Air Pollution in Gilgit-Baltistan; Environmental vulnerability during harsh winters

By: S. Narjis Naqvi

Gilgit-Baltistan faces severe environmental consequences and mass consumption of natural resources to survive through the extreme winters. This poses an uprising challenge to control indoor and outdoor air pollution and the never-ending cycle of environmental destruction.

GB is a mountainous region with unique high-altitude ecosystem; covered by high mountains and glaciers, pastures, forest and water resources. The region has very fragile ecosystem and is under stress due to over exploiting of natural resources. A day-to-day increment in air pollution is observed due to the cutting and burning of wood during winters for heating and cooking, immensely increases air pollution, deforestation and glacier melting.

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan experience a hard time when the temperature drops below 4 degrees in the months of November till February every year. Gilgit-Baltistan covers an area of 72,971 km2 (28,174 mi2) with an estimated population approaching 1,000,000. Shortage of electricity supply in winters, compel the people to consume available natural resources for their immediate survival. Unfortunately, the government has not yet provided these high lands with domestic gas pipelines or any other alternate source for heating. Although gas cylinders are used, they still are inaccessible and inconvenient for the locals.

Majority of people face financial issues due to lack of job opportunities in these high lands, but most of the families have their farms, agricultural lands and forests. The people prepare for the winters as they chop down the trees and store enough wood to consume throughout the entire season. Almost every household owns a heating and cooking unit called “bukhari” which consumes wood as the main fuel and has a pipe attached that carries the smoke out of the house functioning as a chimney.

The toxic fact about the usage of bukhari is that the locals not only burn wood but also burn leather, old clothes, tires, shoes and plastic. This releases Carbon Dioxide and many toxic fumes and gases into the air like Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Oxides of Nitrogen as (NO2), Carbon Monoxide (CO), Hydrocarbon (HC) and other Respirable Particulate Matter (PM). The carbon dioxide is consumed by the trees naturally but here comes another challenge as Gilgit city has lesser pine trees (ever greens) and the other trees go bald during the winters and there’s no green left to consume enough of the carbon dioxide. Inhalation of these gases may cause lungs, throat, eye and cardiac diseases and breathing issues.

Usage of NCP vehicles in the GB is a privilege to the locals as well as a great disadvantage to the nature as the non-custom paid vehicles are relatively affordable and nearly every household owns one. The traffic chaos and the release of smoke increases pollution day by day.
The mass consumption of wood leads to another environmental issue which is “deforestation”. Deforestation and air pollution are directly related as the lesser the trees are the more carbon dioxide hangs in the air thus polluting the environment and contributing to the global warming which causes the glacier melting. Melting of the glaciers brings floods and lesser rainfalls causing land infertility which means lesser greens; creating a never-ending cycle of environmental destruction.

This cycle must be broken soon or the whole Pakistan would face extreme climatic disorders. The EPA in Gilgit-Baltistan is already working on these issues and providing the solutions. The government must focus on the speedy construction of Diamer Basha Dam and other projects to ensure availability of electricity during winters. People could use electric heaters and water geysers as alternate to the wooden bukhri. NCP vehicles must be regulated so these valleys are rescued from the traffic pollution. More and more pine trees must be planted so we can enjoy fresh air even during the winters. Every native has its own responsibility to protect our environment, raise awareness on not burning the plastics at home, planting more and more trees and using eco-friendly appliances.


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