Going back to nature

Updated May 01, 2016


Early morning fishing in Sonmiani. — Photo from the book
Early morning fishing in Sonmiani. — Photo from the book

To say that water is the essence of life would be clichéd, but nonetheless true. Even during prehistoric days, excavations tell us, civilisations existed near a source of water. And in present times water is the cause of conflict and disasters; the quest for fresh water resources or water routes for trade is known to all. To say that man’s thirst for water is unending would not be wrong.

The latest addition to the literature available on nature and water resources is Water in the Wilderness. A combined effort of Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, an ecologist and writer; Richard Garstang, a field biologist; and Rina Saeed Khan, an environmental journalist; the book, as the title suggests, revolves around the theme of water. But it is not just about water in a bland, uninspiring way.

Pakistan is a country with abundant water resources, with several rivers — including the mighty Indus — flowing through the country. The topography of the country is a mix of plains, deserts, forests, hills and plateaus; while in the north there are glaciers that are a source of fresh water, in the south we have a 1,100km long coastline along the Arabian Sea connecting Pakistan with other countries of the world via sea routes. Yet Pakistan is a water stressed country which should be cause for concern for the policy makers, given that our future depends on how we treat our water resources.

The country is home to many species of flora and fauna; in addition to that, a large number of migratory birds from Central Asian countries as well as Siberia come here for breeding or take a break in their long journey to rest on the lakes, marshes and wetlands, that dot the coastal areas as well as the deserts in Punjab before moving further south. Unfortunately, extensive hunting has reduced the number of these winter visitors.

Water in the Wilderness is a study of the biological and cultural diversity of Pakistan, and makes us understand the value of our ecosystem

Not many people are aware of the importance of preserving biodiversity; in fact, many are not even aware that such a vast range of species exist in the country. There is an urgent need to understand Pakistan’s ecological challenges and develop adaptive capabilities.

Water in the Wilderness is an interesting book about the biological and cultural diversity of Pakistan, and makes us understand the value of our ecosystem. At the same time it raises serious questions about our actions that will shape our future.

Weaving a web of articles and stories the writers have aimed to highlight the beauty, culture and flora and fauna of Pakistan with water as the central theme in the background. Along with that the destruction of the environment, damage to the ecology and the need for conservation of natural resources run as parallel themes. The flora and fauna of any region only thrive when their natural habitats are intact. Any disturbance in the natural habitat threatens their survival. A number of species found in the country are classified as endangered and there is an immediate need to protect them.

Divided in three broad sections — The Coast, The Deserts and The Mountains — with each section further divided into three chapters about three different locations, the book takes readers through the intricate web of lives that exist in these regions.

We are taken to places and people we would never have known. We see how people live along the coasts, in the deserts and the mountains; the flora and fauna that exist there and how they affect each other. Lives of the people living in coastal areas depend on natural resources such as the mangrove forests for fish for food and trade, and firewood and fodder for cattle. But they are often not aware that these natural resources are not unlimited and will not last forever, and that their exploitation will not only impact their lives but the entire ecosystem of the region.

In Sonmiani, WWF Pakistan is playing a critical role in environmental conservation by involving local people, especially the youth, in their projects. But Jiwani, with the cliffs surrounding it being nesting and feeding grounds for falcons and its beaches providing a nesting place for the endangered Green Turtle and Olive Ridley Turtle, and its bay with rich coral belts and extraordinary marine life, is awaiting attention. Its ecosystem is facing another threat as well. With China ready to start operation of Gwadar Port that was completed in 2008, Gwadar is all set to change from a sleepy Balochistan fishing town to a major deep water port. Environmentalists are worried about the future of Jiwani that is close by. “Will the economic tide that is coming to Gwadar adversely affect the precious ecology of Jiwani?” the authors ask.

Development also threatened the biodiversity of the Hingol region which earned it the designation of a national park through which flows the Hingol River. The proposed construction of the Hingol Dam within the Hingol National Park would not have benefitted the local population, which consists of semi-nomadic tribes, herders and small fishermen; and the reservoir of the dam would have flooded part of the sacred Hinglaj landscape and changed the ecology of the river. Had it not been for the World Bank’s threat to withdraw the $10m grant that it offered in 2002 to Pakistan for protection of biodiversity hotspots, including Hingol, the plan for the proposed dam would not have been shelved.

The book also shows how cultures are not restricted by manmade borders, and people on both sides share the same natural resources, and how they move and interact across boundaries. The best examples may be of Jiwani and Kollani (near Chabahar in Iran). People on both sides of the border have similar customs and traditions, an almost identical way of life, speak the same language and have the same dependence on natural resources. Many have relatives across the border and crossing the border for a social visit is common.

