Counting the environmental cost of tourism in Chitral
CHITRAL: There is a pressing need to balance the need to maintain natural habitat while expanding tourism in Chitral.
Shandur polo ground in Chitral sets the stage for a fierce match where spectators flock to the region to witness the smell of heat, blood and sweat each July. However, while the three-day festival provides a display of intense valour and colour, little or no thought is given to damage done to the environment.
“While people enjoy, I feel like committing suicide seeing the heaps of garbage thrown into lakes and streams in Shandur,” enthusiastic environmentalist and Chitral Heritage Environment Protection Society (CHEPS) Chairperson Rehmat Ali Jaffar told The Express Tribune. “Shandur is not just for polo players but it is a place for everyone and the damage caused to flora and fauna cannot be ignored.”
Ali said the celebratory fireworks at the festival this year were remarkable but the noise they caused frightened many animals. “Many horses fainted and wildlife including ibexes, Brown Bears, golden and white eagles and snow leopards ran away and even the risk of glaciers exploding in the area increased,” he said. Ali added environmentalists believe people do not even talk near glaciers lest they explode.
He said Shandur serves as pastoral grounds for animals that belong to residents of adjoining areas like Laspur. “Sheep, donkeys, yaks, goats and cows feed on land that is polluted and drink water from streams that are inundated with tangible waste, particularly plastic and leftover food with preservatives,” he said, adding, they die and people are responsible for it.
Laspur columnist Dr Inayatalluh Faizi told The Express Tribune many animals particularly black toads and white ducks die due to the pollution caused by festivities in the region during the event.
“The players wash their jeeps and all the dust and sand gets washed into streams from which not only cattle belonging to locals but also wildlife like markhors drink water,” he said.
“The locals take care of the situation but awareness on the part of many government officials is missing,” Faizi added.
Considered the Parliament of Chitral, Shandur is the only place where people can convey their grievances to higher authorities who visit the area for the polo festival.
“We only have one MNA in Chitral and have little voice in the assembly,” a local journalist told The Express Tribune. “Shandur is an important platform for us since we communicate our issues to them [higher authorities] who come to watch the match.”
Given the significance, people are grateful for the festival, however, they urge the government to assess the environmental damage to the area and prevent it. “A sustainable environment is crucial for our future generations,” the journalist said.
According to Ali, locals of Laspur held a news conference at Chitral Press Club a week prior to the festival to curb the hazards. However, the government has paid little heed to the matter.
The Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Director General Dr Bashir Khan told The Express Tribune there was no EPA office in Chitral. “The EPA Act, 2014 does not even extend to Provincially Administered Tribal Areas (Pata) and our offices in Malakand Division only serve as advisory bodies,” he said. The DG added the governor has asked the president to extend the act so that more regions can have implementation of laws but nothing had been done so far.
While Tourism Corporation K-P and Laspur Community Development Organisation (LCDO) collaborate to manage the area, post-festival Shandur dumped with garbage and trash has been left at the mercy of locals.
The coordinator of a non-governmental organisation, Snow Leopard Foundation, Khurshid Ali Shah told The Express Tribune that on the last day of the festival, they held an awareness campaign in the region. “Shopkeepers, hoteliers and people residing in the valley were taken to the sites dumped with litter and taught about the damage caused to the environment,” he said.
Shah added while the K-P wildlife department coordinates with their organisation and with locals, there is an absolute dearth of adequate resources to solve the situation. “Two months after the festival, TCKP has sent a cheque of Rs0.3 million to LCDO but so many species have died already,” he added.
Shah said a wise thing would be to allocate sufficient funds and work on conservation prior to the festival so damage to ecology can be minimised.