The Newsletter of
Ecocide in the Land of Five Rivers
Guest article: Pardeep Singh Rai of Defenders of the Environment and Ecology of Panjab (DEEP) looks at the environmental crisis in the Panjab region, the famous 'Land of Five Rivers', where a century-and-a-half of industrial agricultural and environmental mismanagement have exacted a heavy toll on the natural environment.
My homeland, Panjab, in the north-western part of South Asia, is a semi-arid, landlocked region of mountain and riverine forests, open scrub woodlands, grasslands, wetlands, and freshwater aquatic ecosystems such as rivers, canals and seasonal rivulets (choes). These diverse habitats co-existed largely unspoilt until the region lost its independence in 1849. The British Raj brought commercial agriculture and indulged their predilection for big game hunting, driving tigers, leopards, wolves, cheetah and bears almost to extinction. However, it was not until the 'Green Revolution' of the 1960s brought a dramatic increase in the use of intensive irrigation, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, that decisive environmental degradation set in.
Since 1947, the Panjab has been divided between India and Pakistan. In 1960, both countries signed the Indus Waters Treaty dividing the five rivers. Both states have since built several large dams on the Indus River System, altering the volume and course of the rivers, displacing local populations, obliterating unique habitats and causing changes in downstream ecology, with major consequences for aquatic ecosystems, river habitats and wetlands of Panjab.
The main cause of the current water crisis, however, is the planting of rice using intensive irrigation. Indian Panjab has been allowed only a quarter of the waters from its own rivers since 1966 (the rest is diverted to non-riparian states like Haryana and Rajasthan). With insufficient water to meet their irrigation needs, the Panjabi farmers have resorted to digging tube wells and extracting groundwater from aquifers shared by village wells and hand-pumps, many of which are running dry. To make matters worse, price ceilings and central government restrictions on the export of agricultural produce prevent the farmers from planting alternative crops that use less water.
In August 2005, the Indian Punjab State Government's 'State of the Environment' report belatedly admitted that the Green Revolution severely impacted on the ecology of Panjab. Intensive agricultural has decimated agro-diversity, endangering many breeds of animals and plants. The mismanagement continues to this day; in May the State government's Chief Wildlife Warden, A.S. Dogra, in a bid to control crop damage on the plains of Panjab, announced his decision to allow shooting of blue bulls and wild boars, even though no thorough scientific census of these animals has been carried out by the state Wildlife Department.
Bird life is suffering, too. Research
conducted in Pakistan's Punjab Province by the Peregrine Foundation in April
2003 established a link between the presence of the antibiotic Diclofenac and
renal failure in dead or dying vultures. The vultures are believed to have died
when they scavenged carcasses containing the drug's residues.
The indiscriminate felling of native tree species such as the Babul, Bakain, Ber, Kachnar, Jamun, Neem Kikar, together with a disastrous policy of planting non-native species like Eucalyptus, has reduced forest cover in India's Punjab State to 1,412 km2, a mere 2.8 per cent of the state's geographical area, according to satellite data. In Pakistan's Punjab Province, the demand for forest resources and pressure for urbanisation (the government recently allotted 4,111 acres of Patriata forest for conversion to a tourist city as part of the New Murree City project) has reduced forest cover to 0.37 per cent of the total area, equivalent to only 0.771 million hectares, compared with a total 4.8 per cent for the whole country.
If all this were not enough, the Panjab is also beset by water pollution, water-logging, salinization and desertification, land degradation and soil erosion, destruction of watersheds, air pollution, unsustainable waste disposal and energy use, and noise pollution. Global warming is exacerbating all of these problems. The Himalayan glaciers that feed the rivers of Panjab are receding at an alarming rate, creating new glacial lakes and causing flash flooding, while changes to the monsoon rains have resulted in less than normal rainfall, and hence drought, in three of the past five years.
The excessive use of groundwater for agriculture in India and Pakistan, aggravated by climate change, threatens to turn Panjab into a desert in the coming decades, precipitating a massive environmental refugee crisis and, potentially, armed confrontation between the two nuclear powers. Simmering disputes over land and water have erupted into violence in the past. For example, Dr Vandana Shiva has shown that water rights was a significant contributing factor to the Indian army's attack on the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar in 1984.
Effective and lasting environmental
protection and conservation of the Panjab will require international assistance,
especially from the Diaspora Panjabis. Practical care for the natural world
together with a deep sense of ecology are among the basic tenets of the Sikh
religion. It is with this in mind that DEEP have come to Birmingham and with
the help of Handsworth's Sikh Community & Youth Service (SCYS) and Birmingham
Friends of the Earth we are working to raise awareness and bring the Panjab
region's environmental crisis to light.
Pardeep Singh Rai
For more information on the Panjab and the work of DEEP, call Pardeep on 07932 004 815 or e-mail email@example.com.