Gilgit-Baltistan, A Unique Mountainous Land

Syed Shams Uddin

Having been initiated 15 years ago, December 11, each year is being celebrated as International Day of Mountains to highlight the significance of mountains and keep the habitats of the mountain-dwellers intact. The environmental transformations resulting from the earth-warming tend to compound the problems of the mountain communities whilst horrifically tending to exacerbate further its efforts aimed at scientifically grappling these issues are undertaken.

Given its sheer mountains, Gilgit-Baltistan happens to be a region where barely one percent of land remains under mountain agriculture in the face of mounting demographic pressures witnessed overtime. Gilgit-Baltistan, to put it unexaggeratedly, is reckoned with as a veritable geological wonderland with all the munificence of Nature. There are total 82 peaks of varying heights which include 06 peak of above 6000 meter in G-B while those above 7000 meters get reckoned with as 73, those above 6000 meters are 73, while some count one above 5000 meters. The reference to peaks is given here first in the sense that these happen to be the genius loci and the guardian of this stupendous ecosystem as a whole – the glacial zone feeding the majestic rive Indus – serving as the life-vein to the plains in the south to put it unhyperbolically.

While talking about the mountains here, it becomes imperative to make mention of all other allied natural phenomena – the rivers, rivulets, giant snowfields, glaciated zones what and what not that are to be found across this region.  Some put the total number of glaciers including Siachin at 82 given which the intra-regional break-up of the glacial deposits could be as follows: Baltistan zone 36 while the rest are located in Gilgit region. However, the number of large glaciers as another statistics puts it is five id est Siachin in Baltistan (46miles), Biafo in Baltistan (37 miles), Hispar in Gilgit region (36.63 miles), Baltoro Kalan Glacier in Baltistan (36 miles) and Batora Glacier in Gilgit region (36 miles). The number of smaller glaciers of varying magnitude is put at 90. The number of passes leading to the adjoining areas is 74 whilst there are 11 tributary rivers all draining into river Indus. These rivers include Astore, Ishkoman, Tangir, Darel, Shigar, Shayoke, Gilgit, Gupis, Nagar, Yasin-Shagom, and Hunza river. There are innumerable glacial snows in many of the highest hollows, with numerous tarns up the lofty mountains formed by old glacial moraines, beautiful glades, enchanting view of groves of trees lining water channels of the valleys bounded by skyscraping, beetling cliffs overlooking them, either side of the rivers dotted with numerous villages and hamlets, and elevated alluvial plateaus offering the most conspicuous view and glance at the physical features,  level moorland, beds of neve (frozen snow) to be seen tobogganing from mid-August onwards. Put in all brevity, the variegated natural phenomena all make this region – a wonderland, nay, the microcosm of the planet exhibitive of all the munificence of Nature beyond any exaggeration.

A sheer mountainous region, it would never have attained the preeminence which its unrivalled combinations of rich alluvial valleys with lofty crags, clear streams and hill torrents with broad lakes or expansive water-sheets, and groves of shady walnut, apricot and the majestic chenar trees giving the impress of a tangled forest. Forests it may be said, constitute a very vital resource everywhere but in the case of the mountains, these assume all the more significance and literally make the single panacea given their countless economic and environmental advantages generally for all regions around the planet and particularly for the mountainous parts like Gilgit-Baltistan. The respective communities largely depend on them in meeting needs of fuelwood as well as timber.

Forests also meet grazing needs well while alongside being greatly instrumental in preventing soil erosion and its vulnerability to flooding especially in the fragile mountain ecosystems while the quality of water is directly dependent on the landscape through which it flows. Forests are therefore vital for securing water in micro-climatic terms while beating climate change at macro-levels. To experts, an area must have 25% of it under forests for a balanced economic growth in an undisturbed ecosystem but it is quite unfortunate that barely 4% of area as against the total, in Pakistan remains under forests. The situation in Gilgit-Baltistan in terms of forests and vegetation is alarming in that the area is in substance, devoid of any significant forest cover while the thin cover too remains subject various vagaries.

It is certainly a happy augury that prevalence of peace over the preceding years – thanks the commendable efforts of the army – has brought about a very much positive transformation in terms of pace and tranquility. This changed situation has attracted a great number of domestic tourists to this area albeit the confidence of the foreign tourists requires yet to be restored. It is said that this year witnessed an enormous influx of domestic tourists with their number put at around one million. The way the increase has been experienced, the surge is expected to go on quite uncheckably disregarding the fact that the region is still unprepared to host these rising numbers when it comes to fitting and appropriate infrastructural facilities are concerned. Someone aptly put that tourism is a goose that lays golden eggs but at the same time, it tends to foul its nest as well.

This means the outcomes when a region is not prepared well to host the surging numbers and much-feared environmental problems to result from lack of immaculate infrastructural facilities. There is therefore the need of dissemination of awareness by the respective quarters also to foster respect among the visitors for the local culture and traditions whilst simultaneously taking effective measures so direly needed in the context of infrastructural facilities. It has to be reiterated that there is growing need of remaining wary over the changes brought by the changing times and climes and the human activities exacerbating this situations to an enormous extent – something calling for great prudence in providing state-of-the-art facilities in terms of tourism in order not to harm the environment and avoidance of the least disturbance to the ecosystem in this region.

The respective authorities as reports unfold, are striving to overcome the situation but nonetheless, much more is yet required to be done to salvage the impending situation in order to keep the mountain ecosystem intact.

Generally speaking, mountains everywhere have all a long history, played a significant role insofar as the mountain-people’s communion with Nature is concerned. Humankind inhabiting such regions have to battle with certain vagaries like rockfalls, landslips, lofty peaks, glaciers-lake-outbursts floods (GLOFs) etc. threatening survival in these onerous situation resulting from strange environments. But at the same time, these propitiously offer abundant natural resources as well. There can be no denying the fact that adapting to such environs and the rigorous living, the respective communities have to make a daily struggle with nature which tend to throw their living pattern out of kilter.

The writer is a Gilgit-based freelance contributor, blogger. He tweets @SayyidShams

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