Unplanned Development In Swat Can Cause Serious Environmental Damage

We should have learned the lesson, following 2010 floods, that Swat has a very delicate ecological balance. Any plans for 'development' should be undertaken after considering their effects on the environment. The ecology of the region is already extremely strained due to deforestation and an increasing population competing for the limited land available for settlement.

The terrain of Swat has a very limited plain area, which is then divided into two almost equal parts by the Swat river. The plains are within valleys themselves. As population increases, the area within these plains is proving to be insufficient for everybody. Thus, there is an increasing shift toward the mountains to make new settlements.

In addition, the natural balance of mountains, river basin and plains is cracking under the pressure of increasing population as well as mindless ‘development’. Natural resources are being appropriated carelessly to create an image of ‘tourism’. The natural ecological balance is being disturbed by the multi-pronged mess of plans and strategies. Indeed, this has proved to be a big cause of the recent floods in Swat and it threatens to be so again in the future.

One manifestation of this problem is allowing hotel owners to build their hotels, not by the sides of the river, but literally inside it. The authorities, in their haste to restore the ‘pre-operation’ serenity of Swat, forgot or ignored the 2010 floods as well ass the role that blocked streams of the river played in it. Some people today have acquired land right beside the river and would be completely exposed in the event of another flood.

In the quest for 'development', which is now equated with matters of 'national security' in Swat, roads were planned to the higher valleys to make them accessible. These roads run in many places through streams (called 'Khwarr' locally). The roads to the two newfound valleys in lower Swat, Gabeen Jabba and Jarrugu waterfall, run across and cut through streams. The road to Jarrugu waterfall is in a Khwarr for around half its length.

There are also encroachments of land from the natural terrain of streams joining the river Swat and the delta of river Swat in lower Swat. In Bahrain Bazaar, the width of the Darral Khwarr, one of the significant tributaries to river Swat is cut into half and one of its streams is now converted to markets. This is done by collusion with the local administration and with the approval of the military commanders who are post-operation de-facto administrators of the region. Bahrain Bazaar sees floods every year. The hotels and restaurants in lower Swat, in Fizagat, bypass road etc, are all encroaching on the river basin and there is no protection provided from flooding. There are some Gabian baskets (the retaining structures consisting of stones and joined together by steel wires) by the river bank but they are not more than a joke to anyone who has lived in Swat and knows the river.

There is a new project underway, in the name of ‘development’, which may pose a permanent and irreversible ecological threat to the valley. Swat Highway, which will connect Islamabad directly with Kalaam through the Swat motorway, runs along the Swat river. Besides consuming the much needed and little agriculture land meant to be the 'rice basket' of Swat, it will also disrupt natural scenery, while the elevation and the retaining structures would divert the flow of the river. All of this can prove to be a recipe for further flooding.

The problem with the mantra of development and promoting tourism is that the restoration of Swat’s image as being a heaven for tourism actually forms the core of the state post-operation narrative. Talking against any part of this mantra is considered anti-national talk. But the effects of 'development' on ecology, the loss of natural habitats for different species, and vandalism on nature are simply ignored. The Mahodand lake used to have pristine water. Now it is submerged in plastic.

Gabeen Jabba will soon turn into a grey landscape. The increasing human footprint is wreaking havoc on the ecology there. This will lead to a higher melting of snow on the mountain tops and, combined with global warming, precipitate flash floods. Check the level of ice in the so-called glaciers above Kalaam now and compare it with 20 years ago and you will see the effect of tourists’ ecological vandalism. The massive deforestation by Taliban and the lack of efforts to rectify it in the past 10 years have also led to an ecological disaster. Alien species of trees are planted in the deforestation drive which are in fact harmful to the environment and underground water table. But, since the native species take longer to grow, they cannot be shown as quick goal achievement statistics. The most serious effect of this is that local species are at risk of being lost forever, while the newer varieties are hardly able to stop floods by absorbing rainfall and maintaining healthy soil quality.

Finally, the supercilious discounting of local ecological wisdom is tantamount to the erasure of centuries of mutual interdependence between humans and nature. The locals may not be environmental scientists, but they carry in themselves the ancient wisdom that has preserved the ecological balance of the valley. There's a saying 'oba khpla laar na predy' (water always reclaims its way/territory). Our elders would never build a home on land where once a Khwarr passed through. Some of the elders would check stones of the land to see if it had been near a Khwarr/stream. A smooth stone would indicate the passage of a stream from that area in the past. Seeing this, they wouldn't build their house in that place. Oba khpla laar na predy.

There is no denying that Swat can greatly benefit from development and tourism. However, a lack of planning and attention to sustainability can also turn Swat into a wasteland. Care must be taken to prevent this as we cannot afford to lose Swat. It is home to nearly 2 million people. And it is our own small part of heaven.