friendly buildings while hammer-chiselled stones were used to build roadside drains. By any standard, Abbottabad was an architectural marvel of that period.
The cantonment had avenues and groves, which contained magnificent horse chestnut trees, Himalayan and Lebanese cedars, pines, chinars (maple), fragrant camphor, elm, ash, mahogany, walnut and various other species of trees and shrubs of Alpine nature. Some species of trees and flowers were transplanted from Kashmir by the British and many from England.
Over the years, Abbottabad became known as an idyllic hill station, nestled in the lush green foothills of the Himalayas, where a crisp and cool alpine breeze blew in the air and homes had panoramic views.
Those are all things of a distant past now.Unlike the colonial period, land grabbing of green belts and public places, unplanned expansions, and haphazard concrete constructions have damaged or destroyed Abbottabad’s precious heritage. Most mature trees and shrubs have become victim to mindless destruction by the “building and timber mafias”. Various species of wild birds have lost their nesting abodes as green belts and trees of Abbottabad are vanishing fast.
While these development activities are in violation of existing by-laws, cantonment board contractors dug up the other side of the Pine View Road and felled several centuries-old trees. They then constructed another illegal plaza inside the lush green ravine.
Recent times have also seen contractors and builders dump construction waste in lush green ravines in the darkness of night — the same property giants had flocked to join those currently in power. Back in 2005, the ministry of defence had officially banned construction of plazas inside residences of Abbottabad cantonment. Then came the matter of erecting a commercial building, a plaza, inside the verdant residence of the (late) Asghar Khan.
Civil society had managed to block construction back then but things have changed now. The Abbottabad Town Municipal Authority (TMA) permitted illegal constructions in ravines, green belts and parks without the mandatory environment impact assessment. Noncompliance of EPA regulations has affected Abbottabad’s mild weather and rich biodiversity as few trees exist today in the city.
While these development activities are in violation of existing by-laws, cantonment board contractors dug up the other side of the Pine View Road and felled several centuries-old trees. They then constructed yet another illegal plaza inside the lush green ravine.
Cantonment board authorities also ignored warnings issued by Pakistan Telecommunications Company Limited against the destruction of ravine; the telecom authority told officials that their action might cause flooding and destroy the telephone exchange which exists behind the green belt being destroyed.
Abbottabad’s civil society has been mobilising grassroots citizen associations, trader organisations, as well as the concerned military and civilian officers against the regime of encroaching buildings.
On April 5, a delegation comprising Mahmood Aslam and Col (retd) Khalid Mehmood met with Brig Mukhtiar Khan, the station commander of Abbottabad. We were disappointed to hear the commander confirm that concrete will be poured down the historic Lady Garden for the purpose of building an amusement park.
Brig Khan also disclosed that the British-era buildings of the station headquarters and adjoining Cantt Office will be demolished for the sake of plazas. The restaurants, Red Onion and Mona Lisa, will also be razed. The green area around the centuries-old Saint Luke’s Church of Abbottabad will also be opened up for the sake of “development.”
The situation is worrying. Even today, major construction works are being carried out at the site of Abbottabad Club, which is also located in the same area, and antiquity of this site has been destroyed too. Tonnes of concrete have been poured over the chiselled stone drains of the area, the ones which were immaculately built during British Raj. There is incalculable loss of heritage and it is happening before our eyes.
The developmental model being offered by the authorities will completely shred the historic landscape of Abbottabad for which the hill station is famous across the world. Under the present circumstances, tree felling is no longer an option. The solution is to build new sustainable cities rather than destroy what we have.
Mahmood Aslam is an environmental activist and founding member of Abbottabad’s civil society and can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Col Ejaz Nazim is convenor for the Lahore-based Shajrdost and can be reached on email@example.com
Covering Karachi with Cornocarpus
Horticulturalist and environmental activist Tofiq Pasha Mooraj explains how water-intensive plants chew into Karachi’s limited water resources
When was the first drive to increase the forest cover for the city or country? Did it begin with the Eucalyptus?
