Chitral Losing Hope On Billion Tree Drive

Burhan Ali, an electrician and a father of 4 children, roams in Chitral Bazar for the past few days in search of wood, the only source of cooking and heating in the district. He used to buy the wood stock for his house before the winter arrives, but this year there is a shortage of wood in the district since the start of the winter. As a result, there has been a surge in its prices which have almost doubled as compared to the last year.

He spends a major part of his salary to buy wood in Chitral where the temperature drops to minus ten during the winters. The dwellers rely on oak trees and deodar trees which take decades to grow, to meet their fuel needs.

There was a sigh of relief for the inhabitants and environmentalists when in 2018, Mian Nawaz Sharif, the then Prime minister, had approved the LNG project for which the funds were released on emergency basis. The purchase of land and equipment were also finalized instantly. The project was meant to provide LNG through pipelines to more than 15,000 households in three major towns of Chitral at a rate, which was 67 per cent cheaper than LPG being provided in cylinders in the vicinity.

It was uplifting for the inhabitants who had put high hopes in these projects which would not only bring ease in their lives but also save the forest cover of the district, which is turning into a barren land owing to deforestation. Unfortunately, their hopes turned futile when the incumbent government decided to cancel the proposed LNG project in Chitral.

The Economic Coordi­nation Committee (ECC) of the cabinet had asked the energy ministry to drop the LNG project and sell the land and equipment bought initially for the project.

Abandoning the project will not only create socio-economic impacts on the lives of the residents, but also on the environmental makeup of the district which is already bearing the brunt of climate change.

Former MNA from Chitral Shahzada Iftikharuddin had put much effort to convince the previous government to start the LNG project in the area. He believes that Imran Khan’s government abandened the project purposely out of envy for Nawaz Sharif. Apparently, he is right as saving forests was the main slogan of the ruling PTI, but by abandoning it the government has blemished its own flagship project.

Sitting MNA Abdul Akbar Chitrali in the last session of the parliament also lamented the government’s decision of selling the items brought for the LNG project. He further urged the ECC to revise this decision.

Rapid chopping of deodar and oak trees has brought the picturesque district to the brim of environmental degradation. This is evident from the fact that the frequency of land erosion, landslides and mud floods over a couple of decades has increased, resulting in the loss of many precious lives, property, and infrastructure.

Though the government has started planting trees under its flagship billion trees tsunami project in the district, it has not been successful as compared to other parts of the country. This is due to the unique mountainous topography of the area and scarcity of water that is another serious problem the area is facing till date.

Zahra Khan Durani, a climate change expert who is also part of the team of an ongoing national climate change awareness campaign in Pakistan, said that the government needs to follow a multiperspective approach for environmental sustainability, and mass plantation of trees is ‘only’ one aspect through which we can fight climate change.

She was of the view that feasibility studies should inform governmental decisions. The communities in Chitral have the right to decent and affordable living. The government should ensure that the cleanest resources are utilized to meet current and future community needs. Whether it is through the provision of LNG, the installation of solar projects, or the adoption of new technology, one thing is certain that the country cannot afford to neglect the environment anymore. Talking about the constant deforestation, the climate change expert opined that the area is already facing challenges in the form of soil erosion, mud flooding, and glacial lake outburst flooding. If the cutting of wood continues, it will further exasperate the environmental catastrophe that Pakistan is facing.

Ali and many others in the area fear that the government with political aims would put the project on hold. They know how long it takes to kick off official work in Pakistan. To them, it would take years to reach the same stage they were in 2018. By the time the project is resumed, the area would be barren and many lives would be lost to flood and other climate menaces.