THE LOCAL'S GROUSE

24 Jun 2018

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Apart from firewood needs, felling of trees has risen due to the timber mafia -Photo by the writer
Apart from firewood needs, felling of trees has risen due to the timber mafia -Photo by the writer

On May 19, in the midst of what ought to be sultry and sticky weather, the temperature in Bahrain, Swat District had dropped to four degrees centigrade. Outsiders might romanticise such pleasant weather but, for locals, it is cause for alarm.

Much of the land in these areas is either arid or dependS upon springs and streams for irrigation. Because of a long drought in the summers and decreased snow and rain in the winters, springs and streams are drying up, causing dearth of water to crops. In 2005, Bahrain received five feet of snow but last winter, only three inches of snow fell on Bahrain. While the winters were unusually dry, the early summer — May — received too much rain, causing irreparable harm to standing crops and growing fruits.

Locals believe that the signs are ominous — the coming years will bring an increased risk of food insecurity and acute malnutrition.

Perhaps this is a microcosm of how climate is changing and how underprepared we are as a country to meet the new challenges being brought about by the environment. Natural resources ought to be nature’s generous gift to mankind but the manner in which these resources are being squandered is criminal.

Weather patterns have gone awry in northern Pakistan, sparking great anxiety and worry

Consider the following: trees act as buffers to help control air, soil, and water quality, along with other environmental problems, in areas where land is being tilled. So, for example, riparian forest buffers which exist alongside streams, rivers and other water bodies, help in maintaining cleaner streams with better water quality for drinking purposes. They help in restoring the natural state of aquatic life and wildlife, prevent land erosion and property loss, and reduce stormwater runoff.

According to a recent report by the United Nations Development Program, Pakistan has 5.36 percent forest cover of its total land mass. This is the lowest in the region. The per capita forest area in Pakistan is merely 0.033 hectares compared with the world average of one hectare. More than half of the total existing coniferous forest cover of Pakistan lies in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. According to a 2010 WWF-Pakistan report, among the top 10 forested districts, seven are in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The common features, besides forests, in all these forested districts are their extreme cold winter and abundant water.

There is a high level of consumption of fuel wood in the winter in all these districts. In areas beyond Madyan in Swat, in the areas beyond Sheringal in Upper Dir, and in parts of Chitral, the local people greatly depend upon the forests for fuelwood. In Kalam and Utror, where the winter extends to six months, each household needs more than 30 tonnes of fuelwood for the winter season. The situation is the same in the villages of Thal, Lamuti and Kumrat in Upper Dir. Common people usually cut down the finest deodar trees for firewood as the deodar wood burns quickly and provides heat almost instantly.

One outcome of this practice is to blame locals. But this might be a misguided exercise. A few years ago, a resident of Balakot, in the Torwali belt in Swat, narrated how local people in his village counted 600 trees that had been felled for fuelwood during winters that year. Shocked at how much wood they had consumed, the locals banned the felling of trees for fuel wood altogether. This decision was not strictly imposed ultimately as people had no alternative source of heating their homes in the winters.

Similarly in the hilly districts of Malakand, winters being unusually long and harsh, almost all households use wood as their principal fuel for heating and cooking purposes. They do this because they do not have alternate sources of energy.

The fuelwood in these areas has, on the one hand, depleted precious forests at an alarming rate while on the other hand it has adversely affected the health of the local people, particularly of women, children and the elderly. Since these people stay inside the house day and night, they are more prone to asthma and other serious respiratory diseases. Carbon dioxide and monoxide inhalation further worsens the problem.

The irony of the situation is that these areas are rich in forests and water, and yet, there is no government policy to provide alternate means of energy so as to protect the forests and agricultural lands. It is easy to blame locals for their role in felling trees but the real issue lies elsewhere.

Take the Billion Tree Tsunami Project in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, for example. It was stated that 550 million young seedlings would be protected under this project in addition to the plantation of 450 million new plants. This is indeed a positive measure but it was undertaken in haste, with no robust planning and required community ownership.

One such measure that could involve the community is the production of clean energy from the water resources that the forest areas have in abundance, and then, to distribute it among the local population either free or at subsidised rates. This will reduce the growing pressure of fuelwood on forests. The locals, particularly women, children and the elderly, will have clean and warm homes. This measure would contribute to the health and education sectors as well.

We are told that in Pakistan the existing energy policies do not allow provision of free or cheaper electricity to communities where hydroelectricity is produced. But policy is not holy scripture and can be amended to protect forests and make the lives of the locals easy. There are a number of hydroelectric projects underway in a number of areas braving the immediate impact of climate change. In Bahrain, the government has almost completed the 36MW Daral Khwar Hydropower Project. In Kalam, work on the 84MW hydro project has been started. Similarly, in Kohistan the 17MW Ronalia project is complete. In Chitral, the 108MW Golen Gol Hydropower Project is complete, too. In Shangla, the Khan Khor project has already been producing electricity, but benefits to local population are negligible as the power shall be mostly distributed down-country.

There are options for better management of resources but the government needs to take the initiative and introduce sustainable measures by providing alternative cheaper and cleaner sources of energy. Blaming the people will not help in solving the menace of deforestation; it will only keep diverting attention from why nature is wreaking havoc.

The writer is a researcher with an interest in marginalised linguistic communities of northern Pakistan

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 24th, 2018