Using nature to preserve land

March 12, 2023

Sustainable farming, reforestation efforts and small water reservoirs can help protect farming communities from climate catastrophes

Using nature to  preserve land


azle Maghbud, a farmer from the Upper Swat valley in the northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is currently facing severe financial stress due to the loss of his crop in last year’s devastating floods. Fazl had leased a 52-kanal piece of land on the banks of the Swat River from a landlord and cultivated the famous Begamai rice variety, which is a major crop in the area. He had invested Rs 1 million in soil preparation, stone removal, cultivation and fertilisers, with the expectation of earning up to Rs 2 million. However, the flood waters washed away his field and the crop.

“I lost Rs 3 million in a few hours. There is no sign of the farm and the preparation,” he says.

Fazl is not the only farmer facing such difficulties in the KP. Every summer, dozens of farmers meet the same fate. Flash floods and heavy rains in the upper riparian areas of the Malakand division pose a constant threat of water and soil erosion. The northern parts of KP, which form the foothills of the Himalayan mountainous regions, are intertwined with rivers, flood waterways and hill torrent runoff water resources. While these water tributaries are essential lifelines for agriculture, they are also a constant danger to agricultural lands that are often washed away by erosive floodwaters.

Rapid erosion has degraded around 20,644 square kilometres of land affecting the livelihood of 3.58 percent of the country’s population.

Land degradation is a significant obstacle to socio-economic development worldwide, making it difficult to achieve Target 15 of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

According to a study titled Identification of Soil Erosion-Based Degraded Land Areas, severe impact of water erosion can be observed in the Northern Areas of Pakistan and KP, where 1,517 hectares of land has been damaged.

Extensive deforestation in northern Pakistan is the main reason for soil erosion. However, sustainable farming practices, reforestation efforts and the construction of small water reservoirs can safeguard the socioeconomic status of the farming community in the province and prevent natural land degradation.

Dr Roshan Ali, a soil scientist and principal research officer at the Agricultural Research Institute in Swat, says that when floods and rainwater wash away the six-inch land surface, it takes a thousand years to become suitable for cultivation again. “We’re working on nature-based solutions, such as planting pecan walnuts (American Walnut) and olives along river banks and waterways to protect against soil erosion,” he says.

During last year’s floods, farmer Arshad Marwat implemented a nature-based solution by constructing hundreds of dikes and aquifer recharges along the river banks. The structures not only protect the community from floods and prevent erosion but also recharge the water table.

The Swat ARI has distributed thousands of olive saplings, and community members are planting them in the mountains. However, Dr Ali suggests that planting more pecan walnuts along river banks and growing grasses in the mountains is also necessary to control soil erosion.

According to a report by the UNCCD, land degradation is a threat to 1.9 billion people globally. Approximately 250 million people are directly affected by land degradation. Most of them live in underdeveloped or developing countries. It is also becoming a major threat to food security worldwide and is on the agenda for the 21st Century due to its severity.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) states that land degradation has reduced the productivity of the global land surface by 23 percent. The global assessment report of land degradation reveals that 20,644 square kilometres of Pakistan’s area is degraded, affecting the livelihood of 3.58 percent of the country’s population. It is a complex phenomenon and one of the major barriers to achieving sustainability.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations suggests that millets are tolerant to harsh growing conditions and provide land cover in arid areas. It is a climate-resilient crop that reduces soil degradation. Research has also shown that reforestation efforts are helpful in preventing water erosion and safeguarding against land degradation.

Dr Saqib Hussain Bangash, an agri-tech researcher at Guangxi University, Nanning, China, hails from the Kurram district of KP. He has launched a Food for All campaign in three subdivisions of the tribal district, with a plan to plant 10 million fruit trees. Local volunteers have joined the campaign, growing high-quality and climate-resilient fruit plants along the banks of rain and flood waterways. The community-supported campaign will continue for three years, providing economic prosperity and free fruit to the local community while also controlling soil erosion, says Dr Bangash.

In Lakki Marwat, a southern district of KP, farmers protect crops and agricultural land by storing floodwaters. During last year’s floods, farmer Arshad Marwat implemented a nature-based solution by constructing hundreds of dikes and aquifer recharges along the banks of the Kurram and Tochi Rivers. The structures not only protect the community from floods and prevent soil erosion but also recharge the water table, providing water for crops later on, says Marwat.

The KP government’s Billion Tree Tsunami project focused on six key areas including forestry, protected areas, clean energy, climate resilience and waste water management.

Dr Muhammad Imran, an associate professor at the Shandong Academy of Sciences in China and the founder of the Amin Education Foundation, along with his relatives and other volunteers, is working on reverse deforestation in Charsadda, one of the flood-affected districts of the KP. In March, they plan to plant 500 trees along canal banks. “Deforestation is a major environmental threat to the KP. We’re working on reverse deforestation for the future of our next generation,” he says.

The writer is a multimedia journalist. He tweets @daudpasaney

Using nature to preserve land