Fierce forest fires have been raging for days across the Margalla Hills that look down on Islamabad and then make their way north to merge with the Lesser Himalayas. The lack of rainfall experienced over the past months, leaving the woods dry and susceptible to fire, is of course a key factor in this. Recent drizzle has helped douse some, but not all, the flames. Fire-fighting teams remain locked in a struggle to save trees and also the wildlife so badly affected by the destruction of their habitat. This is all the more true given that we lack sufficient forest cover and have been rapidly losing it across the county not just because of forest fires, which occur every year, but as a result of operations by timber mafias, the rapid growth of the population and a lack of priority directed towards environmental needs. The damage done by the timber mafia has been especially severe, with governments seemingly unable to do anything, in part because of connivance of some officials.
The impact of the environment on human life has been ignored for far too long. As a consequence of tree-felling we have worsened air quality in all our major cities. The de-forestation in northern areas also means women – responsible for keeping household stoves lit – must go further afield and labour longer to bring home fuel needed to cook food and provide heat through the freezing months of winter.
These factors make it imperative that we do more to protect our forests and to expand the areas currently under tree cover. The Margalla fires, in some cases at least, are thought to have been caused by a cigarette butt or lit match during camping trips carelessly dropped on the bone-dry forest floor. In other cases, thoughtless acts or arson may be involved and the hot weather spreads the fire further. These take place elsewhere too. We need to create greater responsibility among citizens and educate people everywhere about the value of trees and how they contribute in various ways to the welfare of people living everywhere.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 31st, 2010.