Sindh Chief Minister (CM) Murad Ali Shah recently took notice of the rampant deforestation near Chortiari Reservoir and ordered an inquiry into the matter. CM Murad’s spokesperson Rasheed Channa told Daily Times that CM was unaware of the ongoing deforestation at first but after acquiring preliminary information the CM sought a report from Sanghar deputy commissioner and also directed the Forest Department secretary to initiate an inquiry into the matter. Newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan-led Pakistan’s government launched 10-billion tree national plantation drive to counter the effects of climate change and impede global warming. As a part of “Ten Billion Tree Tsunami” campaign, a ‘Plant for Pakistan Day’ was observed on September 2. As per official record, over 1.5 million (m) saplings were planted all over the country out of which 500,000 were only planted in Sindh. Although Ministry of Climate Change did not reveal financial cost of the overall project but experts estimate that country-wide drive may cost billions of rupees. However, unaware of the hefty financial costs incurred in this national plantation drive which aims to restore biodiversity, the fishing community residing near Sanghar’s Chotiari Reservoir is busy chopping down valuable species of trees. This situation emerged this year when fishermen belonging to almost 1,000 households became jobless after the water supply in the reservoir got suspended for the first eight months under ‘Warabandi’, a rotational method for equitable distribution of the available water in an irrigation system. Deforestation in the Chotiari Reservoir has been going on for many years. Even before the fishermen had to resort to cutting down trees to make the ends meet, the private contractors in the area were busy minting money by chopping down trees illegally and selling the precious timber for profits. The Chotiari Reservoir which is more commonly known as the Chotiari Dam is an artificial water reservoir situated in Sanghar district, 35 kilometres (km) away from district headquarters towards Khipro town. The reservoir, which was constructed in 2002, spans over 9,800 hectares and has a storage capacity of 0.71 million acres feet (MAF). Before the Chotiari reservoir was constructed in the Makhi Forest, the forest was home to natural lakes, habitat for birds, reptiles and small mammals. The reservoir is naturally walled from three sides through Achro Thar or White Desert and on the remaining side there is a 58 kilometers long man-made embankment. After the construction of the embankment, the reservoir encircled and submerged Makhi forest and more than 100 lakes. However, there is still a sizeable area of forest left inside reservoir on sand dunes islands. Chotiari Dam is fed through Nara Canal with excessive water of River Indus. Since its construction, reservoir touched full supply level only in 2010, 2011 and 2011 years. This year, the water levels in the reservoir decreased because of reduced water supply to Nara Canal which was attributed to the shortfall of rains in Indus River catchment areas. The supply to the reservoir was suspended till late July because of unavailability of river water. At that time, the dam touched 3 feet which is below ‘dead level’. “Depending upon the water availability in the River Indus, it is expected that water will be available for reservoir for September. That will raise the water level till 10 feet level,” Haji Khan Jamali, Nara Canal director told Daily Times. “Even if we receive water during October, the reservoir level will be around 15 feet. However to touch 23 feet which is the maximum level, it requires 6.5 cusecs of water or 70 days to fill the dam. But excessive water in the river is available for less than 70 days,” Jamali added. Pakistan’s official monsoon stretches from July 1 to Sept 15. According to Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), overall rainfall between July 1 and Aug 27, 2018, was 28 per cent below normal. The worst-affected areas in the country included Sindh that saw 87 percent decline in rainfall in July and August. On average Sindh receives 111 millimetres (mm) of rainfall in July and August, but this year it received just 14.7mm. As per Met Office prediction, monsoon rainfall is likely to decline further this year. Reduced water to Chotiari Reservoir also meant a loss of catch for the fishermen residing in the area. Since most of the fishermen have no other formal skill apart from fishing, they have resorted to cutting the leftover trees in the Makhi forest to fend for themselves and make a living. Aashiq Hussain Mallah, a 25 year old local and father of two, is among majority of the area’s young men who are making ends meet through cutting the forest. “Our ancestral livelihood depends on fish but there is no fish now. Therefore most of us made makeshift arrangements to earn and switched to cutting trees and selling them in the market. We do not have any other source of income and we do not have any other skills so this is the only way for us to survive,” said Mallah. Another major disadvantage, local fishermen community faced this year was the suspension of water supply during June and July, two months crucial to the breeding season of fish. That means that the fish scarcity will remain throughout the year. Not only fishermen but private contractors are also involved in illegal trading of wood obtained from the Makhi forest. Chotiari’s wood is openly sold by local private contractors at Tando Adam timber market which is located just 60 kilometres away from the reservoir. Even though it is illegal to trade Kandi, Layee and Jar species of wood, tractor trolleys containing these species arrive routinely at the market. This occurs under the alleged patronage of Forest Department. Hefty bribes are often offered to the officials of forest department by the dealers. Faisal (name has been changed on request), a Tando Adam based dealer purchases wood from local market to supply to other cities like Karachi. “Every time we transporters have to re-negotiate to fix the bribe money to Forest Department and police check points that come in way while transporting. However at Tando Adam market, there is smooth sailing as bribe money is pre-fixed with Forest Department,” he claimed. As per law, cutting specific trees and selling them in Sindh and Pakistan is criminal offence. However, Sindh Forest Department officials when questioned about the matter denied that deforestation was occurring in the Chotiari Reservoir. Sanghar’s Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) Hosh Muhammad Shar claimed that Chotiari Dam area was de-notified by the department and it did not come under its jurisdiction. “Also I cannot take the responsibility of any deforestation activity in the area,” Shar added. On the other hand, local elders like Mola Baksh Mallah demand that government create alternate livelihood sources for the fishermen especially during water shortage time. “Droughts have become regular phenomenon in Pakistan so it means water bodies like Chotiari are expected dry up or face regular suspensions of water supply,” said Mola Baksh. “Government can establish skill centres for the area’s jobless youth and depending on the potential of this area, the government can transform this place into tourism spot where youth can be employed,” suggested Mola Baksh Mallah. Published in Daily Times, September 24th 2018.