A land left to drown by the 'timber mafia'

Source: Herald Scotland

29 Aug 2010 - The warnings regularly given by all manner of experts had been ignored for decades.

If Pakistan’s authorities continued to allow the country’s timber mafia and a benighted and oppressed peasantry to strip the country’s forests at a faster rate than anywhere else in Asia, as is happening, floods of Biblical proportions would be inevitable. They would not be acts of God. They would be man-made catastrophes.

And so it came to pass – as August began – that heavier than usual, but not unprecedented, monsoon rains fell on the largely forest-denuded northwest Himalayan, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountains and foothills, swelling the mighty 2000 mile-long Indus river, originating in Tibet, and others such as the Jhelum, Swat, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, Sutlej and their many tributaries.

What then happened, reports by Pakistani journalists and environmental campaigners have steadily established, was truly terrifying.

Trees felled by so-called illegal loggers – an infamous “timber mafia” that has representatives in the Pakistan Parliament in Islamabad and connections right to the top of government and the military – are stacked in the innumerable nullahs [steep narrow valleys], gorges and ravines leading into the main rivers. From there they are fed into the legal trade, earning the mafia billions of dollars yearly. “Other than landslides, soil erosion and the occasional homes and crops being swept away, it [the forest denudation] was not considered a disaster and hence didn’t make the headlines,” wrote Ayesha Tammy Haq, a columnist with the Pakistan daily Express Tribune newspaper.

But the deforestation and other actions of the timber mafia were ticking time bombs waiting for a trigger to set off explosions.

This year’s monsoon lashing northern Pakistan with unusual intensity would historically have been absorbed by extensive forests, much like multiple layers of blotting paper, allowing the rains to run off more sedately than in modern times.

But this month the mud and water deluge cascaded off the tree-bare mountains and hills with exceptional force and barrelled down towards the plains in mammoth fury. In a trade-off, the timber mafia had allowed the mountain poor to raid the logs stacked in the nullahs to make doors, window frames and furniture for their homes. But, propelled by the force of the run-off, the logs turned into instruments of destruction, smashing all in their wake. Rivers and dams turned black with timber. Relief workers said bridges, homes and people were destroyed and swept away by the hurtling and swirling logs before the waters spread on to the plains below, engulfing an area of more than 60,000 square miles, more than twice the land area of Scotland.

The United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that some 8000 schools were either destroyed or partially destroyed by the torrents.

It is not only the mountain forests that have been devastated. When Pakistan became independent from Britain and separated from India in 1947, thick riverine forests lined the Indus on its thousand mile journey across the plains.

“These forests used to absorb the ferocity of the floodwaters,” said Tahir Qureshi, a Pakistan-based forestry expert for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

For the complete article, please see Herald Scotland.