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Centuries-Old Homes Abandoned as Natural Springs Dry Up in Bajaur

Gandao, a modest village comprising fifty households nestled at the base of Shangus mountain in Utmankhel Tehsil of Bajaur, paints a vivid picture of the profound impacts of climate change.

by TNN Editor - 26 Aug, 2023 1501
centuries-old-homes-abandoned-as-natural-springs-dry-up-in-bajaur

Misbah ud Din Utmani

Gandao, a modest village comprising fifty households nestled at the base of Shangus mountain in Utmankhel Tehsil of Bajaur, paints a vivid picture of the profound impacts of climate change.

Over the past five years, the groundwater level here has plunged by a staggering 36 feet, unleashing an ominous water crisis. However, this is not the extent of the catastrophe; more than ten natural springs that once generously nourished the land have dwindled into oblivion.

The consequences are dire – over a dozen families have been compelled to abandon their homes, seeking refuge elsewhere. Meanwhile, the specter of water scarcity haunts the remaining families, forcing them to contemplate the heartbreaking prospect of leaving their ancestral homes behind.

Nisar Ahmed, a 45-year-old father of seven, stands as a poignant example of the upheaval triggered by climate change. His roots run deep in the land of Gandao, where his family has flourished for over two centuries.

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With a heavy heart, he recounts the transformation that has unfolded. Once, more than a dozen natural springs gushed forth, their crystal-clear waters quenching the thirst of 60 to 70 households. The abundant flow, once measured in inches, was sufficient not only for domestic needs but also for playful children who frolicked in its embrace. Yet, the tide turned abruptly around four to five years ago. The once-reliable springs started diminishing, their life-giving streams gradually receding. Today, the stark reality is clear – the most fundamental sustenance has vanished, and the absence of drinking water extends its cruel grip even to the avian inhabitants of Gandao.

Women Bear the Burden: Fetching Water from Afar

In a poignant portrayal of the water crisis gripping Gandao, the women of the village shoulder the weight of hardship as they traverse great distances to fetch water. Balanced precariously atop their heads, they carry this life-giving elixir from several kilometers away. For the men, the task is delegated to donkeys – a testament to the grueling and distressing nature of their daily routine.

The scarcity of water has cast its shadow so ominously that the community was compelled to make a heart-wrenching decision. Seeking solace from the relentless water scarcity, they left behind their ancestral village six months ago, seeking refuge in Tehsil Salarzai, which lies approximately six kilometers distant. Yet, even this migration couldn't escape the clutches of the same dire dilemma.

Nisar offers a firsthand account of the predicament faced by the local populace. The water scarcity has cast a pall of uncertainty over their lives, compelling them to seek a way out. Migration beckons to many, a desperate attempt to escape the clutches of a water-starved existence. But the means to achieve this are elusive; the financial resources needed to make such a transition remain a distant dream.

Bajaur's Battle: Depleting Groundwater and Vanishing Springs

The ominous situation witnessed in Gandao finds eerie resonance across Bajaur, a district grappling with the depletion of groundwater levels and the haunting disappearance of once-abundant natural springs. This crisis, however, extends beyond the confines of a single village.

A report unveiled to the Senate by the Federal Ministry of Water and Reservoirs on August 27, 2021, paints a bleak picture of the landscape. Over the past decade, the groundwater levels in five districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have plummeted with alarming swiftness, foreshadowing the impending threat of severe shortages and drought. The list of districts afflicted by this ecological ordeal includes Khyber, Haripur, Mohmand, and most notably, Bajaur – ranking as the fourth most affected district. In Bajaur alone, the groundwater level has dwindled by a staggering 32.79 feet, underscoring the urgency of addressing this crisis.

Eucalyptus Trees and the Enigma of Drying Springs

Could the once-bountiful natural springs' mysterious disappearance be attributed to the presence of eucalyptus trees? A hypothesis gaining traction in Gandao paints a compelling narrative. Nisar Ahmad, a keen observer of his village's transformation, firmly believes that the eucalyptus trees, so densely planted on the Shangus Mountain – locally known as 'Lachi' – hold the key to the riddle.

Nisar Ahmad's perspective is profoundly rooted in the annals of time. He recollects an era prior to 2019 when the water level exhibited remarkable stability – a stark contrast to the present predicament. In an unfortunate twist of fate, the tranquility of this water-rich landscape was disrupted about four years ago. With a palpable sense of concern, he recounts the mass planting of over 100,000 eucalyptus trees in the Shangus Mountains, a watershed moment that heralded a new chapter in the village's water woes. Evidently, the eucalyptus trees' growth coincided with the dwindling of over a dozen natural springs nestled in the mountains.

Nisar Ahmad, however, is not alone in this realization; his observations mirror those of many across the region. The ominous tale of drying springs seems to follow the trail of eucalyptus trees, their shadow casting a long and sobering impact. This phenomenon isn't confined to Gandao's confines; its impact has reverberated wherever these trees have taken root.

Statistics from the Department of Forestry, Bajaur, amplify the scale of this environmental enigma. The ambitious 10 billion tree tsunami project, launched in 2018, has witnessed the planting of approximately 6.2 million trees in Bajaur by 2023. Remarkably, eucalyptus trees constitute a staggering 30 percent of this staggering figure, numbering at 1.86 million. An accelerated implementation program, spanning five years, added 102,125 more trees to this count, including 10,637 eucalyptus trees.

Seeking an expert's insight, the spotlight shifts to Zakirullah Jan – an environmental science expert and an authoritative voice within the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Research Department specializing in water and soil. The verdict, according to Jan, is clear and categorical.

