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Agro-Foresters of Gilgit-Baltistan (III)

Originally published on Pamir Times

IT CAN NOT be gainsaid that climate change is bringing in incremental transformations in the living standards of humankind today but, nonetheless, there are certain pernicious elements which become ascribable to and are directly the product of human activity – felling of trees or deforestation being the first and foremost of them. Denudation of trees or deforestation not simply affects the particular place but it does harm to the entire ecosystem. The situation in Pakistan is said to be exacerbating day by day while little attention is paid to it vis-a-vis the gravity and enormity of the problem. There is convergence of opinion among experts that the ultimate solution lies in provision of alternate mean of livelihood to the dwellers of the mountainous areas to dissuade them from felling trees. This mechanism is called ‘Red-plus Formula’. The federal cabinet is said to have announced the forest policy the central point of which is saving the existing forest cover.

Having said that currently, the remnant forest cover in G-B paints a dismal picture and this alarming state, as elsewhere, becomes straightaway ascribable to the lackadaisical approach and continuing nonchalance unmindful of the nemesis that can overtake the region at large if the current state persists. Had the legacy left by the prominent foresters of this region not been squandered, the situation today would have been quite different as it could by now, have been catapulted to the minimal acceptable standard of 25% forest cover making very well poised to a salubrious and enhanced mitigation potential to keep the ecosystem healthy and intact, to put it succinctly. Worldwide, converting longtime non-forested land to forest, id est afforestation, reforestation i.e converting recently non-forested land to forest and avoiding deforestation (avoiding conversion of carbon-rich forests to non-forested land). The reiteration that deforestation and forest degradation cause about 17% of global GHG emissions while reducing the same and promoting afforestation and reforestation may provide up to 30% of the cost-effective global mitigation potential.

Another initiative now at the top of the international negotiation agenda, is said to be the REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation which is increasingly seen as very much significant, cheap, quick and win-win solution to reduce GHG emissions. The prospective REDD projects contemplate and are based on the provision of financial incentives to preserve forests and thus maintain carbon stocks in forest ecosystems. A REDD+ approach remaining on the anvil in sum, envisages financing not only forest conservation but also the enhancement of forest carbon stocks and sustainable forest management.

In a given situation, the quality of water is directly dependent on the landscape through which it flows. And therefore, forests and vegetation are vital to securing water as well as beating the climate change at micro levels. As grassland or to put vegetation deteriorates, horrifically triggers soil erosion to accelerate further in simultaneous with reduction of the carrying capacity and setting in motion an ominous self-reinforcing cycle of ecological degradation deepening human poverty in consequence. This is something which indeed underlines strenuous efforts to break the cycle by human ingenuity. Indeed, these situations call for committing colossal funds and dollops of resources to be devoted to boost agro-forestry as opposed to employing mere symbolic approaches or simply adding a mite more to the crumbs that have been the fate of this sector in Pakistan in general and this region in particular. It has to be admitted that mere rhetoric could not reverse the reality else the region by now, have attained 25% standard forest cover to underpin the fragile ecosystem to enhance its mitigation potential.

Give the scenarios; a new environmental awareness has to be diffused regionally, nationally and globally. The erroneous notion that environmental problems existing at one place are to remain constricted to a specific area alone needs be dispelled as quickly as possible in view of the fact that it is trans-national in essence and needs be taken as such by the world nations to grapple with the changes for the attainability of an aesthetically pleasing environment on the planet at large. Resources then have to be cautiously exploited, conservation must become the aim and continuous and sustained efforts must be made to enrich the environment.

THE marked change felt at places are, in sum, that parts earlier having heavy snow, are witnessing alarming decrease to low levels and that too, evaporating so fast because of snowmelt that follows by a more intense evaporation as temperatures rise in summer and moistures decline. This can spell doom to agrarian activity in such areas facing the prospects of increasing arid land. This is what happens in all areas lying in the elevated zone across Gilgit-Baltistan where at least fifty percent decrease in the winter snowfall is being witnessed which, in turn, has radically altered cropping patterns in the otherwise scant agricultural activity. Yet another horrendous effect of global warming is the dangers posed by what is called the ‘glacial lake outburst’ phenomenon. A glacial lake is a lake with origin in a melted glacier. They are formed when a glacier erodes the land, and then melts, filling the hole or space that it has created. Near the end of the last glacial period roughly 10,000 years ago, glaciers began to retreat. As the ice age ended, these melted to create lakes.

Likewise, glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) are a type of outburst flood that occur when the dam containing a glacial lake fails. An event similar to a GLOF, where a body of water contained by a glacier melts or overflows the dam and is followed by the breach which is called GLOF. The dam can consist of a glacier ice or a terminal moraine. Failure can happen due to erosion, a buildup of water pressure, an avalanche of rock or heavy snow, an earthquake or cryoseism, volcanic eruptions under the ice, or if a large enough portion of a glacier breaks off and massively displaces the water in a glacial lake at its base.

