Sindh’s shrinking forests

Published May 1, 2023
The Sindh government is planning to introduce a new forest policy to protect recently recovered thousands of acres from encroachers and to address the critical issue of climate change, it emerged in November 2019. — Dawn/File
The Sindh government is planning to introduce a new forest policy to protect recently recovered thousands of acres from encroachers and to address the critical issue of climate change, it emerged in November 2019. — Dawn/File

Forests play a crucial role in the environment, providing employment opportunities, food, wood, fuel, and animal fodder for approximately 1.6 billion individuals worldwide.

They also help mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and generating oxygen, making them the largest carbon store on the planet. Deforestation releases carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming.

Countries should aim to have at least 25 per cent of their land covered by forests to promote sustainable employment and ensure the protection of the environment. Unfortunately, deforestation is happening at an alarming rate, with around 13 million hectares of land being deforested annually.

Globally, only 30pc of the land is covered by forests. In Pakistan, only 5.4pc of the land is covered by forests, with an estimated carbon storage of around 243m tonnes.

Countries should aim to have at least a quarter of their land covered by trees, but Pakistan has only 5.4pc of forested land

A scientific study conducted in collaboration with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 1994 recorded the forest area and tree species in Sindh, but no further research has been conducted. Only 2.5pc of Sindh’s total area is estimated to be forested. Forests can absorb carbon dioxide emissions and produce oxygen, making them known as the world’s lungs.

The Red Plus programme was launched by the United Nations Convention on Climate Change in 2013 to protect and promote forests in developing countries through sustainable management and enhancement of carbon stocks. Countries that increase their forest carbon stocks can receive compensation, with $4.5bn allocated for this purpose.

Currently, Pakistan is a member of the Red Plus programme, which aims to reduce the environmental impacts of climate change worldwide.

Pakistan received a $3.8m grant from the World Bank in 2015 to support forest maintenance, community involvement in forest management, and modern technology to track environmental and climate changes. However, the effectiveness of this grant in addressing deforestation in Pakistan is unclear, as around 12,000 hectares of land are deforested every year.

Satellite imagery shows that many forests have been depleted and converted into croplands — it is estimated that 80pc of the riverine forest in Sindh has been destroyed

The forested area in Sindh has also declined instead of increasing, highlighting the need for better forest conservation strategies. Sindh has three primary categories of forests.

Riverine forests

These forests are located in the Kacha region — the area between the protective levees constructed along the Indus River. They rely on water from the Indus River and are home to several tree species.

Riverine forests play a crucial role in preserving the natural environment by preventing erosion along the riverbed and banks. The current riverine forest area is approximately 241,198 hectares (596,000 acres). However, these forests are rapidly declining due to deforestation caused by the lumber mafia and the conversion of forest land for agricultural purposes.

Satellite imagery of the riverine forests in Sindh has revealed that many of the forests named Monarki, Surjani, Khokhar, Matiari, Ghotana, Unarpur, Manjhand, Khasai, Keti Jorio, Mari, Nasri, Mithiani, Abriputa, Sona Binde, Kamal Dero, Gaji Dero Forest, Phulu, Bahabpur, Madiji, Sadhuja Reserved Forest, etc, have been depleted.

Satellite imagery shows that many forests have been depleted and converted into croplands. It is estimated that 80pc of the Riverine forest in Sindh has been destroyed.

Irrigated (Nahri) forests

The irrigated forests in Sindh are manually planted and cover an area of 82,195 hectares (203,108 acres). These forests are irrigated through the Sindh irrigation network and are home to various tree species.

However, many of these forests, including the Pai, Makhi, Khipro, and Miyani forests, are facing significant challenges due to water scarcity and illegal logging by the lumber mafia, leading to a loss of trees and conversion to croplands. The precarious state of these forests reflects the overall state of forests in Sindh.

Mangrove forests

The mangrove forests in Sindh span from Korangi Creek to Sir/Seer Creek and are located in the tidal floodplain of the Indus Delta. These forests, estimated to have 97pc of all mangrove forests in Pakistan, have decreased in size from 600,000 acres to 200,000 acres but have been increasing over the past 15 years.

They are the largest in the world in dry climate forests and the sixth largest overall. Mangrove creeks and islands provide a habitat for marine life and exotic birds, act as a natural barrier against natural disasters, and reduce coastal erosion. Only four species of mangroves remain in the Indus Delta, with Avicenna Marina being the most common.

Additionally, one hectare of mangrove forest produces 100kg of fish, 25kg of shrimp, 15kg of crab, 200kg of molluscs, and 40kg of sea cucumber each year.

It is evident that the disappearing forests in Sindh pose a significant threat to the region’s ability to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The government, civil society, and citizens must take responsibility for protecting and enhancing these vital natural resources.

The use of satellite technology and scientific surveys to combat illegal logging and encroachments, as well as reforestation efforts, are necessary steps that must be taken to restore and expand forest cover in Sindh. Failure to act could have severe consequences for Pakistan and its people, making it imperative to address this issue before it is too late.

Prof Altaf Ali Siyal is from Sindh Agriculture University Tandojam and Pirah Siyal works at the Sindh Environmental Protection Agency

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 1st, 2023

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