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Managing glaciers along CPEC in Gilgit-Baltistan

Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan hopes to prosper from the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, but heavy traffic may also affect the sensitive ecology of the region
<p>Chief Minister Hafiz Hafeezur Rehman of Gilgit-Baltistan talks to reporters [image by: Peer Muhammad]</p>

Chief Minister Hafiz Hafeezur Rehman of Gilgit-Baltistan talks to reporters [image by: Peer Muhammad]

The much touted China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will be passing through Pakistan’s beautiful Gilgit-Baltistan province in the north to reach the Chinese operated Gwadar port in the south of the country, leading to hopes that it will transform the economy and help bridge Pakistan’s power shortfall.

The idea of a corridor that makes the transport of goods efficient appeals to traders in the GB province, as they anticipate that CPEC  will allow for faster and therefore cheaper transportation of local produce like cherries, apricots and apples. But as locals dream of increased business activity and imagine truckloads of goods being transported locally and from China via the corridor, officials in the provincial government are putting their heads together to create a cell which monitors the effects of increased vehicle activity in a region prone to melting glaciers and deforestation.

The provincial government of Gilgit-Baltistan has established a special Environmental Assessment Cell (EAC) in the ecologically sensitive mountain area to assess and counter the adverse implications of the emissions from the heavy traffic being plied under CPEC.

“This cell monitors and assesses emission levels and also recommends a policy framework to address challenges,” said Chief Minister Hafiz Hafeezur Rehman in an exclusive interview to thethirdpole.net.

He said that the special cell, which has been established with the approval of the federal government, will charge passing vehicles a fee. This revenue will be spent on projects focused on environmental protection.

“Our area is ecologically and environmentally sensitive and we have taken this measure to ensure the protection of the natural environment in the mountain area,” said Rehman. He said that GB hosts a number of glaciers, and that the flow of heavy traffic on the CPEC route will have an impact on the glaciers along the corridor.

“We have established the cell to closely monitor and assess the environmental situation,” said Rehman, adding that although glacial melt is a global phenomenon, steps must be taken to limit impact.

CPEC is a flagship project estimated to be worth over USD 60 billion jointly launched by Pakistan and China in 2015. More than 400 kilometres of the CPEC route passes through Gilgit-Baltistan, starting near the China border in Sust to the Basha area at the periphery of the boundary with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. So far, on the Karakorum Highway side, the CPEC road has been expanded and completed from the Thakot area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to Dassu, in addition to the road from Raikot Bridge to Sust near the Pak-China border. Another portion of the CPEC route from Gilgit to Chitral has also recently been included by the federal government.

Rehman said projects estimated at PKR 150 billion (USD 965 million) have been approved for Gilgit-Baltistan under CPEC, with construction underway estimated at PKR 70 billion (USD 450 million).  The chief minister said that the immediate advantage of CPEC for Gilgit-Baltistan is the ‘state of the art’ road infrastructure that has been built in the region. He explained that this infrastructure is beneficial for the landlocked area as it allows for smooth transportation and communication. He cited the example of increased tourist flow to GB during the last two years, attributing it among other measures, to CPEC roads. Rehman said key potential products in GB are fruit, vegetables, trout fish and precious stones, which could be exported to China and other markets through CPEC roads. “Previously, we had issues of road infrastructure to dispatch products from farms to attractive markets. It seems those days are now over.”

The environmental cell will set the baseline and parameters for future environmental assessments in Gilgit-Baltistan. Under this project, with the collaboration of Pakistan Space and Upper Atmosphere Research Commission (SUPARCO), the cell will map glaciers, soil and rivers on both sides of the CPEC route to monitor the environmental implications on the ecosystem.

Under the project, at least five monitoring stations will be established, one each in Khunjerab and Basary, where the GB and KP border is situated; at the Shandur and Babusar and one in Danyur Gilgit.

These monitoring stations will be built to examine every passing vehicle and will automatically assess the level of emission to see if the vehicle meets the standard to enter the environmentally sensitive area.

“If a vehicle does not meet the criteria, it will not be allowed,” said Rehman.  “These monitoring stations will also assess the temperature, rain, air quality and smoke level across the CPEC route to assess the adverse implications of the flow of heavy traffic.”

Additionally, to increase the productivity of crops, fruit and vegetables in GB, the provincial government in collaboration with the International Fund for Agricultural Development has launched a large programme to irrigate barren land across GB. Under this project, 8,000 acres of land has been identified, and 2,000 acres have already been irrigated through water channels and water lifting.

“This initiative will also be helpful for locals in the long-term to increase productivity and subsequently their income through export to major markets,” he added.

“We see a prosperous future for locals who can take their produce to national and international market after the CPEC roads are built,” he said.