By Zafar Iqbal
In a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Press for Peace Foundation UK, environmentalists and civil society representatives have called on the government to address the deteriorating environmental situation in the region of Azad Kashmir. A statement issued at the end of the virtual panel discussion on Monday said that the process of diverting rivers for power generation projects has multiplied the local temperature, which is having a serious impact on the local population.
Azad Jammu and Kashmir water sources and rivers have been toyed with in the name of hydropower projects, said the panelists. The EPA’s recommendations have been ignored. The sewage treatment plant for Muzaffarabad, greater water supply scheme and solid waste management projects were not made. No trees were planted on the banks of rivers in Muzaffarabad, no water bodies were made, and garbage and hospital waste is being dumped in the river.
The ecological balance of wild and aquatic life disappears, and fish from Neelum to Nauseri are endangered.
The panellists demand immediate action to protect the region’s natural resources, aquatic and wildlife, and civil rights. They also emphasized the need for the construction of bridges and underpasses for wildlife, and the establishment of environmental magistrate courts, and environmental tribunals.
Climate change threatens future glacier destruction, rising temperatures, and human migration.
The dialogue on environmental issues in Muzaffarabad was organized as part of an environmental awareness campaign by the Press for Peace Foundation. The event was hosted by MazharI qbal Mazhar. Speakers at the panel discussion included Raja Muhammad Razzaq, a member of IUCN and former DG, Environment Protection Agency (EPA), activist Faisal Jamil Kashmiri, and Shahid Awan, a civil society leader.
Environmentalist Dr.Baseeruddin Qureshi, Estonian-based Kashmiri environmentalist Fahad Ali Kazmi, Director EPA ShafiqAbbasi, Director Press for Peace Foundation UK Prof. Zafar Iqbal, Urban Planning Specialist Haseeb Khawaja and other speakers addressed the gathering. Raja Mohammad Razzaq, a member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, said that civil society should play a leading role in saving natural resources and the environment. The biggest reason for the growing environmental problems is the lack of political will because political parties have no interest in environmental issues, he added. The environment is not included in the construction and development sectors. He said that the activation of the EPA’s Environmental Council was needed.
Social activist Faisal Jamil Kashmiri said that the state’s water sources and rivers had been toyed with in the name of hydropower projects. The Neelum-Jhelum Hydro Project has turned the Neelum River into a canal and the temperature in Muzaffarabad has risen to dangerously high levels. They are also falling in the lower regions of the country as a result of which the water level in Thar and some other areas of Sindh has gone down by 80 feet.
He said that EPA’s recommendations on the environment had been ignored in the Neelum Jhelum project. The previous government of Pakistan had directed to re-survey the river. The Azad Kashmir government and WAPDA have failed miserably in fulfilling their responsibilities in the Neelum-Jhelum project.
Muzaffarabad’s great supporter Faisal Jameel Kashmiri, citing several examples of government neglect and negligence regarding the Neelum-Jhelum project, said that no sewage treatment plant and Greater Water Supply Scheme had been set up to protect the environment. He added that the solid waste management project in the capital city was not implemented.
Trees have not been planted along the river bank and water bodies have not been erected. There are a number of laws, including the Forest Regulation Act 1928, the Environmental Protection Act 2000, and the Wildlife Preservation Act 1974. Anyone who causes a loss of one thousand rupees will be fined ten thousand rupees and should go to jail.
He demanded that there should be an environmental magistrate and an environmental tribunal. The government should ensure the implementation of the Forest, Wildlife, and EPA Act and other laws. Civil society will raise its voice at every level to save the natural environment and local resources.
Environmental expert Dr.Basiruddin Qureshi said that wild and aquatic life in Azad Kashmir was a great blessing for the local population. With the increase in human population, the burden on forests has increased and the incidence of collisions between humans and wild animals was increasing. Wildlife and aquatic life play an important role in the ecological balance. As a result of the Neelam Jhelum project, local fish from Nosiri to Muzaffarabad are running out.
Forest fires are causing irreparable damage to wildlife along with the loss of forests. He warned that wildlife was being affected as a result of major hydropower and other developmental projects. Underpasses should be constructed to ensure free movement of wildlife in roads and other construction projects and conservation of wild and aquatic life should be included in mega hydropower projects.
ShahidAwan, a civil society leader and president of Anjuman-e-Shehryan, said that in view of the growing number of tourists in Azad Kashmir, the government should clarify its policy on eco-tourism and take necessary steps to save natural resources. The government has allowed roads and chaotic construction in critical places connected to the natural environment, which endangers the environment. Rs 26 crores were provided for Muzaffarabad for a solid waste management project which was not spent and no recycling project was started. He termed the sanitation situation in Muzaffarabad as deplorable and said that the waste of AIMS hospital and the whole city’s waste were being dumped in the rivers. He feared that if water resources and rivers were not protected, citizens would be forced to relocate in the future.
Urban planning expert Haseeb Khawaja termed the growing trend of awkward constructions in Azad Kashmir as unfriendly to the environment and said that a master plan was urgently needed to bring Muzaffarabad and other major cities in line with modern requirements. A Japanese organization JICA had predicted another quake in Muzaffarabad due to a fault line and recommended that the population be moved away from the fault line, but the government had been negligent.
Director EPA ShafiqAbbasi said that the population of five major cities including Muzaffarabad, Rawalakot, Bagh, and Kotli has increased exponentially in recent years but solid waste management and other services have not been able to meet local needs. Referring to the government’s initiatives regarding local environmental issues, he said that the government of Pakistan was conducting a new feasibility study. The purpose of which is to estimate the water requirements in the lower reaches of the Neelum river after the Neelum-Jhelum project and save local resources and take other eco-friendly measures as a result of the project. More than Rs. 300 million has already been provided to the Local Government Department for Solid Waste Management, he further said.
He said that Azad Kashmir was moving ahead step by step in fulfilling its responsibilities regarding environmental protection. We need to adapt our development to local resources.
Environmental Scholar Fahad Ali Kazemi said that such trees planted in Azad Kashmir contradicted the local environment. This trend has a negative impact on the environment. Large development projects are affecting water resources and forests. He said that people should use vehicles that emit less carbon. We are using old vehicles which are unfit and unsuitable for the environment. People should be serious about their environment. This will require climate change to be an important part of the conversation on social media and in private.
Prof. Zafar Iqbal said that Press for Peace Foundation has been working on social and environmental issues for the last two decades in a voluntary spirit. Climate change is one of the most important issues of the day, and workshops, panel discussions, and other programs for public awareness will be spread across the state. Literature-based on local characters and issues is being developed to raise environmental awareness among the younger generations.