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Chitral facing environmental disaster

Updated April 14, 2019

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The pasture in Kagh Lusht, Upper Chitral. — Dawn
The pasture in Kagh Lusht, Upper Chitral. — Dawn

Plantation in the vast tracts of barren land in Chitral has become unavoidable to mitigate climate change effects, save the oak and deodar forests from depletion, improve environment and create employment opportunities.

According to data compiled in 2003 by Chitral Conservation Strategy, a project of IUCN, about 62 per cent of the 14,850 square kilometres area of Chitral supports development of pastures which can be used for promotion of agroforestry. This sub-sector has always been neglected despite the need for saving the oak and deodar forests and creating additional sources of income for the farmers and thereby reducing poverty.

Due to its unique and mountainous topography, only 4 per cent of the total area is utilised for agricultural purposes while acute scarcity of irrigation water is virtually the only hurdle to bringing the large tracts of land under cultivation. The landscape of all the 30 valleys here is such that the gravity flow of water from river is not possible.

About 3 per cent of total area of the district is covered with forest, which is shrinking fast due to unchecked deforestation as the local population is totally dependent on timber as well as firewood. The fast depletion of the deodar and oak forests is manifested in the form of flash floods, land erosion, avalanches and glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF).

As per figures available with the department of environment, the annual consumption of firewood in Chitral district is estimated at 3,000 cubic meters of which 67 per cent is extracted from the forest. The forest area in Chitral is again under pressure to sustain the requirements of timber at the local level which results from lack of access to alternative materials for construction. Also, trees play a crucial role in reducing atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and fighting the phenomenon of global warming.

Being a highly glaciated area, covering 19 per cent land of the district, the ecology of Chitral is very delicate and highly susceptible to changes in atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. For Chitral, massive plantation becomes obligatory to save it from destruction, which is imminent due to environmental degradation.

Three per cent of total area of the district is covered with forest, which is shrinking fast due to unchecked cutting of trees

The forest department of the government and Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) have experimented a number of alien plants which are known for their fast rate of growth on the one hand and their economic value and utility on the other. The species of robinia, ailanthus and poplar have been found highly resilient to shortage of water coupled with the characteristics of high rate of survival. The wood of the species can be used for construction as well, thereby decreasing the tremendous pressure on the natural forest of deodar. High density of trees in the highland pastures can effectively check and contain flash floods leading to soil conservation. The large number of trees in the pastures will provide additional amount of fodder and strengthen the livestock keeping, which forms a major source of household income while presently it is affected by acute shortage of forage. Cultivation of the trees will also bring hard cash to the farmers when they harvested it on commercial scale as is practiced in other parts of the country.

The major hurdle to mass plantation in the pastures, which make 62 per cent of the total area, is scarcity of water, but the advent of solarisation of irrigation has come as a ray of hope by which almost all the available tracts of barren pastures can be rendered fit for agroforestry. The putting in place of solar-powered pumping machines to lift water from the rivers is said to be the best possible option available which is the cheapest of all other modes of irrigation, including water channels, siphon irrigation and lift irrigation by electric pumps.

In many low-lying villages, the people have installed solar-powered pumps to lift water from river during the last couple of years and the district government has already taken initiative by including solarised irrigation schemes on small scale in its annual development plan. Over the years, solar-powered pumping machines have been installed in a good number of low-lying villages along the river which face acute shortage of irrigation water.

Roohul Amin of Samagol village in Mulkhow told this scribe that the villagers spent only Rs2.2 million to install the solar pump last year for which each household paid Rs60,000. He said that the villagers installed another solar pump to get water for drinking purpose while the earlier one was only for agriculture.

District nazim Maghfirat Shah says that the matter of afforestation on mass scale in the length and breadth of Chitral with special focus on the vast pastures should be taken on emergency basis. He said that there were 542 glaciers in Chitral of which 10 had been declared to be in high-risk condition and might spell disaster of worst type in case of GLOF.

Appreciating the approach of PTI government’s mass plantation initiative, he suggested that strenuous efforts must be concentrated on Chitral and its villages. Mr Shah suggested that at first stage, a pasture should be singled out in each village council and local people should be taken on board to enlist their support and solar-powered irrigation system be put in place in each of the villages. He stressed that Chitral should be treated by the conservationists as hyper-sensitive which was highly vulnerable to the disastrous effects of climate change phenomenon which could be contained by afforestation on mass scale.

Given the situation of environmental degradation and the impending disaster, the people of Chitral are highly apprehensive about future and have demanded of the government to come forward with a viable plan before it is too late. Plantation throughout the district in the range lands is being cited by the residents as one of the effective steps.

Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2019