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Earthly matters: Planting trees for water

March 31, 2012

This year rain and snowfall came late to District Muzaffarabad in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. In fact, until January they had witnessed drought conditions as not a drop of rain fell over the parched mountains for almost three months. “Our springs have dried up — we have to walk for hours to fetch water for drinking. Our livestock is thirsty and the trees we have planted are dying,” explained Tasnim Zara, a local resident of Charakpura, around an hour’s drive from Muzaffarabad city. “By December these mountains should be covered with snow. The climate is changing and it is having a terrible impact on us”.

Fortunately, it rained heavily in mid-January and now a thick blanket of snow covers these mountains. The people working for Children First, a NGO based in Muzaffarabad city, are extremely relieved, for in the past one year they have been working on a UNDP funded project under the Grass Roots Initiative Programme to construct rain water harvesting ponds and check dams in addition to planting fruit trees and forest plants. The GRIP project has also helped the local farmers to terrace their fields and make trenches and ridges for planting and sowing in this hilly area. All these activities require water if they are to succeed in changing the lives of the local people.

The two villages selected for the project activities are Danna Mughlan and Anwar Sharif and they are located atop bare mountains where most of the trees and vegetation have been cut down by the local villagers. “The jungle here disappeared around 30 years ago. We need fuel wood since there is no gas here and it gets very cold in winters. The trees were also cut down to build more houses since the population has grown rapidly over the years. When the earthquake struck this region in 2005 there was massive land-sliding here because of the deforestation. Many homes and schools were destroyed,” explains Sher Ali, a local villager.

As a result of all the deforestation, the water springs also started drying up and now there is a problem fetching enough water for the livestock. That is why the GRIP project constructed around 30 rainwater harvesting ponds which can be used by the livestock. These are small earth built ponds that collect and store rainwater. A cluster of four to five homes can benefit from one pond. Each household has around six to seven goats and a cow or buffalo.

GRIP also funded the plantation of fruit trees like walnut, almond, apricot and orange, in orchards located near the homes to supplement household income. There are not many jobs available here in this mountain district so many of the men end up working as labourers for daily wages to provide for their families. “There are very small landholdings here and each household only has one or two fields at the most. Life is very difficult here and it is made tougher by the lack of water,” explains Shaheen Abbasi, a social mobiliser working for Children First.

The project has also helped the local villagers to build field terraces for retaining the water and conserving the soil for the better production of crops like potatoes, which are a cash crop in the region. Now the villagers have learnt the technique to make these field terraces themselves. The villagers have also planted forest trees like Chir Pine on the degraded mountain slopes.

It is important to reforest these bare mountains and the villagers are beginning to see how it will benefit them in the long run. “There has been a change in attitude — no one agreed to the plantation at first but then they were told about the link between the lack of vegetation and water scarcity. Now there is such a positive response and the people feel a sense of ownership and they say they will continue these plantation activities on their own,” explains Shaheen Abbasi. “They have realised the importance of trees.” The community members meet once or twice a month in communal gatherings at their Community Development Forums (CDF). Almost all the households in the project area are members of the CDFs.

Two environmental clubs have been formed in the local schools and the children have been sensitised about the importance of protecting the saplings. “We don’t let the goats eat the young trees and we make sure to water them. We have also learnt to keep our schools and homes clean and to throw away waste in garbage bags,” explains Saira, a student of class VI in the local government school. The clubs meet once a month for an hour and they have helped organise many activities like walks and dramas to raise awareness. The children have also been taught that when gathering fuel wood, they must cut trees from the top and not the bottom.

Both the women and children were involved in the plantation activities so they are well aware of what the project is doing in their area. Contour trenches and ridges were made especially on the slopes for planting and sowing. Check dams were built to reduce the gully erosion and to reduce the speed of running water in the channels and to increase infiltration into the soil. This will increase the amount of water that flows into the springs instead of washing it all down into the river far below.

The best part about the interventions made by the project in this remote part of Muzaffarabad is that the villagers have learnt how to do these activities by themselves in the future. All the lessons have been internalised and the local community is ready to continue doing this good work by themselves for their own betterment.