The same is the case with people in Cholistan, where people leading a semi-nomadic life move with their herds from one place to another in search of water and fodder for animals. Partition divided the desert but people from both sides of the border used to move freely without any regard for the border till a fence was erected in 1997.

As rich as coastal areas are in water resources, deserts too are not totally devoid of water and have their own ecology; there exist a number of lakes and marshes within the deserts that provide sanctuary to migratory birds making their annual passage to Indus Flyway, one of the world’s greatest bird migration routes that passes through Pakistan.

Unfortunately these birds are widely hunted during their stay here and as a result their numbers are dwindling. Efforts are being made to protect these birds which are bearing results, as can be seen in the case of Lungh Lake, an internationally recognised migratory route followed by birds coming from the colder Central Asian countries on Indus Flyway. Given its importance, in 1989 the Sindh wildlife department began to actively protect and improve the lake, turning it into an ideal refuge for migratory waterfowl. As a result today it is an important staging and wintering ground for over 50,000 water birds.

But all wintering sites are not as fortunate. For instance, the Rangla wetland formed as an outcome of an irrigation canal dug to bring water to the Thar desert in Muzaffargarh became a place where nature and people have settled into a coexistence. A breeding ground for the endangered marbled teal and several other species, it needs protection from hunting and habitat destruction by unregulated visitors and local residents.

While the locals kill only one or two ducks in a shoot and use the meat for their family’s food demands, many villagers facilitate hunting by outsiders, who often kill dozens of ducks in one hunt. The story of Tanvira, the huntsman of Rangla, describes his meagre means, as he illegally shoots a duck for his family’s meal. In winter months he assists a local doctor to shoot ducks in Rangla, in exchange for provisions and other favours.

In order to continue to hunt the houbara bustard, Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahiyan, Emir of Abu Dhabi, who was a frequent visitor to Pakistan to hunt houbaras, also invested in the development of the Cholistan area, providing funds for roads and water tanks in the desert for nomadic communities living deep inside Cholistan. Specialised research centres in the UAE and rehabilitation centres in Pakistan are working for the protection of houbaras. Wildlife conservationists suggest regulating hunting more rigorously, and monitoring a mechanism that ensures the bag limit. 

The brown bear, living on the Deosai Plains, found friends in Dr Anis ur Rahman and Vaqar Zakaria when they were on the verge of extinction. The bears are hunted for their body parts that are in great demand in China for medicinal use; a bear would be worth about Rs100,000. The two had become interested in bears while on a trekking trip to Deosai and later formed the Himalayan Wildlife Foundation. Their efforts led to an increase in the bear population from less than 20 to more than 60 in number.

The story of the last ibex hunter in the book illustrates that it is not difficult to explain to villagers that each species in the ecosystem has its importance and if one becomes extinct it will have an impact on the whole ecosystem.

Human interaction with nature often raises the question of its impact on the ecosystem. The subject is very aptly addressed in the chapter on Shandur. The annual Shandur Polo Festival lasts a fortnight and attracts about 15,000 visitors after which the area it is held in is again used by the seven villages as a summer grazing ground for their animals. The varied activity during the festival has had an adverse effect on Shandur Lake. Despite periodic announcements urging the spectators to respect the environment and keep Shandur clean, people can be seen littering the small streams that are found in abundance on the pass. Many shepherds who live in Shandur during the summer months pick up the trash that is left behind after the festival. It was only in 2008 that the Environment Protection Agency of the area, along with others, began to coordinate campaigns to clear up the solid waste left behind in Shandur after the festival.

The book takes us to the mountain communities living in these remote valleys, who depend on their goats, fruit trees and terraced agricultural fields for their livelihood. Ironically, they are not responsible for climate change yet they are among the first victims of rising temperatures in the region. The glaciers in the Himalayan region cover nearly one-third of the basin areas of northern Pakistan, and are a major source of water that flows into the nation’s river systems, and facilitates the production of food and energy for millions of people.

As the authors take us on our journey through the country’s far-flung areas, discussing nature and culture. Interspersed in-between are stories about people who have played some role in preserving or bringing about a change in their environment but remain largely unknown. Essays from bordering India, Afghanistan, Iran, Tibet and Central Asia remind us of the deep connection of culture and nature.

The generous inclusion of photographs add to the value of the book, but somehow leave one wondering why only black and white photographs have been used. One is tempted to say that colour photos would have been more than welcome and added to the beauty of the book.

The reviewer is a Dawn staff member.

Water in the Wilderness
By Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, Richard Garstang and Rina Saeed Khan
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN 978-0199400119