The first drive began with the aerial spraying of mesquite tree seeds in rural Sindh. This was done around Ayub Khan’s time and the seeds were at some point imported from the US. The Eucalyptus trees were introduced during the mid 70s as a water evaporatong tool and were later used as an afforesting tool in the 90s to plant forests all over the country.
Why do you think the Eucalyptus tree was chosen?
There were two reasons. One: it was suitable for use in water logged areas due to its high transpiration rate as well as its resilience in saline conditions. And two: it was found to grow tall and was a good source for wood.
What was the consequence of this action and what was done to solve the problem?
Of course there were consequences. The first negative was that Eucalyptus trees don’t let any other plant grow next to it. It displays allelopathic effects, which means that this tree releases chemicals which are toxic to other plant species.
The second negative is its undying thirst for water. It may be good for use in waterlogged areas but extremely bad for arid regions experiencing a water shortage. Its roots, in search of water, penetrate underground sewer and water lines, eventually damaging them and creating more complications.
Monoculture isn’t a good strategy for maintaining a healthy ecosystem. If I was to give you a meat for all three meals of the day, would you like that? Any ecosystem requires diversity for a balanced existence.
The last city district government of Karachi undertook a mammoth drive to plant more trees in the city. With the benefit of hindsight, what is your assessment of that campaign?
It was a short-sighted, politically-motivated action. They chose Cornocarpus trees to plant across the city. In fact, the Cornocarpus was a tree that was specifically planted in Karachi during the last city district government. Monoculture isn’t a good strategy for maintaining a healthy ecosystem. If I was to give you a meat for all three meals of the day, would you like that? Any ecosystem requires diversity for a balanced existence.
Cornocarpus trees are water intensive and hence they diminish the underground water table which isn’t good for a water-starved city like Karachi. And you can’t simply plant it everywhere in the city. They could be grown to be used as windbreakers near the sea but you can’t use them in an area inside the city. They aren’t shade giving trees either.
The thing with Cornocarpus is that it is resilient and can survive in a hot, dry and salty climate. There is a lot of maintenance by way of pruning the tree. This tree is also going to be a danger to the water and sewage lines due its immense thrist for water. On an official level, the Cornocarpus was banned recently by the Karachi Metro-politan Corporation; but it continues to be planted even today.
Have you come across reports of mafia involvement in the growing and cutting (maintenance) of the Cornocarpus trees?
It can’t be confirmed. There might be one for trimming trees with a special interest in using wood as firewood (selling it in the open market).
Given the high consumption of water by certain plant species and the city’s previous experience in planting trees of a similar nature, what are the consequences of planting non-indigenous species?
When you import and plant a non-indigenous specie, the first casualties are your native species. Secondly, non-indigenous species can be invasive and overtake the indigenous ones.
For example, the Eipple-Lipple were introduced in the 70s. They were fast growing trees and well known for firewood and their seeds and leaves were used as animal fodder. But eventually the seeds propagated, easily causing them to grow everywhere.
Plants like gul mohar/amaltas are foreign species in their origin, but they were introduced in the city some 100 years ago. They can be classified as indigenous.
Why are we averse to planting indigenous trees?
We have this whole fascination for foreign goods ... think foreign clothes or foreign foods. We go for anything that is imported. Native trees are seen as “jungli” plants.
Firewood from fallen trees
by Irfan Haider
It’s the autumn of Islamabad’s eco-friendly design: with new development projects being aggressively pursued by the CDA, environmental concerns have taken a hit
Over 300 fully-grown trees were felled by Islamabad’s Capital Development Authority (CDA) for the completion of the signal-free Islamabad Expressway project being constructed at a cost of Rs21.8 billion. The fallen trees were later auctioned per procedure; the CDA could only bag a paltry Rs1.6 million for precious wood.
