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ISLAMABAD: It is widely known for its greenery. The lush green plantations that cover most of its roads and vicinities are what makes it at par from other urban hubs of Pakistan.
But latest data reveals that Islamabad is evacuating its urban forests since 1976 and continues to do so, with relatively higher rates of deforestation than plantations.
Hammad Gilani, a post-doctorate researcher from the University of Illinois, regards horizontal expansion for residential and commercial purposes as one of the major reasons for infringements in the green zones of Islamabad which can reduce the frequency of rainfall in the long term.
He cautions saying, “The conversion of trees and green zones into concrete is exposing the soil, which can be catastrophic if any natural disaster, especially if an earthquake strikes the city, the exposed soil won’t be able to retain itself and the concrete homes and plazas built upon it would be reduced to rubble.”
Decades ago, when the first military dictator of Pakistan Field Marshal Ayub Khan decided to shift the capital from Karachi to Islamabad in 1960s, he ordered immediate greening of the new capital which led the forest department to import a fast-growing species from South East Asia called Paper mulberry to be planted. But since the department hadn’t tested the species under a controlled environment, its plantation soon led to hazardous consequences that afflicted the local ecosystem.
What is worse is that the current deforestation spree is taking a toll on the indigenous flora. Tahir Rasheed, the CEO of South Punjab Forest Company, while expressing his disappointment on the unending tree felling campaign, cautions that deforestation is likely to increase the micro-climate of the city and cause an upsurge in temperature which will ultimately alter rainfall frequency.
“Just like Lahore which has turned from a city of gardens to a city of concrete, Islamabad has embarked itself on the same path, which can even lead to the collapse of the urban ecosystem, if deforestation continues unabated,” he states.
Mome expressed disappointment that instead of imitating Islamabad’s Master Plan to other cities, efforts are being made to steer Islamabad on the course of unsustainable development.
“Globally there is a practice of developing smaller cities to prevent migration to bigger cities. But unfortunately, in Pakistan, only the major cities are developed and others are deprived of basic facilities, which prompts migration from smaller to larger cities. The result of which is that the population of Islamabad has swelled to 2.07 million in the last two decades, which has built tremendous pressure on the ecosystem of Islamabad especially on urban forests,” she grieved.
“High-rise buildings were never the culture of Islamabad and now the parks and green zones are being encroached to make concrete structures. If the citizens failed to take the responsibility now, soon the city won’t be able to survive,” warned Mome.
With trees being mercilessly chopped for the cause of development in Islamabad when asked how the CDA plans to compensate the ecological loss, Malik informs, “With every tree that is felled, we plant 10 trees in the same area, so that the ecosystem does not get out of balance.” However, that is not enough and the CDA needs to devise plans that have long-term impacts.
With rising population pressure, increased climate change impacts and worsening air pollution crisis, there is a dire need to increase the urban forest cover in the dwindling space.
Globally, urban forest policies are passed to protect the urban forests. Though Pakistan has a national forest policy but there is not a single urban forest policy for any city of the country that can safeguard the conservation of forests in urban and peri-urban areas.
Nations invest in their natural resources to ensure sustainability. The loss of urban forest cover of Islamabad is anthropogenic and it can only be resolved by expanding the city in vertical fashion and changing consumption patterns.
Two major cities of Pakistan – Karachi and Lahore – are already reeling from the environmental consequences of not having urban forests. In Karachi, the Urban Heat Island effect coupled with limited urban green triggered heatwaves, which took more than 1,200 lives back in 2015 and continues till date.
Lessons should be learned from Cape Town, which is reeling from severe drought and water scarcity and is close to Day Zero – an apocalyptic scenario when water in the six-dam reservoir system falls to 13.5 per cent capacity, leading to the closure of valves which will stop water to a million households.
It is high time to learn from the past and set the course for the future. Without planning, Pakistan will find itself in an impossible situation, where the chances for its cities to survive would be extremely difficult. Sustainability is the key to survival and if science is purposefully ignored then the day is not far when Islamabad would become a lost civilization just like Mohenjo Daro and Harappa.