Forests on fire

Published August 2, 2022
The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.
The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.

FOREST fires have scorched the planet with ferocity this year. Over the past four months, a series of deadly wildfires have raged across several parts of the world, the latest affecting California, countries in southern Europe, and Morocco.

Prolonged dry weather, severe heatwaves and gusty winds add the proverbial fuel to these fires, which have caused immense damage to economies, displaced large populations, resulted in the loss of livelihood for thousands and exposed the fragility of response measures. The devastation in poor regions is enormous due to lack of capacity, equipment, and awareness.

Wildfires are considered natural occurrences in forest ecosystems. In recent years, they have increased in frequency and intensity in high-altitude forests as well as lowland plains. Climate change is considered a major driver of this spike as soaring temperatures and dry weather render the ground biomass highly flammable.

Like other environmental phenomena, wildfires disproportionately affect poor countries and communities where lopsided policies lay more emphasis on firefighting than planning and prevention, and, fail to tackle the long-term impacts on the health of citizens, ecosystems and economies. Poor land management also leads to conditions conducive to large, longer and more intense wildfires.

The growing frequency of wildfires undermines climate action.

In the past, some governments employed a balanced strategy for firefighting and fire prevention. A nimble force of firefighters would move swiftly to extinguish any fires with the help of the local people. For fire prevention, well-trained forest guards in watch towers on prominent ridges would stay alert to unusual signs of smoke and fire. Local communities were constantly engaged for awareness and involved in preventing such catastrophes.

In Pakistan, this approach worked well for a long time.

With the growing impact of global warming and weakened forest management, Pakistan has grappled with an unprecedented surge in forest fires in recent years.

Editorial: Forest fire SOPs

Amid rising temperatures, the precious pine forests in Balochistan and KP were worst hit. In Swat, 14,000 acres of green cover was reportedly lost this year alone. These are areas where communities live off income from forests. In countries with very low forest cover, this req­uires an urgent response from governments.

The impact of wildfires has devastating consequences for biodiversity and wildlife. Three billion animals were either killed or displaced during Australia’s ‘black summer’ of 2019-2020, while 59 million acres of land was engulfed by bushfires attributed to climate change. In one of the worst wildfire seasons in 2021, 73,000 hectares of Mexican land was scorched by 2,800 wildfires, killing thousands of animals and depriving wildlife of its natural habitat.

Wildfires and global warming are mutually exacerbating. High temperatures, increased droughts and strong winds result in hotter, drier and longer fire seasons. In turn, climate change is made worse by wildfires. According to the EU’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, the wildfires in Spain and Morocco produced more carbon emissions in June and July this year than in the same period of any year since 2003. Turkiye battled its worst-ever year of forest fires in 2021, when 1,700 square kilometres of forest land was burned to ashes in Antalya, driven mostly by climate change-induced heatwaves in the Mediterranean that emitted huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Another blaze affected 9,900 acres of the pine forests in Turkiye’s Marmaris region this year.

A recent report by the UNEP and GRID-Arendal, an environmental centre in Norway, warns that climate change and land-use change will increase the risk of extreme wildfires by up to 30 per cent by 2050 and 50pc by 2100. “The heating of the planet is turning landscapes into tinderboxes”.

Restoration of degraded ecosystems is crucial to achieving climate stability. According to the report, “direct responses to wildfires typically receive over half of related expenditures, while planning receives less than one per cent”. To minimise the risk of wildfires, “a radical change of strategy” is recommended, through which governments adopt a “fire-ready formula’ with two-thirds of spending devoted to planning, prevention, preparedness and recovery, with one-third left for response.

The growing intensity and frequency of wildfires undermines climate action. Only a holistic approach involving all sectors of government and all segments of society will help control the surge in wildfires “by being better prepared and building back better in their aftermath”.

Implementing such strategies in developing countries will be greatly helped by regional and international cooperation for the generation of credible data, employing modern scientific monitoring systems and engaging with local communities.

The writer is director of intergovernmental affairs, United Nations Environment Programme.

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2022

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