“In comparison to the Rs1.6m fetched by CDA, the actual price of the wood was very high in the open market,” an official of the CDA, speaking on condition of anonymity, tells Dawn. “There is indeed a question mark over the performance of CDA high-ups in the auction process.”
While the damage dealt to the environment could not be measured in profit-loss considerations, the financial hit is indeed questionable. With Islamabad being ushered into the era of Metro Bus and the signal-free Islamabad Expressway, the role of the CDA has come into renewed focus.
Increased development in the federal capital has meant that the authority now has to plan more, sometimes hastily redrawing plans that had drawn up before. When space was needed for new constructions of the two projects, for example, the CDA felled over 1,000 fully grown trees to pave way for development.
“In total, 759 fully grown trees (those that have been standing since decades) as well as 3,773 small trees and several shrubs were cut down during the construction of the Metro Bus project. In addition, 5,526 ground covers and small bushes were also removed,” explains Islamabad-based journalist Danish Hussain, who has been covering CDA affairs for the last several years.
“After losing hundreds of trees for the Metro Bus project, the capital city administration then chopped down another 300 trees for the Islamabad Expressway,” he adds.
“In comparison to the Rs1.6m fetched by CDA, the actual price of wood was very high in the open market.
Environmentalists in the city have been arguing on public platforms that “uncontrolled” and “unplanned” development in Islamabad was destroying the pristine capital while the city’s temperature has been on a steady rise due to environmental degradation in the wake of “ill-conceived” developmental and recreational projects.
The CDA stands at the heart of the dispute, with the authority’s detractors pointing to the authority’s blatant disregard for rules and regulations, as was witnessed during the two mega-projects.
An official of the Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA), for example, explains that carrying out an environmental impact study is mandatory before embarking on any mega-project. In the case of the metro bus project, the CDA did not carry out the environmental impact assessment that was needed. The EPA was then compelled to issue an environmental protection order (EPO) to the civic agency to carry out an environmental impact assessment study.
“When the time came for the Islamabad Expressway project, the CDA did not seek any no-objection certificate from the EPA nor did it submit any environmental impact assessment report to complete the project — which was a mandatory requirement before construction could begin,” claims the Pak-EPA official.
CDA’s response to felling trees was to plant afresh — on March 7, the CDA kicked off its spring tree plantation campaign, which aims to sow 300,000 saplings of different species in various parts of the city.
CDA Chairman Maroof Afzal argues that this drive will enhance the city’s green character. “The slogan of the campaign, ‘Plant a tree, make Islamabad pollution-free,’ is our unified pledge that all-out efforts would be made to turn Islamabad into a pollution-free city,” he asserts.
Responding to a question regarding the cutting of trees to complete several development projects in the capital, CDA’s Member Environment Sanaullah Aman told Dawn that the authority is cognisant of the environmental loss.
“While executing development projects, the CDA will plant four trees to compensate for the loss of every chopped tree. We prefer planting indigenous species, which have the ability to withstand local weather changes,” says Aman.
In response to a question, CDA Public Relations Director Ramzan Sajid says there is “no concept of a timber mafia” in Islamabad. He argues that there is a proper mechanism for the auction of trees as well as submitting any income earned through the felling of trees to the CDA.
“There is a misconception regarding the cutting of trees in the capital. The CDA likes to use the ‘right-of-way’ patch, which is reserved by the authorities for the expansion of the roads in future. The Authority always avoids using green belts to complete development projects; take the Kashmir Highway or the Islamabad Expressway as examples,” claims Sajid.
The CDA official added that EPA guidelines will be followed wherever road expansion is taking place in Islamabad.
According to the officials of the Punjab forest department, the total forest area in the country stood at 4.2m hectares, which is about 4.8pc of the total land area. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) claims that around 43,000 hectares of forest are cleared annually in Pakistan, which is the highest deforestation rate in Asia. FAO officials fear that if deforestation continues at this pace, Pakistan will lose most of its forests within the next 30 to 40 years.
