By Nadia Zartaj
Gilgit-Baltistan, with its unique geography, has one of the most diverse landscapes on earth. The region is an abode for the four greatest mountain ranges in the world: The Pamir to the north, the Hindu Kush to the west, the lesser Himalayas to the south, and the Karakoram to the East. Five of the 14 tallest mountain peaks above 8,000m are also situated in G-B attracting thousands of adventures from all over the globe.
It also houses the largest and longest glacial bodies in the world. These water towers feed over 2 billion people in river basins in eight countries.
However, these unique mountain ecosystems are facing potential threats from increasing human activities, mass tourism, exploitation of natural resources, and global climate change. Consequently, these adverse impacts will affect fragile mountains ecosystem.
The region’s weather patterns have changed dramatically over the last few decades as a result of climate change. It has shifted regional subsistence patterns and forced many to migrate from their indigenous lands.
Glacial lake outburst floods are key mountain hazards that have started to occur with increased frequency due to shifts in climatic conditions. Global warming has accelerated snow melting at high altitudes.
Environmentalists, academics and media persons are concerned about the multi-billion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project that aims to build road infrastructures for improved trade and commerce with China as well as regional integration.
On April 20, 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif officially inaugurated the project by signing 51 agreements and memorandums of understanding (MoUs), totaling $46 billion. The CPEC project aims to connect the deep-sea ports of Gwadar and Karachi to China’s Xinjiang province and beyond via overland routes while also improving Pakistan’s road, rail, air, and energy transportation networks.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan fear that the construction of CPEC without conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and putting in place sustainable environmental policies will bring substantial changes including loss of biodiversity, accelerating the melting of glaciers, decreasing pasture lands, and exploitation of other natural resources.
They fear that heavy vehicular movement and construction of infrastructure on a big scale will severely impact the natural habitat of the region and there will also be an escalation in air and sound pollution. Gilgit-Baltistan has a unique ecosystem, which will be drastically impacted by massive deforestation and the shrinking of wildlife.
Irfan Khan, an environmental activist, believes that CPEC will harm the ecosystem of Gilgit-Baltistan leading to the loss of natural habitats of endangered species.
According to him, Gilgit-Baltistan has centuries-old traditions and customs to protect its natural environment and the construction of roads on big scales and heavy traffic will lead to disruption of the ecosystem and both flora and fauna will be heavily impacted.
Sartaj Alam, a research fellow working for the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat ( AKAH) says heavy vehicular movement across Gilgit-Baltistan will release more than 35 million tons of CO2 worsening environmental risks for locals. A marked increase in carbon emission is expected to rise in air pollution.
However, an official of the Gilgit-Baltistan Environmental Protection Agency (GBEPA) claimed that his agency has conducted a baseline study on CPEC’s impact.
“GBEPA along with SPARCO conducted a detailed baseline environmental profiling from Sost to Diamar and mapped the air quality, water quality, soil pollution, and land use,” GBEPA Deputy Director Khadim Hussain said, adding, to get a baseline before CPEC’s operation.
GBEPA will conduct this mapping every five years and on the basis of this they can measure environmental pollution and climate change.
According to him, CPEC is a mega project to boost Pakistan’s economy, and it will have a great impact on the development of Gilgit-Baltistan as well.
He, however, admitted that there will be massive vehicular emissions that can increase the melting of glaciers in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Environmental journalist Manzar Shigri says that due to the absence of the Right to Information Act in Gilgit-Baltistan, journalists are facing issues accessing official information regarding the possible impacts of CPEC and other developmental projects.
The journalists of Gilgit-Baltistan are denied official information and access to official documents and officials are only concerned to portray CPEC as a game changer but they deliberately hide the adverse impacts of this mega project.
The mega projects under the CPEC are declared as the leading source of natural resource depletion, deforestation, habitat fragmentation, coastal and marine ecological disturbances, decreased tourism, extinction of species, etc. These hazardous impacts of the CPEC projects alter the ecological environment all across Pakistan. The extent and possibility of threats to biodiversity are intensifying the effects across all the species.
The impact of CPEC on G-B’s environment
Dr Zafer Khan faculty member and chair of the Department of Forestry Range in Wildlife Management at the Karakoram International University Gilgit said: “when we talk about the localized impact of CPEC on Gilgit, we can think about some likely impacts in the future when the road and other infrastructure initiatives under the CPEC become operational in the region so by the time we talk only about the possibly likely impacts so I can say when we talk about the vehicular movement or the road infrastructure then we can say the road may pass through the fragile ecosystems and protected areas, for example, the Khunjarab National Park.
Hence, we can expect disturbances to the wildlife and fragmentation of their habitat with the increased movement of traffic, noise, and vehicular emissions as well as soil erosion along the roadside, he said.
Secondly, there are reports of migration of the Marcopolo sheep across the border due to increased mobility.
Another significant impact is the restricted moment of wildlife over the road in the KNP because those species particularly the Himalayan ibex and the snow leopard move to cross the river and the road. If there are no safe passageways, then the movement of Himalayan ibex may be disturbed so we can identify some of those places where the large bridge may be built to ensure the wild animals’ movement without any hindrances.
With increased human mobility, trade, and commercial activities there is a chance of illegal poaching of wildlife and trade of flora which hold some medicinal or economic importance.
It is also feared that increased development activities and human movement across the border may increase the chance of the spread of exotic species that can be harmful to the indigenous flora.
There is a need for highlighting the challenges to the fragile ecosystem of G-B, its fauna, and flora and adopt collective holistic approaches by the government, conservationists, environmentalists, tour operators, transporters, and media to reduce environmental degradation and protect mountains as world heritage.
The author is a student of the Karakoram International University Gilgit.