Monday, November 13, 2017

Combating Smog

We were waiting for some respite from the heat and all set to welcome the winters but got blindsided by smog. The question is, did we really get blindsided by it or are we paying the price of ignoring the warning signs?
Human-made smog is a combined result of coal emissions, vehicular emissions, industrial emissions, forest and agricultural fires and photochemical reactions of these emissions. Punjab is witnessing the havoc that smog is capable of creating since late October. Yesterday I read in The News that, Dr Pervaiz Amir, an eminent environmentalist speaking at an event in Karachi said; “In the days to come, Karachi may face extreme dust storms, devastating cyclones and hurricanes in the Arabian Sea as well as smog.”
This should be a wakeup call for anyone who thinks that this is an isolated provincial or regional issue that they can conveniently ignore. Environmental issues have a snowball impact, if not catered to in time.
If the smog situation worsens, the consequences will grow in their intensity as well, from mild eye and throat irritation, minor pains to severe pulmonary diseases and potential cancer risks. The highly affected people include old people, kids and those with cardiac and respiratory complications as they have easy tendency to be at disadvantage of asthma.       
In 2015 only, almost 60,000 Pakistanis died from the high level of fine particulate matter in the air, among the highest death tolls in the world from air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). As South Asia’s most urbanized country, Pakistan contends with increasing challenges from the increase in motor vehicles in cities. In the last decade, more than 11m cars appeared on the roads in Pakistan’s most populous province, representing a growth of almost 30%, according to a report from the Punjab environmental protection department (EPD). The polluting practice on agricultural land is common in Pakistan’s Punjab, resulting in plumes of toxic smoke carrying over to the neighbourhoods of Lahore.
The WHO sets a standard safe PM 2.5 level (air pollutant) in a 24 hours period at 25 µg/m3, while the latest readings for Lahore are fluctuating between PM 450 and 500! 

Friday, October 20, 2017

A walk down memory lane: Three generations of nerds

There are some family relics that you know exist, but don’t quite remember which corner of the house they have been stored in. The other day, I stumbled upon one of my old scrapbooks. Skimming through it, I came across an old envelope from the British Council Library addressed to my Nana abu (maternal grandfather for the non-native readers). Opening it, I found two copies of his membership card and two typed sheets stapled together. From the same scrapbook I found two more modern versions of the British Council’s membership cards, one belonging to my mother, with her immaculate signatures on it, and the other one belonging to yours truly with the word ‘student’ stamped on it.This sight had so much nostalgia attached to it.
I lost my Nana abu when I was six, so my memory of him is mostly that of being dotted on and of how, being the first grandchild, I had liberties that no one else had. We didn’t have enough time together to make memories around books and this just adds to my list of what ifs. Despite this, I credit my love for biographies, history and historical fiction to him. While I was still indulged in my Nancy Drew, Famous Five, Hardy Boys etcetera, there were his books neatly lined in my mother’s shelves that were a source of constant intrigue. Once, the intrigue got the better of me and I read his copy of Mother by M. Gorky. My mother’s shelves ended up becoming a part of my library and as they say, the rest is history.
My mother, who is a doctor by profession, spent her career in her alma mater - Fatima Jinnah Medical Collage and Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. Once I grew out of the day care located in the pediatric department of the Ganga Ram Hospital, the British Council Library was my next stop. Mama had her own streak of nerd and it helped that the library was in her neighborhood, so no surprise that she was a card carrying member. 

Converging forestry and wildlife

Copy rights Fatima Arif
 A key aspect of any account of the British Raj in the sub-continent is the extravagant hobby of hunting that both the local and the foreign ruling elite indulged in. A glimpse of which can be seen in the following script taken from T. J. Roberts’s book, The Mammals of Pakistan.

‘The tiger is, of course, extinct in Pakistan but it should be a sobering thought that it has only become so within the last seventy years, in a region which cradled man’s civilization for over 4000 years. J. A. Murray, in describing the fauna of Sindh in 1884, stated that Khairpur State in the Indus riverine forest tracts was its last stronghold. The last survivor in Sindh, a tigress was shot in 1886 by Col. McRae (Eates, 1968). The late Amir of Bahawalpur, H. H. Sir Sadiq Muhammad Khan Abbasi, related how his father had shot thirteen tigers within Bahawalpur State territory in the Indus riverine jungles and that the last specimen was shot by him in 1906 a few miles below Panjnad (pers. Comm., 1965).’

On the other end of this spectrum, were individuals fascinated by the natural gifts of the region and passionate enough to become soldiers for conservation. There are some incidents where hunters turned conservationists. A prominent example being Billy Arjan Sigh, the first person who tried reintroducing tigers and leopards in the wild from captivity.     

