Along with dozens of other farmers in the western Himalayan village of Namli Mera, Muhammad Naeem had been planning to give up agriculture and move to a nearby city.
Resigned to opening a roadside coffee stall or working as a labourer in an auto shop, Naeem decided two years ago to abandon his potato fields after losing much of his three hectares of terraced farmland to soil erosion and landslides – problems that have become more frequent due to intense rainfall in the area.
Namli Mera, located on the northern border of Ayubia National Park some 80 km from Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad, was once famous for its sparkling natural springs. But in recent years the village has become better known for its unstable mountain slopes, pushing farmers like Naeem to consider leaving.
Then a clump of trees changed his mind. “I dropped my migration plan when I saw the fertile soil of my plot gradually stabilising thanks to a plantation of pine saplings on the mountainside under which my field sits,” said the 35-year-old farmer. “It’s really a restoration of my life and livelihood.”
The new plantation is part of a multi-million-rupee initiative to protect land and slopes, launched in 2008 by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-P) and funded by the Coca Cola Foundation.
Now in its sixth phase, which concludes in June 2015, the programme aims to address soil erosion and landslides in several of the 12 villages located around Ayubia National Park. It uses mountain stabilisation techniques, such as erecting brushwood retaining walls, building check dams and restoring vegetation and tree cover.
Environmentalist Muhammad Waseem, who heads the WWF-P office in Nathiagali that oversees the work, said land erosion in the villages near the park has been exacerbated by deforestation and over-grazing. If left to grow, tree roots and natural vegetation cover help reinforce soil and remove groundwater, reducing the risk of landslides when heavy rain hits, he added.
With a combination of replanting and new infrastructure, the WWF-P initiative has helped mitigate erosion and landslip threats, Waseem said. “As a result, the livelihoods of mountain farmers have become more secure and many have dropped their migration plans,” he explained.
Taj Mohammad, a 60-year-old vegetable farmer in Khun Kalan village, is grateful for the way his life has changed. Sitting on a roadside rock, he told this scribe about the check dams that have been built in his village of 300 households. The small dams, which sit across minor water channels to divert and slow the water flow, have completely stopped soil erosion, he said.
“Heavy rains during the summer monsoon season would cause water to gush down into the village and wash away fertile land and standing crops, and would often result in land erosion or landslides,” said Mohammad. “But no such incidents have taken place since 2011, when check dams were constructed to make the floodwater flow several metres away from our vegetable, wheat and maize plots.”
According to environmentalist Waseem, since 2008 the initiative has installed 763 cubic metres of check dams, built 3,440 cubic metres of flood-control spurs to protect river and channel banks, and planted vegetation over 1,500 square metres of mountain land. In addition, sustainable grazing practices have been introduced on 75 hectares of farmland, helping regenerate vegetation cover.
“Deforestation was a major cause of land erosion and has increased the risk of landslides in mountain villages around the park area,” said Waseem. “Under the programme, over 60,000 indigenous pine species and 10,000 fruit trees have been planted in the last five years.”
Zulfiqar Ali has seen the benefits firsthand. He runs a motel beneath a mountain ridge in Namli Mera village, in an area known for its panoramic views of the western Himalayas.
“Until 2008, thousands of tourists each year would come to spend time in the area and dine at my motel,” he said. “But my business disappeared as tourists stopped visiting the area for fear of getting trapped or killed by landslides.”
As tourists found roads increasingly blocked by rock falls from unstable slopes, things got so bad he was ready to close the motel and open a tea stall in Abbottabad, some 40 km away, in order to make enough to feed his family of five.
But now the WWF-P initiative has made the area safer, tourists have returned and Ali no longer has a reason to leave. “My business is now thriving again,” he said with a smile.
Saleem Shaikh is science and climate change journalist based in Islamabad. He is president of the South Asia Sci-Env Journalists Network (SASEJN).