Pakistan: The vanishing forests
Environmental degradation in Pakistan is a well-documented fact and this degradation is impacting the entire national social and economic landscape. It covers all natural resources e.g. forests, wetlands, land and air. Soil erosion, degradation of organic matter, water logging, salinity and loss of cover of natural vegetation are the visible damage.
Water basins are depleting, water pollution is on the rise and there are no checks and balances in place to control the pollution of water by industrial and household waste. Shakeel Ahmad Ramay of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, painted a bleak picture regarding environment degradation in the country.
“Forest cover is shrinking due to over exploitation of forest resources for private incentives and lack of awareness and ownership among the masses. The timber mafia is another factor behind the loss of forest cover. Pakistan is losing agricultural productivity, biodiversity and livelihood opportunities for the masses. Besides desertification, wetlands are also facing serious threats. Likewise, the quality of air is also deteriorating due to presence of chemical pollution. On top of it all, weak institutional arrangements by the government are further aggravating the situation”, he lamented.
Tanveer Arif, head of Society for Conservation and Protection of Environment (SCOPE), revealed that the total area of forests in Pakistan is 4.224 million hectares which is 4.8 per cent of the total land area. Farmland trees and linear planting along roadsides, canal banks and railway tracks covering an estimated area of 466,000 hectares and 16,000 hectares respectively do not constitute forests within the context of the legal, ecological or cilvicultural/management definition of forests.
The situation is also similar, but to a less sever extent, in the case of miscellaneous plantations over an area of 155,000 hectares. If the area of these three categories of plantations is excluded from total forest area of 4.224 million hectares, the latter is reduced to 3.587 million hectares which is approximately 4.1 per cent of the total area.
Plant biodiversity is also under tremendous pressure due to population explosion, unplanned urbanisation, deforestation and over-exploitation of natural resources. Unfortunately, very little work has been done on threatened plants of Pakistan and extremely limited information is available on this subject.
In Sindh, the government is the worst enemy of forests as it is leasing forest land to influential feudal lords in the name of Yaksala lease for agricultural purpose, however this is just a tactic to grab forest lands.
Climate change is having a grave impact on Tharparkar which has faced 13 periods of severe drought during the last 20 years. These droughts resulted in large scale destruction of wildlife and vegetative cover. Precious trees like chilghoza are near extinction and the widespread deforestation in Murree and the surrounding hills is heartrending but, unfortunately, no one is paying any heed.
Although the government has set up a number of ministries and departments devoted to environment protection, there is no serious attempt to conserve ecology. The speed of degradation of the environment in Pakistan is as frightening as terrorism.
Environmental activist, Aziz Ahmed Talpur, says that every year, 13 million hectares of forest are destroyed. That’s equal to the size of Portugal.
He demands that the government stop the destruction of the valuable Gugral shrub for acquisition of resin (gum) by chemical process in different parts of Tharparkar, particularly in hilly ranges of Nagarparkar. In addition, the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification through National Action Programme and National Conservation Strategy (1992) must be implemented at the grass-root level to save this region from desertification.
Mir Nadir Ali Talpur, Chief Conservator Sindh, said that due to increasing poverty people are being forced to cut down trees and sell the wood in order to survive. He believes that the increasing population, overgrazing and unemployment are the main causes of deforestation. He added that the ratio of oxygen is 21 per cent and ratio of nitrogen is 78 per cent in the atmosphere; trees are necessary to maintain this crucial ratio. Fewer forests will decrease the ratio of oxygen and the humidity; the temperature of the atmosphere and soil will increase and life, as we know it, may cease to exist.