GLOBAL warming tends to thaw vast tracts of frozen soil and permafrost causing intense subsidence and swamping and releasing huge amounts of ancient, ice-locked methane and CO2 into the atmosphere – accelerating the greenhouse effect and creating an ever-worsening cycle of ecological damage. This phenomenon appears to be impacting the glaciers as reported by print media recently inter alia that about 3044 lakes are currently formed in the northern areas (Gilgit-Baltistan and KPK) which can burst any time and 33 of them get reckoned with as highly dangerous prone to burst any moment. In the event of GLOF, millions of cubic water is to gush forth thereby causing unimaginable devastation both in terms of men and material. A UNDP report is referred to as saying that about 70 lac people may be affected by the GLOF phenomenon. The UNDP sources said that GLOF phase-1 project stands already completed in Bagrote valley while GLOF-II projects (2017-2022) envisaging dissemination of information in the highly risky and vulnerable areas is being launched shortly afterwards. These areas would have centres duly equipped with early warning systems for informing the stakesholders through the local Disaster Risk Management authorities in order to avoid colossal damages.

Given its geography, G-B is all the more vulnerable to the climate change phenomena. According to a report, the acceleration in glacial melt has brought into being about 3000 glacial lakes susceptible to breach at any moment. The rising risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF). Traces can be found of GLOF occurrences of ancient eras. One such spectacle is the ruined cluster of houses of an ancient village called “Door Chamoghar” overlooking village Chamoghar in Gilgit Constituency No.3. Visibly, a GLOF impacted scene as the flooding seemingly deepened the nullah abysmally wholly destroying the irrigations system in place with the result that all vegetation at the place wilted and dried for good leaving it in its present form giving a desolate and deserted look. There are similar other places across the region lying devastated by such flooding in the past.

Late Major Arthur Neve, FRCS, Surgeon to the Kashmir Medical Mission writes in his book titled ‘The Legacy of Kashmir, Ladakh and Skardu that some miles down, south of Gor, is the site of a huge landslip dating back to 1840 of which it said that it blocked the Indus back for six months, and lake formed extended up to Gilgit. At long last, the dam gave way with great rapidity and ferocity. The most destructive flood swept the whole valley down to Attock. A Sikh army stationed on a plain below had been overwhelmed. The landslips of the sort often get ascribed to the progressive geological phenomenon as it is said that that the collision of the Eurasian and the sub-continental plate millions of years ago giving rise to the strange geography and geological setting here is said to be a continuing formation process albeit with a dead-slow speed and velocity. All these strange phenomena are straightaway linked with the amazing geology of this region. As aptly summed up by Giles Whittell in his book ‘Central Asia, ‘the diamond-shaped continental plate known as India, was once a part of Antarctica until some 70 million years ago when it detached itself and began drifting northward towards Asia at a speed of 5 cm a year. This was fast; 2000 km in 40 million years. Then, 30 million years ago, it met the Asian plate and began to slide underneath, pushing it upwards. The part of the southern edge of the Asian plate which took the full force of the collision became the Karakoram.

The collision is still happening and is not straightforward. While the deeper layers of the Indian plate become submerged beneath Asia, the top ones are being scraped off it as if by a monstrous planning machine. The shavings, curling up even higher than the Karakorams, are the Himalayas, whose extreme north-western tip is Nanga Parbat (8128m). Meanwhile, between the two continental plates, an arc of oceanic volcanoes has been squashed and upended. Known as the Kohistan Island Arc, this is now a buffer zone between the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush. Gilgit sits in the middle of it and the Indus gouges its way through it. The former ocean floor forms the south of the arc, while one-time volcanic summits form the north.’

There are recent instance of huge landslip is that of Attaabad damming up the Hunza river in 2010 which was preceded by that of Khalte lake and the other one at Ghasho in Sai valley too, are the outcome of such geological surges, merges and convergences leading to quaint metamorphosis. River Indus rose to 40 feet higher than its original flow in 1932 due to falling of glacier into Shayoke river in Baltistan while the devastative flooding in Gilgit river washed away Gilgit bridge in 1905. As referred to in ‘The Voice of the Nightingale’ by Sabine Felmy, a rockfall at Sarat village in upper Hunza dammed up Hunza river in 1850 during which the adjoining villages of Gulmit and Hussaini submerged. According to Giles Whittell, an earthquake nudged a cliff into the Indus gorge just beyond Raikote bridge, due north of Nanga Parbat in the winter of 1841. By May that year, 60 kilometer long lake and 300 m deep formed which reached as back as Gilgit. When the breach occurred at long last, it tore through the canyon and, despite warnings from the rulers of Gilgit floated down earlier on pieces of bark, wreaked havoc and wiped out an entire army encamped on the plain near Attock 320 km away. The valley floor above the dam was turned from precious farmland into a silty waste. In conclusion, it becomes imperative that sustained efforts are made to launch massive afforestation programmes across G-B to enhance the region’s mitigation potential in the face of the horrific climate change phenomena here to avert any cataclysmic, tsunami-like situations spelling doom for the human settlements all along the Indus gorge southwards with apocalyptic results.

To be continued…


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