Climate change and Islamabad – 11 Sep 2022

Islamabad is considered relatively safer than Karachi against effects of climate change due to distance from the sea

When it comes to climate change, the worst fears that people have are the excessive heat and rising sea levels. Excessive heat would make much of Punjab dangerous given the scorching heat already a norm there. Karachi is threatened by a rising sea level. Usually, Islamabad and the nearby Murree are considered relatively safer against the effects of climate change due to relatively cooler weather and distance from the sea.

However, that miscalculation could come with the most dangerous consequences for the residents of Islamabad and Murree. Enter wildfires and the calculus changes. Every year the wildfires return to Islamabad with more rage than the previous one. You might recall the Islamabad cloudburst last summer. The most immediate thought one has is the flooding that it had caused and those floating cars. Those, however, are not the most dangerous consequences of such floods. When floods happen, water stays on dry ground for a significant time, causing dry ground to develop weeds and shrubs. Those newly formed grasslands provide awesome fuel for the coming wildfires. When the wildfires come, they spread to this previously inaccessible ground and expand into a meaner wildfire.

Every newly rich wants to buy or build a house in Islamabad. Every new builder wants to try his skills on the land of Islamabad by building high rises with names that might be plagiarised from the titles of Waheed Murad’s movies. The environmentalists, if such people even exist in Islamabad, might see a problem in such development projects as reducing the green belts of Islamabad and increasing concrete. Such a stance would be right, however, it misses a crucial part. Every time I drive around Islamabad and look at the Margalla Hills and the increasing population and construction projects, it gives me goose bumps because what I see is a perfect stage for incineration.

Islamabad’s air is dry. Wildfires happen here every few months. Statistically anywhere in the world, wildfires are usually the result of human activity such as cigarettes thrown out the window or a vehicle muffler setting fire to dry grass. There is no shortage of careless people in Islamabad. All kinds of trash is thrown around in the once pristine trails of the Margalla Hills. A common sight is seeing private security guards and drivers walking up to the densely vegetated part nearby to smoke. In winters, it is also common to see people on the streets burning trash to warm themselves. Some of them label themselves as old fashioned in an indirect jibe at those who use natural gas run heaters. And I am sure you have seen those people who barbecue in F-9 park and then leave behind the red hot charcoal and the bricks on the grass. Islamabad is lucky not to have the deadly wildfires that are witnessed in many parts of the world. But it is only a matter of time when the luck will run out.

The deadliest wildfire in California’s history, the Camp Fire of 2018 burnt 620.52 sq kms in California. The Woolsey Fire, which happened the same year, tore through the shrub and grass covered area of northwest Los Angeles burning 392 sq kms. They burnt around a thousand square kilometer area between them. Islamabad’s Margalla Hills is about 126 kilometers. Nearby Murree is 434 sq kms. Add the two and it is less than half the area that was burnt by those wildfires in California. The point is: when Islamabad’s luck runs out and a California-style wildfire strikes, it wouldn’t stand a chance given its lesser area and the laughable firefighting capability of Pakistan. The mighty America couldn’t prevent California from seeing a thousand square kilometers to be incinerated. What would Pakistan do?

Putting more humans in Islamabad means more chances of mistakes being made in triggering wildfires. It also means more humans in the path of the wildland fire. Sanity doesn’t seem to be our trait.

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