Waking up to environmental degradation

By Zahiruddin

The slogan of ‘Save Chitral, Save Pakistan’ is gaining momentum that has environmental connotation in its essence and is aimed at protecting the forests and peatlands by switching over to alternative sources for cooking and heating in homes.

The slogan is the basis of a politically launched campaign by those having special penchant for environment and the social workers, who have been galvanised by the large scale death and destruction in Chitral in 2015 when flash floods, caused by torrential rains and glacial lakes outbursts, continued rage over the whole valley for a month intermittently.

The floods that year had destroyed infrastructure worth Rs6 billion as assessed by the government agencies, excluding the losses inflicted on private properties.
Sartaj Ahmed Khan, an exponent of ‘Save Chitral, Save Pakistan’ campaign, says that glaciers in the district are intimidated by the phenomenon of over exploitation of forest and peatlands as means of fuel for cooking and heating purposes apart from extracting the timber for construction.

“Glaciers are the main source of the Chitral River, which is named as the Kabul River when it reenters Pakistan near Peshawar after passing through the Kunar province of Afghanistan. The disintegration of glaciers induced by the phenomenal rise in temperature as observed over the last couple of decades will lead to fading away of the river and thereby jeopardising the plains of the country that are irrigated by the Kabul River and it is in this context that to save the major chunk of the plains of the country, we have to save glaciers in Chitral,” he says.

This apprehension is being substantiated by the frequency of glacial lakes outburst floods (GLOF) in Chitral during the last 12 to 15 years. The villages of Booni, Sonoghur, Reshun, Golen, Gohkir, Brep and Yarkhoon have been overrun by GLOF in the recent past and the fractured pieces of glaciers are nothing less than the proverbial ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over the villagers.

The number of glaciers in Chitral is 542, spreading over 3,622 square kilometres area, while the number of glacial lakes is 137 and half of them have been declared potentially dangerous.
The thickness of glaciers is said to be depleting fast and ruptures visible in their surface clearly indicate the process of disintegration within the huge masses of solidified water. The environmentalists cite a number of reasons for the destruction but the major cause is said to be man-made; the destruction of forests and peatlands in Chitral.

Dr Zaffar Hayat, a conservationist attached with a non-government organisation, says that Chitral is highly vulnerable to flash floods, earthquakes land erosion, avalanches and rock falls. Of these, GLOF is the most horrendous of all, he says. He adds that residents of Chitral contribute to accelerate the process to bring the destruction nearer.

Regarding the impact of overusing the wood and peat as fuel, Dr Zaffar says that one kilogram of wood contains about 500 grams of carbon. It meant that this amount of wood is holding about 1.92 kilograms of carbon dioxide, he adds.

He says that burning of 50 thousand tons of wood produces 85,700 tons of carbon dioxide per year in the district as the burning of this quantity has been given by the forest department.

“The fragile ecosystem of Chitral is disturbed by regular infusion of this amount of carbon dioxide as evident from the frequency and intensity of disasters increasing during the last two decades. In the same way, the burning of peat leads to emission of large amount of greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and others,” says Dr Zaffar.

He says that peat contributes to 75 per cent of total household energy requirements while in other areas of upper Chitral and Gobor valley, the use of peat drops slightly to 70 per cent.
As per figures available with the department of environment, the annual consumption of firewood in Chitral district is estimated at 2,999 thousand cubic meter out of which 67 per cent is extracted from the forest.

The forest area in Chitral is again under pressure to sustain the requirements of timber at local level owing to lack of access to alternate material for construction while it is a fact that trees play a crucial role in reducing atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases and fighting the phenomenon of global warming.

Being a highly glaciated area (19 per cent of the district), the ecology of Chitral is delicate and susceptible to minor changes in atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. If the present forest use trend continues for another decade, the damage to the forest ecosystem will be irreparable.

The campaigners of ‘Save Chitral, Save Pakistan’ drive have come forward with a number of remedies of which provision of electricity for the household consumption from the recently completed 108-MW Golen Gol hydro power project is on the top. The actual generation cost of electricity is calculated to be Re1 per unit.

Sartaj Ahmed Khan, who also leads Chitral Community Development Network (CCDN), is acting as catalyst to make the demand of the provision of electricity to people at subsidised rate to stop use of wood and peats as fuel.
He says that the future of the plain areas of the country irrigated by the Kabul and Indus rivers is at risk due to environmental degradation due use of wood and peats as fuel in the mountains of Chitral.

He says that out of the 108 megawatts generation of the power station, only 30 megawatts can fulfil the needs of the whole district during the coming 25 years. The long-term measures include identification of potential areas for forest and biodiversity conservation and identification of community land-use needs and development of land use plan.

Exploiting the fabulous potential of hydro-electric power generation in different valleys and villages of the district by constructing small and micro hydro power stations to provide free electricity to the people, is yet another long term proposal put forward by Mr Khan.


Published in Dawn, August 19th, 2018

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