In July 2022, 28-year-old Haroon Jan finished storing away a carefully planned stock of firewood in his home in Mankyal village, in northern Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. Jan planned to use the wood to keep him and his family warm through the coming winter, and for maintenance of their house. But just a month later, flash floods hit Mankyal. The gushing water swept away Jan’s house, and the wood stored inside.
“It happened within the blink of an eye,” Jan recalls. 34 people lost their lives in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Swat district during flash floods in August 2022, according to a spokesperson from the Swat government who spoke with The Third Pole. As many as 1,049 houses were damaged in Bahrain tehsil (subdistrict), in Swat, on 26 August alone. After the floods, Jan and his fellow villagers turned to the nearby mountain forests to replenish the wood stock they had lost.
According to Zubair Torwali, an environmental activist from Kalam in Swat district who spoke with The Third Pole in November 2022, “Pressure on forests in Swat has doubled since recent floods with little to no check from authority.”
Similar scenes have occurred across Pakistan since massive floods driven by extreme monsoon rainfall hit the country in July and August 2022, experts tell The Third Pole. Around 8 million people were displaced, and faced both limited access to firewood and unprecedented gas outages, as major gas supply lines were damaged. Many people affected by the floods were left with no option but to cut down trees for fuel to cook with and heat their homes.
“They will survive this winter by cutting these forests but are they ready to survive next floods, that will come due to deforestation?” said Abdur Raheem Ziaratwal, a former provincial minister in Balochistan. “We are born alongside these trees, they are our lifeline and the lungs of the environment –save them or no one can save you from disasters,” Ziaratwal told The Third Pole.
‘Timber mafia’ exploit opportunity
The juniper forests of Ziarat, in southwest Pakistan’s Balochistan province, extend across more than 110,000 hectares and are the second largest juniper forests in the world, according to Pakistan’s submission to UNESCO to recognise the forests as a World Heritage Site. Some trees in the forests may be thousands of years old.
Local people have always gathered wood for their daily use from the forests. But according to Mahmud Tareen, a Ziarat resident and environmental activist, “Post-flood stress on these forests is unprecedented.”
The government should be mindful of the fact that once these meagre forests disappear, [conflict over resources] will not only threaten peace in the volatile region but also the existence of millions.
Zafar Khan, sociologist, University of Peshawar
While condemning the environmental impact of the deforestation, Tareen noted that locals have no alternative source of fuel. “If they don’t cut trees for firewood, the option is to die of cold,” he told The Third Pole. Temperatures frequently dip below zero during winter in the Balochistan cities of Quetta and Ziarat.
One factor exacerbating the situation has been illegal loggers jumping at the economic opportunity presented by heightened demand for timber. According to Malik Achakzai, assistant professor at Balochistan University’s Department of Journalism, the cities of Ziarat, Quetta and Qalat were flooded with firewood from October, when gas outages coincided with the arrival of cold weather. Aware of people’s desperation, in October 2022 sellers in Ziarat and Quetta were charging PKR 2,000-2,500 (USD 9-11] for a donkey-load of firewood from the juniper forests, compared to PKR 500-800 (USD 2.5-4) before the floods, Achakzai told The Third Pole.
Zubair Torwali described a similar situation in Swat, in northern Pakistan. “In the past, the timber mafia was not that greedy. They would cut large trees and leave behind its branches and fallen trees – people would mostly use [those] as firewood. But now [after the floods], the timber mafia don’t leave them behind, so people cut standing trees to fulfil their needs. That adds pressure on the forests.”
Tree loss was also witnessed in Sindh province, in southeastern Pakistan, in the aftermath of last year’s floods. “Logging in the riverine forests on the River Indus and coastal mangroves intensified after the floods last year in September, as even those who would [previously] use gas are now dependent on firewood,” Ghulam Jaffar, a forest range officer in the Sindh Forest Department, told The Third Pole.
Pakistan’s need for firewood
According to a 2018 study from the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDEE), citing the FAO, an estimated “72 per cent of all wood used in Pakistan is consumed as fuel wood.” The same study says that around 51 million people in Pakistan have no access to electricity, while in 2022 PIDE reported that 78 per cent of households in Pakistan have no access to gas.
The Pakistan Economic Survey 2021-22 identifies firewood and timber extraction as among the main drivers of forest cover loss in Pakistan. According to the Sindh Forest Department, demand for fuelwood in the province stands at around 6.4 million m3, whereas sustained supply is only around 1.68 million m3, leaving a huge gap between supply and demand.
A 2016 study looking at deforestation in the Pakistan Himalayas (including Pakistan-administered Kashmir, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan) identifies demand for fuelwood as the main driver of deforestation in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and a major contributor to deforestation in mountainous Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province (alongside commercial timber harvesting and militant activities).
Compound threats facing Pakistan’s forests
A growing population and dependence on forest resources like firewood are compounding other threats to Pakistan’s depleting forest cover, which continue to escalate.
A senior official at the Forestry Environment and Wildlife Department of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Third Pole that unplanned urbanisation and unchecked grazing have been taking a heavy toll on forests in the mountainous province. The official said that rates of deforestation in privately-owned forests doubled after the 2022 floods – a ban on cutting trees in government-owned forests means pressure is concentrated elsewhere. And although construction is banned in government-owned forests, development in adjoining private areas for the expanding tourism sector has seen deforestation spill over into government forests, the official said.
Pakistan’s minister for climate change Sherry Rahman told The Third Pole that illegal logging is a major reason behind loss of forest cover in Pakistan. Speaking in November 2022, Rahman said that provincial governments are responsible for management of forests under the 18th Constitutional Amendment Act 2010.
Zafar Khan, a sociologist at the University of Peshawar, stressed that deforestation in Pakistan has serious socio-economic and environmental impacts on the people of the country. “The government should be mindful of the fact that once these meagre forests disappear, [conflict over resources] will not only threaten peace in the volatile region but also the existence of millions,” Khan told The Third Pole. But addressing unsustainable take of wood for fuel is a complex task. “One-sided implementation of laws and banning cutting of trees without providing alternatives have not and will not stop deforestation,” said author and environmentalist Sultan-i-Rome.
Sherry Rahman agrees: speaking at a session of the Pakistan National Assembly in October 2022, Rahman emphasised, “Those who cut forests for firewood cannot be arrested as they don’t have any other option to cook and heat their homes during winter.”
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