British Raj in the sub-continent spanned from 1858 to 1947. This long an association, albite a forced one was bound to leave its imprint. It did so not just in the form of architectural additions but in the forms of the bureaucratic tones set by the officers’ class and the laws that they devised to govern. However, once we got our hard earned freedom we were free to make our own rules; but in some cases we just decided to copy paste.  The Forest Act of 1927, is one such set of rules that we adopted to which different provinces have made amendments as per their needs. On the surface this might seem to be a non-issue but for a country that is in the top tier of those most effected by environment degradation; this is a reflection of priorities. 

Even though their work may overlap but forestry and wildlife are two very different fields that require separate skill set.  

Vultures: Environment's Unsung Heroes

Copy rights Fatima Arif
 The opening page of Arundhati Roy’s much awaited and extensively reviewed latest novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has the following lines:
“...white backed vultures, custodians of the dead for more than a hundred million years, have been wiped out.
Not many noticed the passing of the friendly old birds. There was so much else to look forward to.”
Indeed not many noticed the passing of these birds in our part of the world. In fact given all the negative connotations attached to them, many considered it good riddance. The state of these birds is sort of a symbolic representation of how humans in their superiority complex, create an environment that stimulates the cycle of their own troubles.
A linguistics tragedy occurs for those working in conservation every time lines like ‘human faced vultures’ and ‘acting like vultures’ are used to convey spiteful traits in someone. It is ironic that these notions define birds that by design act as our environment’s unsung heroes.
Vultures are ecologically important because they consume dead animals and clean the environment. The white backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis), the specific species that Roy refers to in the opening page, once commonly occurred in plains and hilly regions and was regarded as the most common vulture species in the Indian subcontinent. It was frequently spotted in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, as well as Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam.
The population of the white-backed vulture has declined by up to 95 % in Pakistan, India and Nepal since the early 1990s, and it is now classified as critically endangered - just one step away from becoming extinct.
The decline of the white backed vulture is regarded as an un-precedent for any bird species.
Cause of this destruction?
Diclofenac Sodium, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), and other drugs like Ketoprofen and Aceclofenac used in livestock, are the main cause of mortality, causing kidney failure in vultures.
Vultures in Pakistan:
Pakistan is home to eight species of vultures. Two of these species, the white-backed vulture and the long-billed vulture are critically endangered. The white-backed vultures population in the wild is now limited to Nagar Parker and Azad Jammu and Kashmir, while the long-billed vultures stronghold in the country is Nagar Parkar only.
Contrary to myths:
Vultures are social birds. In the good old days, they were known to gather by the hundreds and thousands to roost. Their social life is not limited to their own sub-species but extends to other vulture species as well. They are found in forest trees lining rivers and in big trees around the proximity of towns and villages. Contrary to local myths, vultures are well adapted to live cordially in close proximity of humans.

We Are Connected To The Ghost Of The Mountains

The mountains fascinate me; have always done so, as long as I remember. They have an aura of holding hidden treasures and untold stories to them. One such iconic treasure of the Central and South Asian mountains is the majestic snow leopard – and its story is troubling.
Known as the ‘ghost of the mountains’, the snow leopard is rarely seen by humans. One reason being that they are solitary, shy and elusive in nature. Their movements are often largely dictated by the human presence in their range, focused on either avoiding encountering people or directed towards their hunt. Another key reason for a lack of interaction is the fact that the altitude at which this big cat is most comfortable, is where people in general need assistance in breathing. Recent research has shown that the snow leopards have a special physiological adaptation to survive in low oxygen environments.
Despite these barriers, human activities have had a negative impact on this species, to the extent that they are now in crisis. They are listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.
A single snow leopard’s home range is of a few hundred square kilometers. There are only some 4,000 of them left in the wild, who claim a combined range of twelve countries (Pakistan, India, China, Afghanistan, Mongolia, Bhutan, Nepal, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyz Republic and Kazakhstan) their home. Out of these 4,000, between 200 and 400 are found in Pakistan’s northern mountains of Karakorum and Hindu Kush mountain ranges.
The home of the ‘ghost of the mountains’ is shrinking and if it continues at this pace, it is feared one-third of their habitat will become unsustainable. This loss is bad news for homo-sapiens too. Snow leopards play a vital role as a top predator and as an indicator species. Its healthy population is a definite indicator of vibrant and healthy high altitude ecosystems; which translates into a thriving population of other species and millions of people who depend on their survival on the rivers flowing down from these mountains.
Before you dismiss the gravity of the situation, a polite reminder that we humans can only survive for three days without water!

Intricate web of Climate Change

Despite the writing on the wall, many still cling on to their consistency and keep denying that our environmental issues are part of a vicious cycle of issues. Issues that won’t go away, returning time and again with a vengeance fueled by our arrogant ignorance. 

Pakistan is ranked as one of the top ten countries most affected by climate change. The ‘affect’ is not a hypothetical scenario in the distant future. It is our present that can feel the impact and much more in store for the near future, if we continue at this pace. 

