After being shrouded in mystery for centuries, with outsiders calling it as Switzerland of the East or the land of man-eaters, Chitral finally came to the limelight after 1969, when the princely state was merged with KPK as a provincially administered tribal area. The resultant opening of Chitral to the outside world demolished some of the stereotypes, while contextualized others.
Chitral resembles Switzerland not because of its lush green landscape, which are few, but by its local self-governance and undiminished spirit of freedom. The uniqueness of Chitral is its natural and rustic beauty. The image of man-eaters was probably built for the simple folks to deter aggressors and preserve its independence. That is why, apart from neighbouring Afghanistan, Chitral did not experience colonial rule except since the late 19Th century when the young claimant to the throne, Shujaul Mulk invited the British to help him win the throne against his exiled uncle, Sher Afzal, who invaded Chitral from Afghanistan after hearing the news of the death of the incumbent Mehtar and ensuing bids for the throne.
Despite being a partly barren and disaster prone region Chitral rarely witnessed ecological problems in the past. However lower Chitral was adequately forested and it is estimated that forest coverage was 17% at the time of independence. Even the barren upper portion of Chitral had some hard wood trees in its upland areas. Since its opening to outside world, timber mafia coveted its fine teakwood and ganged up with local officials and contractors to denude Chitral of its forest wealth. Rising population and absence of alternate fuel put very heavy burden on other types of wood to be used as fuel. The arrival of Afghan refugees and their settlement in Chitral further exacerbated the speed of deforestation. Today Chitral is said to have only 3% forest coverage and given the present rate of cutting it would run out of forests completely in a few decades. Already the consequences are clear. Rate of rainfall has fallen alarmingly, which may lead to drought. Pasture lands have disappeared because of over-grazing leading to soil erosions and flash floods. Freshly grown plants could not grow up because cattle used them as fodder. Government failure to impose land use regulations is partly responsible for many of the man-made disasters. Without official connivance there could not have been so much deforestation and land degradation.
One of the biggest resources of Chitral happens to be its clean river water and trout fish that these rivers breed. These rivers are now heavily polluted. Besides the prevalence of underground toilet pits and non-implementation of EPA have destroyed our underground drinking water resources like springs, rendering them unfit for human consumption. As a result cases of hepatitis and cholera have assumed endemic proportions. The unchecked sale of fake and uncertified food items being brought from down country and sold to unwary children is having telling effect on their health. Black polythane bag are being sold and used with impunity despite the fact that these have been made illegal. River Protection Act 2002 remains on statute book without being implemented. The Shaheed deputy commissioner, Osama Warraich had started implementing some of these laws in right earnest but our myopic and self serving local leadership brought so much pressure on him that his actions lost speed. Since his martyrdom we are again at square one. There is apparently no strategy to bail us out from the black hole that we are being slowly trapped in.
NGOs are trying to create awareness but the way it is being pursued leaves much to be desired. Most of their work is activity driven rather than result oriented to get more funds. PTI billion tree drive appears attractive on paper but on ground its impact is minimal. Plants need nurturing and without care efforts for plantation will only lead to wastage of resources and corruption. Chitral’s glaciers are the source of water for many downstream areas even in Afghanistan. The fast melting glaciers, owing to global warming, have yet to receive attention. Focus International did try at glacier seeding but without impact study and monitoring. Munurgol glacier that feeds Chitralgol and Munurgol, is said to have developed crevasses, likely to slide and cause devastating floods, capable of destroying much of its catchments areas. In folklore it is billed as the sorrow of Lotkuh. In fact many recent floods in Chitral have been caused by melting and sliding glaciers and land erosions in over-grazed pastures and over-mined areas. Chitralis are not that much afraid of natural calamities like earthquakes as much as they are of man-made disasters mentioned above. Folklore tells us that our mountains are our insurance against earthquakes and this belief is borne out by history as no major damages have been caused by earthquakes in recent memory.
With a young, energetic and well meaning DDMO in Chitral we can hope that things would be turned around. Hopefully he has informed himself about the vulnerabilities and also gone through reports and plans made for disaster prevention and risk reduction that have not seen the day of light in the hands of insensitive, corrupt and incompetent officials and so-called public representatives. To begin with land use rules may be aggressively implemented along with River Protection Act, Environment Protection Act, Pure Food Act and elimination of polythane bags. Apart from glacier protection, river courses may be deepened through dredging and protective works to mitigate flood losses. State control over the six categories of lands including riverbeds may be strengthened and litigation over them may be discouraged through judicial policy or disposed of quickly. Delay in deciding such cases may cause needless loss of life and property besides encouraging frivolous litigation.
Damage compensation should be made carefully. Cases have come to light where unscrupulous elements inflict self damage to qualify for compensation. Osama Warraich wanted to take action to discourage this tendency but was not allowed. This gives rise to the culture of impunity which is already having a negative effect on our moral and social values. Moratorium may be imposed on rearing cattle in upland areas until these areas are reforested. Town and housing policy should provide for the owners to get their housing projects approved for earthquake resistance and safe location. Instead of underground pits, sewerage lines and treatment plants may be provided to secure clean drinking water not only for Chitralis but the rest of Pakistan where this water flows and used. Fuel substitution is another urgent area to be attended. There is an organization with the name of “Save Chitral, Save Pakistan”. Notwithstanding its caliber for the gigantic task, it does bring forward the urgency of the issue at hand. Chitral is a beautiful land with good and brave people who joined Pakistan with free will and they deserve equal treatment and rule of law.