ENVIRONMENT: THE HIGHEST GARBAGE MOUND?

Published August 20, 2023
The polo festival has the potential to attract tourists and sports enthusiasts provided they know how to respect the environment | White Star Archives
The polo festival has the potential to attract tourists and sports enthusiasts provided they know how to respect the environment | White Star Archives

"Your three days of joy during the Shandur Polo Festival brings us unbearable suffering for the rest of 362 days in the form of livestock deaths, toxic air, polluted waters, diseases, piles of garbage and trash everywhere”, says Jamati Khan, resident of Sor Laspoor village in upper Chitral district and founder member of Shandur Area Development and Conservation Organisation.

It is a point of view rarely heard in the media because it goes against the feel-good element of the annual mountain festival, which attracts visitors from all over the world and which Pakistan has been showcasing in its attempts to foster tourism.

But if Pakistan is to really reap the benefits, it must pay attention to these voices warning of a gathering disaster.

THE LURE OF THE SHANDUR PLATEAU

Polo, a traditional equestrian game, has deep historical roots in Central Asia dating back to the 6th century BCE and originated as a cavalry training exercise, simulating battles. The Shandur Polo Ground, nestled within the towering Hindu Kush mountain range at an altitude of 12,000 feet, has become a sought-after destination for adventure enthusiasts and polo aficionados. Historically, the ground witnessed polo matches between various small kingdoms, villages and rival groups in Gilgit Agency.

The Shandur Polo Festival, inaugurated in 1936 under British patronage, has become a prominent cultural event. This festival, featuring a free-style mountain polo version of the game, attracts international and domestic adventure tourists. Yet, behind the allure, a grave environmental concern looms.

The high-profile Shandur Polo Festival, on the highest polo ground in the world, is a jewel in Pakistan’s showcasing of the tourism potential of its northern mountain areas. But it may, inadvertently, be sowing the seeds for its own destruction

The Shandur plateau, home to the world’s highest polo ground, boasts a unique wetlands complex encompassing peatlands, lakes, streams, snow, glaciers and catchment areas. This delicate ecosystem harbours rare and endangered species such as the elusive snow leopard, the Himalayan Brown Bear, the rabbit-like pika, and a rich avifauna. Unfortunately, the plateau and its surroundings are scarred by the pollution and ecological stress caused by the polo festival.

Pakistan’s abysmal environmental performance — Pakistan is ranked 176 out of 180 countries in the Global Environmental Performance Index of 2022 — calls for immediate attention to sustainable development. The Shandur Polo Festival stands as a stark example of negligence toward a fragile ecosystem, despite the country’s commitments to environmental health and vitality.

The festival’s unchecked growth has led to alarming consequences. Shandur Lake, a serene jewel, faces increasing eutrophication — the gradual increase in the concentration of phosphorus, nitrogen, and other plant nutrients — because of the dumping of solid and liquid waste. Each year, an average of 180 livestock, including valuable yaks, succumb to hazardous waste, severely affecting local communities. Fodder regeneration, vital for local livelihoods, has also plummeted due to festival-related degradation.

This year’s festival, held between July 7 to 9, showcased a disregard for the ecosystem’s fragility. The lack of effective cleaning mechanisms and environmental enforcement contradict Pakistan’s international commitments.

As the local population relies heavily on the plateau’s ecological components, safeguarding this delicate ecosystem is paramount. Only through immediate action and sustainable practices can the Shandur Polo Festival fulfil its potential without sacrificing the environment it depends on.

Undoubtedly, Pakistan holds immense potential for advancing ecological and cultural tourism. However, the current institutional and policy frameworks designed to foster ecotourism, as illustrated in this case, lack the clarity needed to fulfil their mandates, particularly at provincial and sub-provincial levels.

Compounding this issue is the historical lack of attention successive governments have paid to existing legislative, institutional and policy ecosystems, particularly concerning the planning of events aimed at promoting tourism in vulnerable regions. The polo festival is a glaring example of this nature-biased approach to tourism promotion.

Visitors and campers to Shandur last year were not mindful when disposing of trash | Hameed A Mir
Visitors and campers to Shandur last year were not mindful when disposing of trash | Hameed A Mir

ECOSYSTEM UNDER THREAT

The Shandur ecosystem, notably its lakes and water bodies, is extraordinarily fragile and highly susceptible to significant eutrophication. A 2006 study by David Johnson, an Oxford University student, in collaboration with the then Federal Ministry of Environment’s Wetlands Programme, unveiled the severe and sustained environmental stress Shandur Lake and its surrounding ecosystem have endured since the inception of the polo festival.

The research indicates that “the eutrophication of Shandur Lake has intensified significantly since that period”, progressively becoming worse annually in tandem with the growing influx of tourists from around the world attending the festival.

Alarming quantities of diverse solid and liquid waste are heedlessly deposited into the pristine lake. This accumulation of waste is detrimental to both aquatic fauna and local livelihoods. Exposure of local livestock to hazardous waste compounds the adverse effects on community livelihoods.

According to surveys conducted by Jamati Khan’s Shandur Area Development and Conservation Organization (a registered Local Support Organization) and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Pakistan) between 2008 and 2012, an average of 180 livestock, including yaks, cows and ponies, succumb to toxic waste annually after the festival.

It is worth noting that the current market value of a yak in Chitral and Gilgit stands between PKR 100,000 to 150,000. Additionally, the survey’s findings also reveal a significant decline in the fodder produced on the Shandur plateau since the festival’s inception.

FORGOTTEN PROTOCOLS

Despite claims of adopting clean mechanisms within the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) framework — produced in alignment with the Paris Agreement under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) — the recent Shandur festival was organised with a shocking disregard for the fragility and vulnerability of the area’s pristine ecosystem.

Pakistan has ratified over 20 multilateral environmental agreements, committing to addressing challenges to environmental health and vitality. Regrettably, little has been translated into action on the ground.

The impact of environmental degradation, habitat fragmentation, air and water pollution, peatlands degradation and wildlife distress from the current organisations of the polo festival reverberates not only within the region but far beyond its borders. Considering that a significant portion of the local population residing in and around Shandur relies heavily on the ecological components of the plateau’s wetlands complex, immediate action is imperative.

It is time for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Tourism Development Corporation (KP-TDC) to embrace ecological responsibility by implementing eco-friendly protocols for the festival. A pivotal step for the KP-TDC is to formulate a comprehensive land use plan for Shandur, particularly during the festival period.

Furthermore, stringent measures must be undertaken to ensure the proper management of solid waste, including the imposition of substantial penalties against offenders. This practice, successfully implemented in Gilgit Baltistan, has demonstrated a significant reduction in environmental offences and overall degradation of fragile tourist areas.

Hameed Ahmad Mir works in environment, biodiversity conservation, climate change, and community development in the Northern Areas.
He is currently an environmental specialist with SDGs Unit Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
hameedwwf@hotmail.com

Adil Zareef teaches public health at NWSM, Peshawar and is Convenor Sarhad Conservation Network & Peshawar Clean Air Alliance
adilzareef.az@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 20th, 2023

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