Gilgit-Baltistan is a critical catchment and source of water for hundreds of millions of disadvantaged people across Pakistan as a major part of the Indus River watershed. The Indus provides water (and thus food through irrigation of the arid lowlands of Pakistan) for much of the country. The Indus cuts through Gilgit-Baltistan Province, and this region’s great conifer forests (some of the very last native forests left in the entire country) are crucial to water management, as otherwise excessive run-off, erosion, and siltation can lead to flash flooding (resulting in thousands of deaths every year), hydropower breakdowns, and changes in water regimes that can lead to crop and drinking water failure across much of the country.
Only roughly 4% of Gilgit-Baltistan is still covered in natural forest, with another 5% of the land covered in forest plantations (e.g., planted fruit trees, poplars, etc.). Diamer District contains some of the last remaining conifer forest in Gilgit-Baltistan. The natural forest zone in Diamer stretches from roughly 7,500 feet to 12,500 feet in elevation and still contains extensive conifer forests of deodar cedar, blue pine and chilghoza pine, fir, spruce, and juniper, interspersed with oak at lower elevations and birch at higher elevations.
Unfortunately, Pakistan also has one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world. Extensive (and often illegal) logging has dramatically reduced the remaining forest cover of pine, spruce, deodar cedar, and juniper. These externally driven logging enterprises (locally knows as the “timber mafia”) have devastated the conifer forests in many of the valleys and have an enormous negative effect of wildlife and livelihoods. Logging enterprises provide little economic return to local communities, and they threaten the ability of communities to survive over the long term from loss of important resources, e.g., timber, firewood, and forest products such as pine nuts and morel mushrooms. It also directly causes significant soil erosion and loss of pastureland in this highly vertical mountain region.
Erosion in the mountains of Pakistan is greatly intensified by rain. Gilgit-Baltistan is extremely arid, with the centrally located town of Gilgit only receiving on average 127 mm of precipitation a year. This is due to the rain shadow effect of the Himalayas, but periodically rains associated with the summer monsoons that strike the south of Pakistan reach into the mountains and can result in disastrous flooding. Floods in 2010 led to over 2,000 lives lost, displaced over 20 million people, and caused damage estimated at over US$40 billion across Pakistan, with major destruction and loss of life in the mountains.
Forests maintain soil structure and control erosion in a variety of well-documented ways. They lessen the direct impact of rain on soil by dissipating the speed, size, and force of raindrops; they improve drainage through their root systems, lessening the disastrous effects of surface run-off; and their root systems physically hold soils in place. Forest loss puts soils at risk of erosion from even minor rain events, and this is especially true for soils found on steep slopes as are found throughout Diamer District’s precipitous mountainous terrain.
Rivers and streams in Gilgit-Baltistan feed directly into the Indus River, which bisects the district as it runs out of the mountains to the plains in the south. Maintaining forests, and thus soil structure and overall ecosystem services in this region is critical not only to ecosystem function and thus wildlife and human communities of this area but to large-scale development projects such as the proposed Diamer Bhasha Dam, whose extensive reservoir will extend across a majority (roughly 60 miles) of Diamer District’s length. As an example, the Tarbela Dam, located downstream on the Indus River, has had its functional life decreased from 50 years to 20 years due to siltation, part of which is blamed on deforestation in these mountains.
Although forest loss in Gilgit-Baltistan was estimated to be occurring at a rate of roughly 10% per year in the early 1990s, the WCS community-based conservation program has had dramatic success in protecting forests in the region. WCS has helped create 65 community natural resource organizations with legally binding bylaws related to protection of forests. Illegal logging has stopped in most of the valleys where WCS community initiatives are underway, and a recent remote sensing forest cover assessment suggests that the entire WCS landscape (about 10,000 km2) may have lost less than 1% of forest cover from 2000-2012
Gilgit-Baltistan also has very important non-timber forest products (NTFPs), which includes chilghoza pine nuts as well as various medicinal and food plants. NTFPs are an important source of income that can supplement farming and livestock herding. Overharvesting is a threat to livelihoods of the mountain communities as well as to wildlife that also depends on these plants or plant products for food. WCS has helped local communities, the Provincial Forest Department Gilgit-Baltistan and UNDP to select sites for their Mountain & Markets and Business and Biodiversity projects and to establish biodiversity business enterprise committees under our program’s community resource organizations in Diamer and Astore Districts, with the aims to protect and generate optimum benefits through proper marketing of NTFPs.