I journeyed to the Kaghan Valley after two decades and was shocked beyond belief by the environmental degradation of the valley. I was with a group of eighteen people and the purpose of the trip was to use art as a vehicle for advocacy of climate change. While the painters captured the vanishing landscapes with wistful strokes of the brush and the photographers immersed themselves in taking pictures of the land and the people, I decided to trek from Naran to Lake Saif ul Muluk to revisit the trail on which I had walked twenty years ago. I was prepared to witness some environmental degradation but what I encountered was an ecological disaster.
Although the area is designated as a national park, there was no visible sign of any enforcement of rules that govern land use and regulate human activity in protected areas. The area surrounding the lake was filled with stalls serving a variety of foods and beverages being consumed by hoards of visitors with no appropriate provision for waste collection.
The temporary toilets placed in the immediate vicinity of the lake posed a contamination threat to the lake waters and other than being a health hazard were a source of stench and sanitary pollution.
The number of vehicles plying on the access route was unrestricted and the parking lot near the lake looked more like a transport depot and less like a protected area resort. Seeing the level and pace of degradation by the lake was a rude awakening to the state of environment in Pakistan. This is a matter of deep concern as the situation has now reached a tipping point where urgent action is required to arrest the rapidly declining environmental indicators to prevent further degradation and restore equilibrium by allowing nature time for regeneration. We need to be mindful that in a country with a burgeoning population and a shrinking resource base, unregulated tourism will accelerate the pace of environmental degradation and contribute to land fragmentation, deforestation, soil erosion and collapse of eco-systems. Climate change will exacerbate the situation and pose a serious threat to lives and livelihoods in the not too distant future.
Countries typically designate areas as national parks to conserve the scenery, preserve natural and historic objects and protect biodiversity and ecosystems to provide such means for recreation of these resources that leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.
Bhutan practices a policy of high end and low volume tourism. India closed the Nanda Devi National Park in 1983 for all types of tourist activity to arrest environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity. The ban was reiterated for another five years in 1994 by the government to allow for regeneration of nature.
These are just two examples of responsible action by countries in the neighborhood that recognize the importance of balancing economic activity with conservation of nature. Unfortunately in Pakistan we have not paid attention to this aspect and allowed unregulated and irresponsible tourism to destroy the natural habitat and erode the ecological value of landscapes.
The unsustainable population growth rate is creating an increasing demand for infrastructure that is turning green environment into grey, and converting scenic landscapes into concrete jungles. The teeming humanity that descends on the Kaghan Valley is oblivious of its responsibility to the natural environment and leaves behind waste and litter with no realization of the damage that it is causing to nature.
The PTI leadership included environment in its electoral manifesto and initiated a tree plantation campaign in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to increase forest cover and regenerate the natural environment. It is now time for it to pay attention to protecting national parks and protected areas in the country by taking some bold decisions to balance tourism with conservation so that both can thrive in tandem. Dismantling infrastructure by Lake Saif ul Muluk and restricting number of visitors may be politically unpopular but necessary for safeguarding the natural heritage and beauty of the Kaghan Valley. The price of inaction will come at a heavy cost. As we begin a new chapter in the history of Pakistan it would be desirable to put environment and climate change at the helm of affairs and allocate sufficient resources and appoint competent and committed people to steer policies and implement them in letter and spirit. The alternative is an ecological disaster and willful destruction of the habitat for short term gain and long term descent into chaos. The situation is still salvageable but requires political will and collective ownership for restoring balance and maintaining the environmental and social integrity of a vanishing landscape that is splendid in its beauty and a source for providing ecological goods and services to a large number of people. (The author is the Chief Executive of Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change. aishacsccc.org.pk)