The government of Gilgit-Baltistan intends to carry out promotional activities in Deosai National Park, including a polo festival at Rama in Astore, a jeep rally, paragliding and fish angling competitions in the national park. The WWF has urged the government of GB to refrain from carrying out these activities in the National Park for fear of damage to the natural environment. The Deosai National Park is a legally protected area. The WWF’s letter to the GB government highlights several wetlands present in the area, including Sheosar Lake, Bara Pani stream, Kala Pani stream and peatlands that provide habitats to water birds, etc. The policy being currently pursued by the government of GB is focused on tourism revival. WWF does not challenge the policy objectives but merely suggests an environmentally-friendly alternative. This includes an alternative venue for paragliding and a jeep rally at Chillum (at the entrance to the park) where there is a polo ground and enough space for such activities.
The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat (herein referred to as the ‘Ramsar Convention’), which entered into force in Pakistan on 23rd November, 1976, is to be considered in this context. The Ramsar Convention addresses the protection of water bodies of international importance and attached biodiversity, along with promoting the wise use of allied resources. The Ramsar Convention website states that there are 22 Ramsar sites in Pakistan. Although the Ramsar Convention is a binding treaty that creates legal obligations for states party to it, the obligations enlisted therein are ambiguously worded. Article 3 of the Convention stipulates: “The Contracting Parties shall formulate and implement their planning so as to promote the conservation of the wetlands included in the List, and as far as possible the wise use of wetlands in their territory.”
Similarly, Article 4(2) provides: “Where a Contracting Party in its urgent national interest, deletes or restricts the boundaries of a wetland included in the List, it should as far as possible compensate for any loss of wetland resources, and in particular it should create additional nature reserves for waterfowl and for the protection, either in the same area or elsewhere, of an adequate portion of the original habitat.” The Ramsar Convention does not delineate a specific method through which it is to be implemented but it does set a minimum requirement i.e., that at least one site must be notified under the List of Wetlands of International Importance, as per Article 2(4). Consequently, the vague obligations enlisted in the Convention must be evaluated in light of principles of customary law as well as evolving “soft law”.
In light of the aforementioned facts, taken in conjunction with the letter from WWF to the government of Gilgit-Baltistan, the most preferable route to pursue would be conducting an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). EIAs were first introduced in Pakistan under the Environmental Protection Ordinance 1983. The Pakistan Environmental Protection Act 1997 and the EIA Regulations 2000 further consolidated these assessments. Despite their sound legal basis, EIAs have yet to develop in Pakistan due to inadequate public participation, weak monitoring and resource constraints. The current challenges faced by EIAs include weak integration of EIA into decision-making frameworks, inadequate review of EIA reports, weak implementation and monitoring, poor quality of EIA reports, and inadequate involvement of stakeholders in the process.
The general problem in Pakistan with regard to most things environment-related is a lack of integration of environmental values into its culture and public law policy. Thus, some suggestions for overcoming this hurdle include enhancing institutional capacity to provide clear guidelines, initiating EIAs at initial stages of a project, adequate and active involvement of stakeholders and systematic review and monitoring of EIAs and their implementation.
Carrying out an EIA in GB with regard to these activities will not only overcome the challenges listed above, but will also provide a clear solution to the conflict of opinion between WWF and the government of GB. An EIA, in this regard, would take into account the possible negative impacts of, for instance, paragliding. These would include erosion of footpaths, trampling and removal of indigenous vegetation, litter, soil erosion, disturbance of animals and birds, and so forth. Cooperation between the relevant authorities and the WWF in recognising and responding to concerns, such as the aforementioned, is crucial.