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Deforestation and Drought, Arshad Abbasi June 6, 2006


Water reservoirs in Pakistan are drying up, the weather is heating up and there is little chance of significant rain for the next few months at least. The metrological department has already predicted a water shortage. Pakistan has already experienced a severe drought which affected its economy between 1999 and 2002. That time, the cause was said to be related to global warming and climate change. While we still continue to talk of these factors, there is no mention of the massive deforestation that has denuded vast mountainous terrains and which has a big role to play in climate change. It is a painful truth that Pakistan stands ravaged by unchecked deforestation. The moist temperate forests of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Murree, the Galiyat region and Hazara, so essential to ensure sustainable flow in the Indus and Jhelum rivers, should have been protected as natural watersheds. Due to thick forests of deodar, pine, fir and oak trees, the area usually received maximum rainfall which filled the two major reservoirs of the country and recharged various local streams and aquifers of the arid regions downstream. Healthy, mature trees and humus soil of forests act as a sponge soaking up rainfall carried by tropical storms, while anchoring soils and releasing water through springs. Forests add to local humidity through transpiration (the process by which plants release water through their leaves) and thus ensure local rainfall. In the water cycle, moisture evaporates into the atmosphere forming rain clouds before being precipitated as rain back onto the forest. These forests, therefore, play a vital role in regulating regional climate by providing the base for continuity of water cycles. These conifer forests also play a critical role in climate regulation by absorbing carbon dioxide, a gas believed to be partially responsible for global warming.

Their importance was already understood during the British Raj. In 1886, the chief conservator of India, a certain Mr Robertson, made the extraordinary recommendation to the government of India that this region be given a special status of `reserved forests`. Timber harvesting, grass cutting and grazing, were strictly prohibited, with exceptions made for the purpose of obtaining water. The forests of Murree and Patriata were declared `reserved forests` in 1887 and were protected not only for the region but also to harvest the monsoon rains and feed the river system down country in view of their importance to the water table of the planned cantonment in Rawalpindi and the north-western railways system. Timber was not cut from these forests due their importance as a precious watershed and to maintain consistency in the rainfall regime. As long ago as 1960, a study recommended that the whole population of the region be shifted so as to save the ecology of the region and the water towers so essential for the plains.

Massive deforestation started in the 1990s. Between 1990 and 2000 Pakistan lost an average of 41,100 hectares of forest per year with an average annual deforestation rate of 1.63 per cent. Between 2000 and 2005, the rate increased to 2.02 per cent per annum. In all, between 1990 and 2005, Pakistan lost 24.7 per cent of its forest cover, or around 625,000 hectares. The greatest victims were the conifer forests of the lower Himalayan belt (Murree, Patriata, Galiyat, including the forests of AJK and the Kaghan-Naran Valley). Punjab also suffered considerably.

The declining trend of monsoon rains is another serious threat to Pakistan`s climate and its economy. Our agricultural economy is dependant on the amount of monsoon rains as a large part of our agricultural produce comes from monsoon-fed crops. The forests of Murree and Patriata ridges play a vital role in intercepting the moist monsoon air coming from the east. Available data shows that the monsoon rainfall interception by these forests is highly correlated with rainfall in Abbottabad, Muzaffrabad and Balakot. The monsoon rainfall harvested by Murree/ Patriata directly influences rainfall in the whole surrounding region.

The findings of a study on the water yield of Khanitak springs (which are a source of Murree`s water supply) and its correlation with rain, snowfall and deforestation are similar to another study conducted in France. Forests at high altitudes (of 2,000 metres and above) harvest 18 per cent additional precipitation at the regional level. And when the trees are conifers, the rate rises by between 25 and 50 per cent. The current drought is the combined effect of landslides in the quake-hit Azad Kashmir and continuous exploitation of forests in Murree for developing various housing societies. The unnecessary widening of the Koror-Patriata road needs to be mentioned in particular. It affected the surface`s `albedo`, which is (from the Latin for white) a measure of reflectivity of a body or surface which in turn has the ability to influence climatic patterns. The albedo, or degree of reflectivity, depends on vegetation as well, which absorbs more heat than bare soil.

A recent study conducted by NASA and the Global Precipitation Climatology Project found that deforestation in different areas of the world affects rainfall patterns over a considerable region. The study also suggests that deforestation in the Amazon region of South America influences rainfall all the way from Mexico to the US state of Texas. Similarly, deforestation of lands in Central Africa affects precipitation in the Midwestern United States while deforestation in southeast Asia was found to alter rainfall in China and as far as the Balkans region.

All this paints a gloomy picture and presents a worst-case scenario which deserves serious consideration. It is now time to regenerate forests to restore the disturbed climate and save water and economy throughout the world. To avoid drought and mitigation, the canopies of these forests must be restored and human interference there must be restricted.