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Chitral Losing Hope On Billion Tree Drive

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Burhan Ali, an electrician and a father of four children, roams in Chitral Bazaar 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 arrived, 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  -10’C during the winters The dwellers rely on oak 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 an emergency basis and 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.

The LNG project was uplifting for the inhabitants, who had put high hopes in these projects – as this will not only bring ease to their lives but also save the forest cover of the district, which is turning into barren land owing to deforestation. Unfortunately, their hopes turned futile when the current 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 have a socio-economic impact on the lives of the residents in various ways, but it will also have implications on the environmental makeup of the district, which is already bearing the brunt of climate change.

Former MNA from Chitral Shahzada Iftikharuddin, who had put much effort to convince the previous government to start the LNG project in the area, believes that Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government did it on purpose – “out of envy for Nawaz Sharif.” Saving forests was the main slogan of the ruling PTI, but by abandoning the LNG project, the government has ended up tarnishing 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 severe 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 due to the unique mountainous topography of the area and scarcity of water.

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

She is of the view that feasibility studies should inform governmental decisions. “The communities in Chitral have the right to decent and affordable living and the government should ensure that the cleanest resources available to the country 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 can not afford to neglect the environment anymore.”

Talking about the constant deforestation, the climate change expert opines that the area is already facing challenges in the form of soil erosion, mud flooding and glacial lake outburst floods. “If the cutting of wood continues, it will further exasperate the environmental catastrophe that Pakistan is facing,” she says

Meanwhile, Burhan Ali and many others in the area fear that the government has put the project on hold with political aims. They are reluctant to pin much hope on the government for resuming it in the future. They know how long it takes to kick off official work in Pakistan. To them, it would take years to reach the same stage as they were at in 2018 – and even if happens, the fear, the area would be barren by then, and many lives would be lost to flood and other climate menaces.

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