Chitral faces an uncertain future
It was shocking to hear from a prominent Chitrali environmentalist that Chitralis have started migrating out of Chitral to escape the consequences of climate change that has struck Chitral with vengeance over the past two years and future prospects are much bleaker if remedial steps are not taken on war footing. The question that avalanches, floods and land erosions were not uncommon in Chitral in the past but no migration was contemplated is best answered by the fact that till 1980s Chitral was thickly forested with manageable population an and simple life style but 1980s brought money and Aghan refugees leading to the change in life style and many good values that helped Chitral to survive.
Large scale deforestation took place to provide for shelters, firewood and construction wood. This coupled with the activities of timber mafia denuded Chitral of its forest wealth and created demonstration effect whereby posh life style made possible with easy money, was preferred over simple natural life that characterized its traditional society. The result was more energy consumption and exploitation of natural resources. Influential people occupied pasture lands and allowed over-grazing for paltry tax called Qalang and deforestation for royalty. Young trees in critical areas were allowed to be marked for cutting in collusion with forest officials without any plan for reforestation. Chitrali timber became available in world markets. River beds were encroached upon allowing flood waters to overflow or break the banks. Because of these activities safe places were turned into red zones paving way for natural disasters, should we say man- made disasters? at a scale never known before.
Public reaction to this phenomenon has been either resigning to fate or move out of Chitral for safety. I have met people who moved out to cities either to settle or provide space to their traumatized children to regain their normal self but few of them are coming back having failed to settle there but it is not stopping others to make a try for the sheer fear of their lives in the changing Chitral. Imran Khan’s announcement to plant 10 billion trees over the next five years came as a ray of hope but actions on ground have left much to be desired. These plants do not reach the real growers in good time and by the time people get them these plants are already dried up and become firewood, although in official records these are counted as having been planted and paid for. Secondly environmental impact study of some of these plants has not been carried out for Chitral. Already many of the alien plants are said to be releasing poisonous pollens causing allergies. Local and time tested plants should have been chosen. Chitral can grow excellent hard wood, fodder trees, firewood and fruit trees in any kind of soil or climate but the same have been ignored for reasons best known to the planners. I am afraid the Government may have another scandal in hand if the campaign is not handled more efficiently.
Perhaps there is still time to save and sustain human life in Chitral. But that would require big actions on part of the Government and sacrifices on part of the people. All the laws and rules governing land utilization, environment, and conservation of nature, especially glaciers and river protection must be implemented. Encroachments on state lands and river beds should be removed. Plantation drive using local environment friendly varieties should be carried out on war footing. Quarrying for building stone in upland areas must be banned and instead building stones must be obtained by dredging on river beds. This besides meeting the need for building stone and concrete would help prevent flooding by widening and deepening the river beds. At present corrupt officials have allowed control of river beds to go into private hands. They charge prohibitive rates, which act as disincentive for picking up stones and concrete from these river beds. As a result the dumped debris not only causes diversion of floods to populated areas but also aggravates flood losses. During the recent floods the one demand that stood out prominently was to remove debris from river beds and nullahs through dredging. This request was also made to army for FWO but despite promises nothing has been done and meanwhile Chitralis are bracing for another flooding season perhaps more ferocious followed by another set of hollow promises and expressions of solidarity.
We still hope that a paradigm shift will be made by the present Deputy Commissioner. He is the best thing to have happened to Chitral in recent years. The impacts of some of his actions are visible. Though odds are high but nothing is higher than human spirit. Natural calamities can neither be stopped nor their ferocity reduced but a policy framework can be put in place which discourages individual compensations but encourages prevention of calamities through community participation with active official support. The tendency to make disasters as opportunities to make illegal gains should be arrested with strict legal action. Local Government bodies need to do town planning, approve safe settlement sites and ensure building of safe houses in safe places. Existing laws can make Chitral clean and green and what we need is honest implementation and motivated official machinery having loyalty to the soil of Chitral. We have been raised from this soil and we will return to it and will have to give accounts of our actions. May Allah guide us to the right path. (Ameen)