Officials and politicians are now waking up the rampant, illegal encroachments and constructions on the beds of the Swat river and other watercourses. They believe that these activities intensified this year’s flash flood in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa beginning August this year.
By Asmat Shah
Civic authorities and planners hove only now woken up to the menace of the encroachments on the river bed of the Swat river over the past two decades. The floods destroyed some 30 illegally constructed hotels, resorts and restaurants in the picturesque valleys between Mataltan and Kalam.
While this was the worst rain the region has seen in 30 years, almost 250 per cent in excess in some divisions, the unhindered illegal structures on the river beds worked like dams, blocking the passage of water and resulted in massive flash floods in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa beginning August 27, and further damaging dozens of hotels and other settlement along the river banks.
Data shared by the office of the commissioner of Malakand division shows that about 30 hotels at Kalam, Bahrain, Madain, Landaki and Fizagat built on river Swat’s beds were destroyed and another 50 damaged by flash floods at unprecedented velocity. Another 700 hotels, motels, inns and restaurants were completely inundated at Kalam, Bahrain, Kabal, Charbagh, Manglawar, Khwazakhela, Matta, Madain Mingora bypass road.
Debris and plastics
One section of the hotel industry, on the other hand, sees nothing wrong about the constructions, instead speaking of the colossal losses inflicted to it – to the tune of 25 billion Pakistani rupees.
But there is also better sense elsewhere. Zahid Khan, the president of the hotels association agrees that the constructions contributed to the misery. “The large-scale encroachment and illegal construction around banks of river Swat and other watercourses contributed to massive losses to hotels industry, trout fish, agriculture, orchards and livestock,” he said.
The situation is worrisome and raises question as to why the concerned departments kept mum when this trend of illegal construction was flourishing. “The people, businessmen, farmers and hoteliers of Swat would continue to suffer from flood hazards if all these illegal structures are not bulldozed,” said Wajid Ali Khan, a former environment minister.
He said illegal construction of hotels and buildings near banks of river Swat, especially at Kalam, Bahrain and Madain had marred the natural beauty of the tourist areas besides affecting trout fish production. “The people of Swat were mostly relying on tourism business and destruction of a large number of hotels deprived many people of their living,” the former minister, complaining that if the relevant laws been fully complied by them, the losses could have reduced manifold.
Shaukat Ali Yousafzai, commissioner of the Malakand division also raised the issue of pollution caused by the hotel industry, especially about the amount of plastics strewn around and the dumping of debris along the banks of river Swat. “Such irrational approaches are intolerable. Water and plastic pollution was having negative effects on aquatic resources in river Swat,” he says.
Law only on paper
Expressing concern on illegal construction along river banks, especially in Swat, the Pakistan National Assembly’s sub-committee on water resources has sought recommendations from different departments for formulating new water and environment policy for the country in view of climate change challenges.
The sub-committee, constituted after devastation triggered by recent flash floods and torrential rains along rivers Swat, Indus and Kunhar, reflects the federal government’s willingness to amend existing laws and enacting fresh legislation on encroachment of river beds to avert any future losses due to climate change.
To begin with, the deputy commissioner has imposed a ban on gatherings on the river bed under section 144 of the criminal procedures code to stop any construction-related activity alongside the river in the aftermath of recent calamity.
Junaid Khan explained that most hotels damaged in flood were constructed before the Rivers Protection Act was promulgated in 2014. “This Act strictly prohibits construction of hotels, houses and other projects within a distance of 200 feet of the rivers.”
“From now onwards, no person would be allowed to construct commercial or non-commercial buildings or carryout any other development work within 200 feet of the rivers and streams in Swat,” he said, warning of strict action against violators, saying that an operation has been initiated against illegal construction, encroachment as well as accumulation of debris along the river.
It is evident that the law, enacted in 2014 by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial government run by former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party was not implemented in letter and spirit, resulting in the loss of human lives and property besides colossal damage to habitat, environment and livestock.