Footprints: decimation of a different sort

Updated September 26, 2017


Dying Quetta pines like these in Balochistan University are becoming a coming sight in the city.— Photo by writer
Dying Quetta pines like these in Balochistan University are becoming a coming sight in the city.— Photo by writer

QUETTA: These deaths are not the kind you have come to associate with Balochistan — no disfigured Baloch, not the beleaguered Hazaras. Discernible it is not if you don’t look hard, this creeping death. But just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it is not there, hiding in plain sight.

It begins at the top — a top that when alive, with its profusion of healthy needles, is a sieve to the wind, producing a haunting sigh of a sound that old folks in the city know well from lazy afternoons spent on their lawns. But the old folks are dead or dying and the young would not know the sound, because the pines that make it are dying too.

It begins at the top, this death of the Pinus halepensis — the Quetta pine — and leaches the life out of the tree as it sinks down to branch, stem and root. They have a word for it in botany: dieback, “a condition where branches or shoots die from the tip inward, caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses or certain environmental conditions.”

It begins at the top, this death by degrees, and is an atrocity to behold. Pines are loved for their soaring crowns. What kind of death but the most sinister would reduce their proud heads to sapless, skeletal boughs robbed of needles, brittle cones hanging like so many dead bulbs from dead lampposts?

Death has touched the pine everywhere in the city but here in the University of Balochistan, its harvest is the heaviest. Perhaps because the university has little clumps of them where lifeless trees stand grotesquely among the still living, in silent reproof of our reckless ways.

“Dieback is a culmination point,” says Dr Zahoor Bazai, climate change expert at the institution’s botany department.

But if dieback is a natural terminus for trees that have lived to the fullest, why are the dead trees here much younger than the old stalwarts that are still alive?

The Pinus halepensis, an “exotic” species, was brought from Russia when conditions here were cold. It prospered, but is now under stress from climate change — rising temperatures, droughts and the alarming fall in the water table these conditions have caused in Quetta.

“A host of reasons, man-made and natural, create internal stresses in the body of trees, making them vulnerable to disease and death,” says Dr Ata Mohammad Starangzai, head of the botany department.

Over in Ziarat and Kalat, it is the human-triggered overgrazing and felling of trees for fuel that is killing conifers, including the ancient juniper. In Quetta, the ornamental Quetta pine suffers little on that account but climate change and its fallout take their toll. With rains rare and little effort to conserve water, the ever-sinking water table in Quetta has created osmotic crisis in the pine, says Dr Bazai, with cells and tissues struggling to carry nutrition to the top.

One only needs to look at the dead tree tops to see that they are failing.

From here at the eastern edge of the city to the cantonment in the west and everywhere in between, people have resorted to irrigating plants with wastewater as the water supply dwindles. Although rich with nutrition, it is also loaded with toxins. “In the long run, toxins take over, threatening the pine’s health,” says Dr Bazai. “Wastewater also has a lot of fat that turns soil to mulch, preventing rainwater from reaching the roots.”

Also under stress from man-made and natural causes is the immunity of plants. Weakened, they become vulnerable to fungus, bacteria and viruses. In Ziarat, fungus has invaded the juniper’s cambium layer — the growing part of the trunk producing new bark and wood — stopping nutrients from reaching different parts of the tree, research from the Pakistan Forest Institute has established.

And finally, climate change has affected the phenology — the annual recurrent reproductive cycle and how climate patterns affect them — of plants, says Dr Bazai. Debilitated by drought and temperature change, it is the “intrinsic adaptation capacities of plants” that determine their survival; the pine is clearly not coping well.

Nor is the juniper in Ziarat that, already afflicted by fungi, is debilitated by drought and the desiccating sunlight of high altitudes that turns their crowns a burnt-crisp copper, says Dr Starangzai, who has studied the juniper because he “grew up under its shade”.

The way the trees are dying, he won’t be the only one robbed of that shade.

As with the maples trees of Parachinar, the Pinus halepensis has been synonymous with Quetta, part of its charm. All that is gone, and with it the will of an exhausted city to sustain life. A city built for 250,000 people after the 1935 earthquake, Quetta is now home to more than a million. An official of the Environmental Protection Authority was recently overheard saying it was the most polluted city in the world after New Mexico.

In population, pollution and the political apathy, Quetta has become a metaphor for all that has triggered climate change. If, in the process, the Pinus halepensis dies, it is only symbolic of a greater death to come — that of the city itself.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2017