In Pakistan, too often, forested lands are treated as “free wastelands”. Deforestation and forest degradation is occurring primarily due to institutional negligence. An eye-opening example is massive deforestation in just four months observed in National Zoo-cum Park & Botanical Garden, Bani Gala, right in the capital territory of Islamabad. (see Fig. 1).
Figure 1: A massive deforestation in four months (May-Oct, 2016) in National Zoo-cum Park & Botanical Garden, Bani Gala, Islamabad (Source of satellite images: Google Earth)
In Pakistan, many people consider real estate as the best investment, and this gives incentives for encroachers to intrude on state-owned land. Forested lands, due to their natural beauty and as a source of a double benefit, i.e., timber and land, are especially threatened by illegal land grabbers. Another example of forest degradation in Murree, Galliat region can be seen in Fig. 2, where 7.58 km2 of forest land was destroyed by housing societies.
Figure 2: Illegal encroachments in state-owned forests from 2005 to 2011: Bahria Golf City (Above) and OGDC Housing Society (Below). (Source of satellite images: Google Earth). See more detail in this published research article.
On the bright side, in recent years Pakistan has taken gigantic steps towards tree plantation under national (Green Pakistan Programme) and provincial (Billion Tree Tsunami in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) initiates. These initiates have been well received and recognised globally. As an example, in 2009, Pakistan received a certificate from Guinness Book of World Records in acknowledgment of planting 541,176 mangrove plants in a single day in Keti Bunder (Indus Delta), Thatta district, Sindh province (see Fig. 3).
Figure 3: Monitoring mangrove plantations: Repeat terrestrial photographs taken on May 2010 and May 2015 (left) and satellite images showing afforestation and conversion of mudflats into new mangroves (right). (Source of photographs: WWF-Pakistan; source of satellite images: Google Earth).
We should not forget that since 2011, Pakistan is part of UN-REDD (United National- Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program. Under the REDD program, developing countries receive performance-based incentives (payments) for reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses from forestlands. National Forest Monitoring System (NFMS) and Forest Reference Emission Level (FREL) / Forest Reference Level (FRL) systems are mandatory elements for REDD reporting system to get the financial benefits. Accurate and up-to-date information about the size, distribution, composition, and condition of forests and woodlands is essential for developing and monitoring policies and guidance to support their sustainable management. Although, in Pakistan, many independent researchers and organizations are conducting a number of scattered and local studies (e.g. Mapping Deforestation and Forest Degradation Patterns in Western Himalaya, Pakistan), however, a fundamental question remains:
How can we, in a systematic and transparent manner, map and monitor wall to wall Pakistan land cover and forest areas at the national scale?
Over the years, the use of satellite remote sensing data has become most popular among researchers and policy makers, for both smaller and larger scales. Consistent time series medium resolution freely available remote sensing data (e.g. Landsat, Sentinel-2 etc.) provide frequent, synoptic, and accurate measurements, monitoring, and simulation of earth surface features, especially forests. Unbiased ground information (field surveys, photographs, forest inventory, etc.) are very much necessary for the accuracy and evaluation of any product derived from satellite images. Under the REDD program, for FREL/FRL construction and reporting, Pakistan has to follow the guidance and guidelines of IPCC and the UNFCCC. For reporting to international bodies, Pakistan has to combine remote sensing and ground-based forest carbon inventory approaches for estimating, as appropriate, anthropogenic forest-related greenhouse gas emissions by sources and removals by sinks, forest carbon stocks, and forest area changes.
So, in my view, without further delay, Pakistan needs to take five steps for better forest management and policy formulations on the national scale:
- To operationalize satellite-based annual forest monitoring system for spatial quantification of deforestation, forest degradation, and afforestation
- To conduct comprehensive forest inventories for accuracy assessment, current forest stock, and greenhouse gas inventory
- To assess satellite-based land cover and land use changes at 5 years interval as an activity data for FRL reporting
- To map forest type and biomass/carbon stocks through integration of satellite and forest inventory data for spatial identification and quantification of habitats of tree species
- To develop a web-based visualization and dissemination tool using geospatial and socio-economic data for transparency and consistency
Conflicts of Interest: The findings reported stand as scientific study and observations of the author and do not necessarily reflect as the views of author’s organizations.
About this post: This is a guest post by Hammad Gilani. Learn more about this blog’s authors here.