By Shaheen Akhtar
Sky-touching and snow-capped mountains, lush green fairy meadows, fresh water lakes, tall and gigantic tress, enchanting fragrance of the colorful flowers, mesmerizing dewdrops in the morning, refreshing breeze in the evening, a variety of delicious fruits and the serene and scenic beauty- when I sit and stare at, I doubt I am in heaven…
Nature has endowed Gilgit Baltistan the perfect beauty. It bears unique distinction in its beauty, natural environment and the lifestyle of inhabitants as compared to the broader outside world and the rest of Pakistan. Besides beauty, Gilgit Baltistan also stands out because it harbors 5 eight thousander peaks, a number of high altitude lakes, rich fauna and flora and world’s largest glacial system including three largest glaciers outside the polar region. These glaciers inundate different tributaries of the Indus River, making around 70%-80% of the total water flowing down it (Young & Hewitt 1990). Gilgit-Baltistan like outside world is experiencing climate change and its repercussions. Compared to the maximum increase of 0.44c between 1980 and 2006, Global Change Impact Studies Centre in Islamabad had predicted an increase in mean temperature of 4c for the period of 2010 to 2080.
The annual mean temperature is 24c in Gilgit Baltistan that suggests sever implications including and not limited to loss of ice and snow and uncertainty of water availability, floods and loss of productive agricultural land culminating in social and economical impediments for the livelihood in future (Zeildler & Steinbauer 2008). Due to increase in global mean temperature the glaciers have started retreating, resulting in the reduction of glacier volume on one side and devastating floods on the other. This trend is even more visible in different parts of the world. Coupled with natural climate rise, excessive usage of greenhouse gasses have accelerated global warming whose implications have become clearly visible in the recent times in the form of glacier melting and flood devastations around the world. Gilgit Baltistan is no exception to the tragedy. Since 2010, we have witnessed catastrophic floods that swept away lives and resources. It can be fairly concluded that Gilgit Baltistan, in the wake of global climate change, has become a victim of environmental issues.
The clear distinction between, once pollution free Gilgit-Baltistan and other cities of Pakistan, has started waning in the recent times. This owes to the transformed life style of people culminating into overwhelming environmental issues which have altered, to lesser or greater degree, the entire atmosphere of the region. For instance, our mode of transportation has become deeply dependent on fossil fuel unlike 20 or 30 years ago, people preferred to walk even long distances, but in the wake of innovations and modernity, a small distance of 1km requires a car. The infrastructure seems over crowded with outnumbered NCP automobiles whose smoke is potentially making the fresh air poisonous to inhale. Adding insult to the injury, there is no monitoring for the maintenance of reliability of engines which is very vital for ensuring minimum emission to atmosphere.
In the field of agriculture, our people use scientific means of crop cultivation including chemical fertilizers for larger crop yield, insecticides and pesticides as insect repellant and weed killer, but they unintentionally malign soil and water which bears tremendous potential of hazarding both plant and human health. For example, farmers use Carbamide (urea) which is susceptible to ammonia and nitrate emission. Ammonia contributes to acid rain whereas nitrates contaminate ground water, resulting in contamination of food, consequently leading to widespread disease in plants and animals.
Gilgit Baltistan is known for rows and columns of thick forests-home to a number of diversified as well as endangered species. Overall Pakistan’s forest resources account for only 4.8% of the total land area, whereas the International Forest Standards set for any country is 25%. Forest resources of Gilgit Baltistan cover 9.5% of its total area (72,496 sqkm) and are very fertile in terms of biodiversity, however, it is been intruded by the culture of deforestation for timber and fire-wood extraction, making it prone to soil erosion and air pollution. If the pace of cutting down life saviors-plants goes unchecked, the region will soon turn into a bare-land greeting devastating disasters.
Moreover, it is awful to see areas where heaps of garbage majorly consisting of polythene bags is dumped either on river banks or roadside which anyway pollute our environment.
If the issues go un-noticed and no proper action is taken, I fear worse is yet to come. In order to halt the worse, serious steps should be taken, not necessarily on the part of organizations which we usually blame. The major part lies on each individual of us to contribute to make an environment safe to live in, fresh to breath and hygiene to drink.
One positive step on behalf of each of us can help us regain and retain the distinct identity of Gilgit Baltistan by making it a pollution-free zone. Merely rallying with banners on 5th June will not suffice. Each one of 365 is an environment day. These valleys, meadows and beautiful Islands belong to us. Let’s “RAISE OUR VOICES, NOT THE SEA LEVEL” and protect our MOTHER EARTH.
The contributor is an intern at WWF-Gilgit.