Our agri based economy is at the front line. The backbone of Pakistan’s economy is made of agriculture, contributing 21% to the GDP. Climate change has a direct impact, from lowered yields to a drastic change in the overall cropping patterns. As estimated loss of 30% in production is expected in the coming years. For anyone with even the basic knowledge of how agriculture production works, the recent disturbed patterns of rain should be a sign enough to start considering climate change and related environmental issues a considerable problem. 

The buck doesn’t stop at agriculture. Climate change affects the determinants of the rest of the food cycle, health and even the social fabric. 

Globally, each of the last three decades has been successively warmer than the preceding one, since 1850. From the last few years we have been breaking the wrong kind of record, with each passing year being declared as the hottest year so far, further accelerating the problems. 

As per a recent report of WHO, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year due to malnutrition, malaria, diarrhea and heat stress between 2030 and 20150. These are ailments that we have already found remedies for, however, their climate change induced intensity is still capable of creating havoc. This is something that we have witnessed in Pakistan. The consecutive monsoon floods of 2014, 2015 and 2016 are a permanent fixture of our memories. Zahid Hamid, Minister for Law & justice & climate change in March 2017 shared with a senate session that these floods affected a total of 4.5 million people and claimed 1,029 lives. 

Friday, May 19, 2017

Return of the Winged Visitors

Copy rights Fatima Arif
In a world where humans are constantly shrinking boundaries under the disguise of warring ideologies, one of God’s creation calls a stretch spanning from Siberia to South Asia its home.
The migratory birds arrive in the country, covering an approximate distance of 4,500 km via the Migratory Bird Route Number 4, commonly known as the Indus Flyover. This famous route takes the birds from Siberia’s extreme winters and pushes them over the Karakorum, Hindu Kush and Suleiman Ranges along the Indus River to warmer delta areas.
Given Pakistan’s geographic location, we lie at the crossroads of the bird’s migration. Hosting them should be considered a privilege as these guests bring beauty and ecological benefits for our wetlands. One such spot is the triple complex, which consists of the Uchali, Khabeki and Jhalar lakes (Uchali being the biggest lake among covering an area of 950 hectares). The triple complex was declared a Ramsar Site, a wetland of global importance in 1996, giving it the status of a wildlife sanctuary.
The triple complex is situated in the Soon Valley, a key biodiversity hotspot in Punjab province. Part of the Salt Range ecosystem, it is the highest section of the entire range, with an average elevation of 800 metres above sea level. In addition to the lakes, the area boasts a forest tract, which is the largest single compact block of scrub forest, known as “sub-tropical broad leaved evergreen forest” in the province. In 1984, the Chinji Forest was notified as a national park.

Along with 173 avian species that are the highlight of this area, there are mammal species (Punjab urial, wild boar, Asiatic jackal, cape hare, mongoose, pangolin and the red fox) which have been reported from here, adding to its diversity. The winged guests grace the lakes from November to March annually. This important wintering ground hosts a wide range of birds including the greater flamingo, common coot (maximum population during the season), common sand piper, great cormorant, common teal, mallard, northern pintail, gadwall and common black headed gull. There are a number of globally threatened and near threatened species as well including the white headed duck, ferruginous duck and common pochard.

Copy rights WWF-Pakistan
Dr Farooq Ahmed, a local of the valley who has worked with WWF-Pakistan for approximately a decade as conservation officer, shared that more than 50 different species visit the area during the season and at any given time there are approximately 50,000 birds on these lakes. He also added that the most important bird that visits the area is the white headed duck, whose population is endangered globally. During the 1990s, its population that used to visit was estimated to be more than 100, however in the recent years it is sadly limited to around 10 to 12 birds.

In recent years, environmentalists have noticed an alarming decrease in numbers of migratory birds.This habitat has multiple threats that are damaging the ecosystem both individually and collectively.

One of the key issues is illegal hunting. It is believed by locals that this practice caused birds to change their route as they avoided the area where they didn’t feel welcomed. In Dr Farooq’s words, in the recent times illegal hunting has decreased considerably and a lot of credit goes to the work done by WWF-Pakistan on ground with the local communities. With increased awareness they now take full ownership and understand that the health of this natural resource is connected to their own. A few years back, due to the community’s strong opposition, the provincial government had to stop issuing hunting permits for the area. 

Other threats include deforestation, land reclamation and degradation of the habitat due to climate change, pollution and intensive agriculture.

Deforestation adds to the issue of climate change by aiding rising temperatures and at the same time causing erosion resulting in sedimentation turning the lakes murky. Climate change is a very serious threat and the area underwent a drought during this year’s migratory season, a repeat episode that was faced between 1997 and 2003. Intensive agriculture is another looming problem. Cabbage and potatoes are planted off-season in the surrounding areas which puts additional pressure on the water bodies.