Environmental Impact of CPEC on Gilgit Baltistan

Zahid Karim Sarwar

Gilgit Baltistan is one of the most important natural reserves in Pakistan. The living space for 2.5 million people which are very small percent of the Pakistan population. The natural beauties and mountains attract a high number of tourists in the area. Domestic traffic, from down areas add up to huge flow of vehicles which are also a source of noise pollution in the area. The trade with china has increased and will highly increase the demand for the transport of goods across the border which may cause growing traffic along this route and will finally result in air and noise pollution in the valleys. The ecosystems in the mountainous area are very sensitive, especially in high altitude regions where they are also exposed to climatic stress. Mountainous forests have an important protective role against avalanches, soil erosion and landslides. Air pollution has therefore more negative consequences on these areas than outside the mountains. Both air pollution and noise counter act the expectations of tourists and the construction will also create visual pollution in the area. Most villages and towns on the CPEC (China Pak Economic Corridor) routes also concentrate along the valleys, therefore a rather large portion of the inhabitants live in neighborhood or close to the KKH (Karakoram Highway) and will get exposed to the adverse environmental effects of transit traffic with negative consequences to their health and general well-being.

The term emission means release of gaseous or particulate air pollutants and noise by different sources in the atmosphere. Most air pollutants are emitted by combustion processes involved in transport vehicles .Particulate Matter (PM) of different sizes are also released by friction processes, e.g. during breaking, or are blown up from road surfaces when vehicles passes through. The air pollutants which will be released in the environment from the heavy vehicles and trains  are gases like sulphur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen monoxide (NO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), ozone (O3), etc. or suspended particles (dust, heavy metals like lead (Carcinogenic) or abrasion from brakes, clutches and tyres. these harmful pollutants have adverse effect on human health. Noise is emitted from engines and exhaust pipes, the interaction between wheels / tyres with the  road surfaces (rolling noise) or the air stream around very fast transport means ( high-speed trains) industrial processes, constructions and agriculture.

 In mountainous areas the emission is determined by additional factors as compared with flat areas. Uphill drives play an important role in producing high decibel of noise, Driving with full engine load also causes substantially higher emissions than on flat roads. The emission from heavy trucks is not only increased for uphill drives but also for downhill drives when engine retarders are activated. The rolling noise depends on the road surface which means rough roads are noisier while smooth are quieter. The tunnel and bridges have a positive net effect on the emissions because they reduce the driving distance between the destinations and help to avoid steep uphill and downhill drives. The emissions that are released from elevated bridges are likely to be more diluted until they reach the housing areas than emissions from nearby surface roads. In the case of tunnel the air emissions enters the atmosphere at single spots with high concentration. Railway lines in the region will increase the air pollutants in the environment and also as a source of noise pollution. An accumulation of air pollution can occur in the along-valley mountain-plain circulation and cross-valley slope wind circulation the pollutants move back and forth while additional emissions pollute the air in the valley atmosphere. A large-scale exchange of air is not possible and the depth of the mixing layer is often limited by an elevated inversion. Even the minor concentration which are released from vehicles may remain in the environment forever and damage the human health.

Generally, problems caused by noise pollution includes headaches, nausea, allergic reactions,  stress related illnesses, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity. Most importantly, there are two major effects we can look at the immediate and acute effect of noise pollution to a person, over a period of time, is impairment of hearing. Prolonged exposure to impulsive noise to a person damages their eardrum, which may result in a permanent hearing lost. Health effects of noise include anxiety and stress reaction and in extreme cases fright. The physiological manifestations are irritability and nervousness, feeling of fatigue and decreases work efficiency. Long-term health effects also include chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer, heart disease, and even damage to the brain, nerves, liver, or kidneys. The wild life in the area will be severely affected by the motorways and railway lines and will also minimize the ecological niche of the wild life in the area, it will stop the movement of wildlife within their habitat in search of nutrient and will produce competition among species. The noise from the heavy trucks and train will force them to move far from their habitats.

Few questions likely to be raised from CPEC (China Pak economic corridor) are;

  • What will be its Impact on the human health?
  • What will be the level of annoyance?
  • What will be the potential increase in hospitalizations?
  • How much it would affect the decrease in the expectancy of life?
  • The external costs of the environmental burden?
  • The impact of planned infrastructure and Administrative measures?
  • What will be the Future traffic scenarios?
  • What will be the Social consequences?

Motorways and railway lines will pass through valleys where most of the settlements are found. As the distance between the sources of pollutants and the housing areas is much shorter in the high altitude environment than in the flat country so will get highly affected. The increasing transport volume will make air pollution and noise a serious problem in the area and solutions will be required from the beginning rather compared to the flat country, the environmental burden in mountainous areas is much more serious then to flat areas.  I wander what is there in the CPEC for the people of Gilgit Baltistan or the upper mountain community in particular. The people of GB greatly relay on natural resources and tourism which will be severely affected by this mega project. As tourism in the area has again started expending, more and more tourists both local and international are moving in the area which is improving the standard of living of the people in a very high speed. The rivers, mountains and even national parks will get polluted and contaminated by the over exploitation of resources and anthropogenic activities in the area .Vehicles moving nonstop day and night through this route which will adversely affect human health, wild life and even social life in the region.

The contributor is studying M.Sc. Environmental Science at University of Karachi

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  1. Thank you Zahid Karim for elaborating expected environmental hazards due to CPEC in GB. Already the environmental protection is increasingly a critical theme which requires timely actions without any compromise. Our forebears in GB usually share their experiences about retreating of glaciers in short span of time. This is a lesson for all of us.
    CPEC will definitely increase the already increasing heat in the area due to road constructions and huge expected traffic on these roads in the upcoming years. This is the time to develop multiple forums of local people especially in Hunza to voice against the expected hazards and dangers. As the areas are considered disputed already; therefore, neither China nor Pakistan will be interested to work their own for the areas. This is up to the people and leadership to organize frequent seminars and conferences to get people aware and united.

  2. Nice effort Mr. Zahid Karim, the Environmental Issues and consequences must be discussed before execution of CPEC , otherwise the communities living on the edge especially in the mountainous valleys are going to face the adverse impacts in the upcoming years and as an environmentalist we know it will be disastrous from environmental perspective for the communities as well as for the existing ecosystem of GB.

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