He attributes the perturbing phenomenon of drying springs and plummeting groundwater levels in Bajaur to the confluence of climate change and a pivotal decision made in the name of conservation – the inclusion of eucalyptus trees in the Billion Tree Tsunami Project. This puzzling choice, intended to expedite the project's progress, now stands accused of fostering an unforeseen ecological conundrum, causing not only groundwater depletion but also the desiccation of natural springs dotting the mountainous terrain.

Eucalyptus Trees' Water Consumption Unveiled

A striking revelation emerges from a recent global study: a single eucalyptus tree possesses an astonishing appetite for water, guzzling anywhere between five to 15 gallons from the earth daily. Translated to the metric system, this amounts to 18.9 to 56.8 liters per day, a staggering feat executed through the tree's intricate hydraulic network. Intriguingly, this absorbed water eventually finds its way back into the atmosphere through the leaves, a complex natural cycle.

Eucalyptus trees, native to Australia, have made a significant mark in environmental discourse. However, even in their land of origin, they are strategically planted in regions distant from human habitation and existing forests. A key reason lies in their unique root structure, delving deep into the earth – a trait that, paradoxically, disrupts underground water reservoirs and springs.

Jameel Ahmed, a Community Development Officer from the Forestry Department, offers insights into the meticulous planning preceding such planting initiatives. Location assessment and consultation with landowners and local stakeholders shape the selection of plant species compatible with the region's climate and requirements. During the last five years, the remarkable figure of 1,890,637 eucalyptus trees found their home in Bajaur, capturing the preference of many in the region. This arboreal preference is substantiated by its economic viability, manifest in its swift growth and regeneration after harvesting, earning it the moniker of a deciduous tree.

While queries about potential groundwater repercussions arise, Jameel Ahmed is quick to dispel concerns. He contends that eucalyptus trees, despite their voracious water appetite, do not adversely affect groundwater levels. Their adaptability thrives in conditions of both abundance and scarcity, a quality attuned to Bajaur's variable water availability. Furthermore, the Forestry Department extends maintenance support for a modest three years, a tenure tailored to the trees' swift growth. Other species, like pines, demand a longer timeframe for establishment, particularly in higher altitudes, rendering them a less feasible option for such initiatives.

Zakirullah Jan, a seasoned expert in environmental science and water and soil dynamics, highlights another facet affecting underground water reserves. The fierce gaze of direct sunlight upon barren land accelerates water vaporization, unsettling the water balance. In contrast, regions adorned with ecologically diverse flora and cultivated crops offer respite; these plants shield the earth's surface from direct solar exposure, thus fostering groundwater preservation.

A Complex Interaction: Lifestyle and the Shifting Climate

In a thought-provoking perspective, Zakirullah unveils our modern lifestyle as a pivotal contributor to the climate change conundrum. The architectural narrative of our times, marked by imposing and robust structures, inadvertently thwarts the natural absorption of rainwater. These sturdy edifices neither embrace rainwater nor permit the soil to imbibe it, thereby exacerbating the ecological imbalance.

Unveiling another facet of climate alteration, Zakirullah underscores the transformation in rainfall patterns. In bygone times, rain arrived in measured quantities, allowing the earth to leisurely absorb it. This gradual absorption facilitated the replenishment of underground water reservoirs. Yet, the contemporary scenario witnesses a shift; the intensity of rain escalates, while its duration diminishes. This change in rhythm impedes the earth's capacity to absorb water, causing excess runoff that cascades into rivers and eventually merges with the oceans.

Attributing a significant share of the underground water level decline to modern innovations, Zakirullah sheds light on solar-powered tube wells. While harnessing solar energy for water extraction has benefits, it often fuels unnecessary water depletion from underground reservoirs. This misguided abundance, squandered without heed, reverberates on the surface, engendering a plethora of repercussions.

Dr. Asad Qureshi, an Irrigation Scientist at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai, underscores the nation's role in the global groundwater narrative. Pakistan occupies the third rank in groundwater consumption, accounting for a substantial 9% of the world's total usage. A critical exploration of such statistics urges a collective reassessment of our relationship with the finite water resources the planet offers.

Beyond Bajaur: A Regional Predicament

Anwar ul Haque, the Deputy Commissioner of Bajaur, sheds light on the larger canvas, revealing that the plummeting groundwater level is not an isolated woe confined to Bajaur. Instead, it's a telling manifestation of the pervasive impacts of climate change that afflict the entirety of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Haque acknowledges a trio of intertwined factors that conspire to magnify this challenge. The wanton deforestation that scars the landscape, the collective apathy toward preserving the environment, and the shifting rain patterns all unite to precipitate this crisis. In the face of these intricately woven threads of adversity, Haque underscores the potential that emerges when communities and the government collaborate harmoniously. A symphony of efforts, he believes, holds the promise to surmount these predicaments.

Projecting toward the future, Haque unveils the 'Land Use and Building Plan,' a beacon of hope crafted by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government. This initiative will lay a comprehensive roadmap that addresses the perils of barren land while ushering in modern techniques of irrigation that salvage the waning groundwater reserves. Under this blueprint, strategic choices emerge; trees with a propensity for excessive water absorption will not find roots in Bajaur.

Simultaneously, steadfast measures to thwart rampant deforestation are being orchestrated. A testament to their commitment, Haque recounts the interception of 9 timber-laden trucks operated by the timber mafia, an act designed to quell the illicit felling of trees in Bajaur. These resolute interventions, he asserts, will act as a bulwark against the encroaching forces of climate change.

Note: This story is part of a Pakistan Press Foundation Fellowship.