In a virtual panel discussion hosted by the Press for Peace Foundation UK, environmentalists and civil society representatives called on the government to address the deteriorating environmental situation in the Azad Kashmir region. A statement released Monday at the end of the virtual panel discussion said the process of diverting rivers for power generation projects has multiplied local temperature, with severe impacts on local populations.
The water sources and rivers of Azad Jammu and Kashmir have been played with on behalf of hydroelectric projects, the panelists said. EPA recommendations were ignored. The sewage treatment plant for Muzaffarabad, a major water supply system and solid waste disposal projects were not implemented. No trees have been planted on the banks of the rivers in Muzaffarabad, no bodies of water have been created and garbage and hospital waste are dumped into the river.
The ecological balance of wild and aquatic life is disappearing, and fish from Neelum to Nauseri are endangered.
Panelists call for immediate action to protect the region’s natural resources, aquatic and wildlife life, and civil liberties. They also stressed the need to build bridges and underpasses for wildlife, and the establishment of environmental courts and tribunals.
Climate change threatens future glacier destruction, rising temperatures and human migration.
The environmental dialogue 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 included Raja Muhammad Razzaq, an IUCN member and former Director-General of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), activist Faisal Jamil Kashmiri and Shahid Awan, a civil society leader.
The environmentalist Dr. Baseeruddin Qureshi, Estonia-based Kashmiri environmentalist Fahad Ali Kazmi, EPA Director ShafiqAbbasi, Press for Peace Foundation UK Director 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 civil society should play a leading role in conserving natural resources and the environment. The biggest reason for the growing environmental problems is the lack of political will, as political parties are not interested in environmental issues, he added. The environment is not included in the construction and development sector. He said activation of the EPA’s Environmental Council was needed.
Social activist Faisal Jamil Kashmiri said the state’s water sources and rivers had been tampered with on behalf of hydroelectric 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, causing the water level in Thar and some other areas of Sindh to drop by 80 feet.
He said the EPA’s environmental recommendations were ignored in the Neelum-Jhelum project. The previous government of Pakistan had ordered the river to be surveyed again. The Azad Kashmir government and WAPDA have failed miserably in fulfilling their responsibilities in the Neelum Jhelum project.
Muzaffarabad’s big supporter Faisal Jameel Kashmiri, who cited several examples of government neglect and negligence regarding the Neelum-Jhelum project, said that no sewage treatment plant and major water supply system had been built to protect the environment. He added that the waste disposal project in the capital has not been implemented.
No trees were planted along the river banks and no bodies of water were constructed. There are a number of laws in place including the Forest Regulation Act 1928, the Environmental Protection Act 2000 and the Wildlife Preservation Act 1974. Anyone causing a loss of Rs 1,000 will be fined Rs 10,000 and should go to jail.
He called for an environmental judge and an environmental court. Government should ensure implementation of the Forest, Wildlife and EPA Act and other legislation. Civil society at all levels will speak out to save the natural environment and local resources.
The environmental expert Dr. Basiruddin Qureshi said that the wild and aquatic life in Azad Kashmir is a great boon to the local people. As the human population has increased, stress on forests has increased and the frequency of collisions between humans and wildlife has increased. Wildlife and aquatic life play an important role in ecological balance. As a result of the Neelam Jhelum project, the native fish are running out from Nosiri to Muzaffarabad.
Wildfires cause irreparable damage to wildlife and the loss of forests. He warned that wildlife would be adversely affected by large hydropower and other development projects. Underpasses should be built to ensure the free movement of wildlife on roads and other construction projects, and wildlife and aquatic life protection should be included in mega hydroelectric projects.
ShahidAwan, a civil society leader and President of Anjuman-e-Shehryan, said that with the growing number of tourists coming to Azad Kashmir, the government should clarify its ecotourism policy and take the necessary steps to conserve natural resources. The government has allowed roads and chaotic construction works in critical places connected to the natural environment, endangering the environment. Rs 26 crores was allocated to Muzaffarabad for a waste management project that was not spent and no recycling project was started. He described the sanitation situation in Muzaffarabad as deplorable and said that the waste from AIMS hospital and the entire city was being dumped into the rivers. He fears that unless water resources and rivers are protected, citizens will be forced to relocate in the future.
Urban planning expert Haseeb Khawaja called Azad Kashmir’s growing trend towards unwieldy buildings polluting and said a master plan is urgently needed to bring Muzaffarabad and other major cities up to date. A Japanese organization JICA had predicted another earthquake in Muzaffarabad due to a fault line and recommended moving the population away from the fault line, but the government had been lax.
EPA Director ShafiqAbbasi said the populations of five major cities including Muzaffarabad, Rawalakot, Bagh and Kotli have increased exponentially in recent years, but waste disposal and other services have been unable to meet local needs. Regarding the government’s initiatives regarding local environmental issues, he said that the Pakistani government is conducting a new feasibility study. The aim is to estimate the water needs in the lower reaches of the Neelum River after the Neelum-Jhelum project and to save local resources and take other environmentally friendly measures as a result of the project. More than Rs. 300 million has already been allocated to the local government ministry for solid waste management, he said.
He said that Azad Kashmir is making step-by-step progress in fulfilling its environmental protection responsibilities. We need to adapt our development to local resources.
Environmental scientist Fahad Ali Kazemi said that such trees planted in Azad Kashmir went against the local environment. This trend has a negative impact on the environment. Large development projects affect water resources and forests. He said people should use vehicles that emit less carbon. We use old vehicles that are unserviceable and unsuitable for the environment. People should take their environment seriously. This requires climate change to be an important part of the conversation on social media and in the private sphere.
Prof. Zafar Iqbal said that the Press for Peace Foundation has volunteered for the past two decades on social and environmental issues. Climate change is one of the top issues of the day, and workshops, panel discussions, and other public awareness programs are being distributed across the state. Literature on local characters and themes is being developed to raise environmental awareness among younger generations.