|Pakistan has just 5.2 per cent forest cover, which contributed to the scale of the flooding [EPA]|
When the residents of Mian Gujar village in Peshawar, northwestern Pakistan went to bed on the night of August 31, they noticed nothing unusual about the water level of the nearby Shah Alam River. But in the early hours of the morning they were woken by shouts from the street and floodwater gushing into their homes.
“As I opened my eyes, I found a pool of water in my house and saw the level going up. The first thing I did was to immediately shift my family members to the rooftop,” says Jehanzeb.
But sensing that they were still in danger, Jehanzeb and his family waded to a safer spot.
“As I returned home to save whatever I could I found my house submerged under 10 feet of water. Part of it collapsed,” he says.
“The speed at which the water level rose was astonishing.”
Experts too believe the water levels rose at an alarming rate and say that inadequate forest cover in the north-west of the country was largely to blame for the intensity of the floods.
Shakil Qadir, the provincial head of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), has highlighted the role of deforestation in Swat, Dir, Hazara and Gilgit Baltistan.
Pakistan has only 5.2 per cent forest cover, but had it had the necessary 20 to 25 per cent, the ferocity of the floods would have been minimised and the damage caused far milder.
Syed Said Badshah Bukhari, the director-general of Pakistan Forest Institute, says that by trapping rain water in leaves, branches and roots, forests serve to slow down the flow of flood water. In contrast, deforested areas become more susceptible to flooding and landslides.
But the absence of forests to slow down the flow of flood water was not the only way in which deforestation contributed to the scale of the disaster.
|The destruction of bridges left many
areas cut off [AFP]
Locals say that in Dir, Swat and Nowshera, the floods swept away large amounts of lumber and that at one point the River Panjkora contained so much wood that the surface appeared to be black.
Much of this timber had been stored in ravines by the country’s powerful timber mafia, which engages in illegal logging, while it was awaiting transportation to the south. Dislodged by the floods and swept away by the water, the timber destroyed almost all of the bridges in its path and filled the Turbela Dam Reservoir.
The destruction of bridges in the Malakand region caused the districts of Lower Dir, Upper Dir and Chitral to be cut off from the rest of the country, while many areas within these districts and Swat were disconnected from each other.
The people trapped in these areas face acute supply shortages as well as a lack of medication and petroleum. Roads have been washed away, leaving residents to track through the mountains in search of essential commodities.
Pakistan’s forests have always come under immense strain, but Sarhad Awami Forestry Ittehad (SAFI), a local organisation that works to protect them, says that in parts of Malakand more than 70 per cent of forests were illegally cut down between 2007 and 2009 when the Pakistani Taliban controlled the region.
“Forests were cut ruthlessly by the timber mafia under the protection of the militants,” says Riaz Ahmad Khan, the president of SAFI. The organisation says the Taliban made large sums of money working in collaboration with the timber mafia.
“At the moment more than two million feet of timber is flowing in Turbela Dam only.
“Thousands of trees were uprooted by the flashflood, which further damaged the existing forest cover.”
Changing seasonal rhythms
Bashir Khan, the director-general of the Environmental Protection Agency, says deforestation is also partly to blame for an increase in severe weather patterns like those witnessed in Pakistan.
A study conducted by the Pakistan Forest Institute showed a 0.85°C increase in temperatures in Peshawar between 1985 and 2009 – an increase of 0.034°C each year.
It also revealed a change in seasonal rhythms, with spring starting 15.6 days earlier and becoming 17.8 days shorter. The extreme summer season, with a mean maximum temperature of 35°C, grew longer – running for five months, from May to September.
There was also a 30 per cent decrease in rainfall, with a shift towards a dry tropical climate where for eight months of the year less than 25mm of rain fell. Khan says that the heavy rains experienced this year indicate that climate change is taking place.
Shakil Qadir, the NDMA regional director, says that reforestation is now critical.
“There must be heavy investment in reforestation of the areas [affected by the floods] to make [sure they are more] secure in future.”