Sixty-seven years ago, 47 per cent of the land in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) was covered by forests, including tracts of virgin forest land in Neelum Valley. Now, the area has been whittled down to just 12 per cent, as deforestation, landslides and sewage water have swept through the region and destroyed the green belt. “In the upper areas of AJK, where there is no liquefied petroleum gas facility, people are cutting the trees to use the wood for fuel in cooking and heating,” explained Secretary Forest Farhat Ali Mir.
As the trees are used to build homes and the timber smuggled, unabated deforestation in Neelum and Leepa Valleys have led to increased landslides and flash floods, environmental experts say. “Springs that are the main source of drinking water in the hilly areas of AJK are drying up due to deforestation,” said expert Shafiq Abbasi. “The soil has loosened here and landslides have occurred, which changes the terrain.”
Environmental researchers say the government must crack down on timber smuggling here and the use of wood for construction by locals.
Additionally, the three main rivers – the Jhelum, Neelum and Poonch – in AJK are being increasingly used to discharge sewage water in the areas of Muzaffarabad, Kotli, Hatain Bala and Neelum. The water is slowly becoming poisonous for fish, flora and fauna.
Meanwhile, as construction companies in AJK dispose of waste material in these waters, the streams are further polluted. The AJK Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has raised the issue with construction companies working in earthquake-hit areas of Muzaffarabad, but to no avail.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2014.