Meanwhile, the circle of forestation continues apace.
“During the Spring Tree Plantation Campaign, CDA will plant 225,000 plants in the rural areas of the city while 75,000 plants will be planted in urban areas, particularly in different residential sectors, median strips of avenues, green belts along major highways and parks,” CDA’s Member Environment Aman said at the campaign launch.
“Around 450,000 plants including Alestonia, Silver Oak, Legustornea, Argun and Gab will be planted with the assistance of NGOs and different institutions in different areas of Islamabad. The drive will continue for two months and arrangements have been made to distribute free-of-cost plant saplings,” he announced.
One CDA official scoffs at the “show” that was put up by the higher-ups. “It is the job of the CDA to number the trees so as to counter any illegal cutting of trees. We currently have no one to do this job and save our trees,” he concludes.
Pollen on the prowl
Rising cases of pollen allergies are tied to the male paper mulberry trees growing in the Margalla Hills
Constable Safdar Hayat, 39, arrived in Islamabad from his village in Mianwali to provide protection to the federal capital. Little did he know that his new city would render him vulnerable instead: Hayat contracted pollen allergy soon after moving to Islamabad.
“I am unable to sleep at night because of the high pollen count in the air during the darkness. Because of pollen, night times bring throat and chest irritation for me,” says Hayat while rubbing his eyes in pain.
The constable has been standing in a queue outside a doctor’s office at the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) for the last couple of hours. He cannot go to a private clinic because finances are tight at home; but the pollen-induced complaints have been persisting for the past fortnight too.
Hayat currently resides in Sector G-9 but says leaving home for work is an everyday challenge for him these days due to his troubles with pollen. “I only got a job in Islamabad Police as constable very recently. I wanted to get a few days off from work; I could have gone back to Mianwali and escaped the ongoing spell of pollen allergy. But I have only entered the force recently; it isn’t easy to get a leave application approved so soon after joining,” he says.
Pollen allergies have also consumed 17-year-old Aliya Hassan’s life: a resident of Sector I-8/2, she has been unable to attend classes for more than a week now.
“My doctor suggested that I stay home for a couple of weeks because I could not focus. Studying had become terribly taxing due to a runny nose and eyes,” she says. “I used to leave Islamabad for a couple of weeks due to my pollen allergy. I can’t do that this year because I am also preparing for HSSC exams.”
Similar instances of Islamabad residents contracting and then suffering at the hands of pollen allergies have been on the rise in recent times.
“Pollen allergy patients have been increasing every year,” argues Dr Muhammad Zaman Awan, the former chief of PIMS’ pulmonary department, “and the main cause of this rise is the male paper mulberry. Around eight to 10 per cent residents of the federal capital are suffering pollen allergies of varying intensity. This is directly related with the pollen count in the city, which currently stands between 4,000 and 5,000 cubic metres.”
Awan explains that pollen allergy patients present symptoms such as sneezing, dry coughing, running eyes, irritation in the throat and nose, as well as complaints of not being able to breathe easily. The doctor cautions patients from receiving any treatment with injectable drugs, because they may cause a cardiac arrest and result in a patient’s death.
He also urged the need for citizens to adopt preventive measures to counter pollen allergies: “use a mask when outdoors, avoid travelling on a motorbike, shut doors and windows to your homes, and avoid directly smelling flowers during the ongoing season.”
The senior doctor also recommended patients to use their suggested medicines almost one week before the start of the pollen allergy season. “Inhalers are the safest, cheapest and easiest way of reducing allergy intensity and providing immediate relief to patients. They don’t have any side-effects either and their continuous use cannot harm pollen allergy patients at any stage,” he says.
Meanwhile, a CDA spokesperson claims that the authority is trying its best to remove male paper mulberry trees from Islamabad. No new paper mulberries are being planted in the CDA’s new plantation drive. The only problem seems to be that these trees grow in large numbers on the pristine Margalla Hills surrounding Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2016