Earthquake Touched Off Deadly Slides in Kashmir's Deforested Hills

By Itrat Bashir

MUZAFFARABAD, Azad Jammu and Kashmir, November 30, 2005 (ENS) - Continuous landslides in the Muzaffarabad district are raising levels of dust pollution, and have limited the visibility to five meters (16 feet) in some areas. The severe October 8 earthquake rattled these mountains, where slopes were already destabilized by years of deforestation.

Officials in the wildlife and forest department of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, (AJK) are of the view that an estimated 30 percent of the 87,000 people who died in the magnitude 7.6 earthquake could have been saved if there had been fewer landslides.

The officials, who declined to be named, blamed deforestation of the area for the huge landslides that contributed to a death toll that has risen to 43,399 people and left 31,069 others injured in the AJK districts of Muzaffarabad, Neelum, Bagh, Rawlakot and Palandri.

In the Muzaffarabad district alone the quake has affected the 583 villages, where it killed 33,724 people and injured 21,374 others.

In Muzaffarabad City, casualties were low in the forested areas, by contrast with the deforested areas.

After the earthquake, the AJK wildlife and forest officials said, rain caused huge landslides in which some 100 villages fell from mountains, many of them into rivers, causing huge casualties.


Man prays beside one of the landslides that killed thousands of people after the quake. (Photo courtesy UN)
After the cutting of trees, the topsoil becomes loose, they explained, creating an ideal set of conditions for landslides after rain or ground movement.

After the landslides, many villages on hilltops that were far from a cliff have come close to that cliff and if another landslide occurs those villages, inhabited by hundreds of people in tents, could also fall into a ditch or river.

The villagers cannot move to avoid the landslides, they said, as they cannot take chance of losing their livestock, which is their source of livelihood.

The AJK officials said that the landslides also buried vehicles and killed many people on the spot.

"It was unfortunate to see that all the debris and vehicles, including the bodies of unfortunate souls that were blocking roads, had to be shoved into the river in order to reopen the road," they said.

Landslides are only one of the dangers earthquake survivors face. The winter is closing in.

Rain and snow hit Pakistan's part of Kashmir on Saturday, blocking roads and grounding aid helicopters. Since the quake, aid agencies have been warning of another disaster among the survivors, who have been living in tents in the Himalayan highlands.

Eight people have died in northwestern Pakistan and Kashmir due to exposure to winter weather, and doctors said the situation could worsen if arrangements are not quickly made to provide winterized shelters to quake survivors. The government of Pakistan has shifted its focus from providing tents to providing shelters.

The mountains surrounding Muzaffarabad City show bare patches, where the mountain is prone to landslides. However, in places where trees grew in lush green hardly any landslides took place, and while the people residing on forested lands were shaken by the earthquake, they were safe from landslides.

The contrast provides evidence that human impact on nature caused huge casualities after the earthquake.

From a broader perspective, the revenue from commercial harvesting of trees in the region looks very small when compared with the cost of damages that were caused by landslides after earthquake.

The AJK officials warned that deforestation is taking place at an alarming rate of 4.1 percent per year. They said that although the presence of timber mafia in the area is almost nil, local consumption, commercial harvesting, over-grazing and development are the major factors for the deforestation.

"The AJK government sells timber to Pakistan on commercial rate as well as to locals on a subsidized rate, which is putting a burden on the depleted forest." The AJK Forest Department earns Rs 360 million per year through the sale of timber, they said.


The quake shook loose entire mountainsides. (Photo courtesy UN)
In addition, local people use the wood for fuel and house construction, besides using forest areas for grazing of their animals.

"All these factors add up to destruction of the forest areas," the forest and wildlife officials warned.

To conserve these forests, the officials say it is "essential" to compensate the AJK government for the lost income that would result from curbing timber sales, while the people living on hilltops should be relocated to minimize human impact on forest areas.

Moreover, the new location should be equipped with alternate fuel to minimize the use of wood for fuel.

Finding alternate fuels would not only help in saving the environment, but also minimize landslides in to AJK rivers, which ultimately end up behind the Mangla Dam, causing huge silting and, in the process, reducing the dam's capacity.

The United Nations Development Programme has launched an initiative to help 30,000 families in the high mountains to build locally designed winterized shelters from the rubble of their homes and locally available materials.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has deployed teams to fix water and sanitation problems in the makeshift camps following an outbreak of diarrhea.

With freezing rains intensifying the race against winter and disease, the United Nations has so far received less than a fifth of the $550 million it needs to assist the three million people left homeless by the disaster.