Earthquake Dramatizes Human Ecological Assault on the Himalayas

This month's massive earthquake did not destroy Mohammad Shafi Mir's house and bury his mother, but what followed seconds later did: a torrent of boulders thundering down a mountainside.

JABLA, India — This month's massive earthquake did not destroy Mohammad Shafi Mir's house and bury his mother, but what followed seconds later did: a torrent of boulders thundering down a mountainside.

As he watched in shock from a nearby field, the landslide -- echoing like "tank fire on a battlefield" -- mowed down 5-foot-thick trees, crushed houses and enveloped the village in dust that turned day to dusk.

The landslides that tumbled across the zone of the Oct. 8 earthquake dramatized not only the power of nature but how humans have brought tragedy upon themselves through massive deforestation and other ecological assaults on the Himalayas.

In this once-remote region, loss of green cover from commercial logging, local cutting and overgrazing has weakened the land's ability to retain water, which now rushes easily down mountainsides to set off slides that some call "ecological land mines."

Watershed mismanagement has added to the danger, as has the replacement of natural forest by trees that do not absorb as much water, said Nithin Sethi of the Delhi-based Center for Science and Technology. He said global warming has also played a role by causing irregular waterflows from melting Himalayan glaciers.


"The problem is immense and it's a daily one," Sethi said. "New towns are going up in the mountains, urbanization and populations are increasing, so we are now perhaps more aware of the impact than before."

But the stripping of the Himalayas goes on, despite deaths and economic losses.

This month's quake is estimated to have killed some 79,000 people, most of them on the Pakistani side of the Line of Control that divides Kashmir. On India's side, landslides killed nearly 300 of the 1,360 who died from the quake, said B.B. Vyas, a state government official overseeing relief work.

Slides also swept away scores of villages in 2002 in areas of Pakistan not far from the current scenes of devastation. A 1999 quake and accompanying slides killed 100 people and destroyed 6,000 houses in northeastern India's Chamoli area. A year earlier, torrential rains loosened mountainsides that obliterated the India-China border town of Malpa, killing 205.

In Jabla, where 17 people died from the earthquake, the landslide shattered nearly half the village's 296 buildings by the time it finished its deadly run. Only the skeleton of Mohammad's two-story home remained standing, the inside gutted.

His injured mother was dug out from under the rubble and the only other person inside, his leprosy-afflicted father, miraculously survived as well.

The 35-year-old breadwinner for 14 family members, Mohammad is a farmer who also has a job at the village waterworks. He attributes the destruction of his house to Allah's punishment for some sin he has committed.

But others in the village offer an explanation long shared by environmental experts and activists.

"If there had been more trees, we would not have lost as much. The impact would not have been as great. It is our mistake," said Qayoon Shah, a young teacher, standing by the ruins of the village school.

Near Jabla's heights, house builder Haday Tullah surveyed a panorama of villages precariously perched on slopes either totally bald or patchily forested and scarred by old landslides.

Like Mohammad -- who says he has cut trees and grazed cattle on the slope above his house -- 60-year-old Tullah has also unwittingly contributed to the destruction, having felled trees for logging companies and the Indian army in the 1960s.

"The forests were once very thick, but the generations pass so people have to build houses and collect firewood and the trees disappear," he said.

Spawned not just by earthquakes, but more often by heavy monsoon rains, landslides and high-speed mud flows plague the entire "roof of the world" -- the 1,800 miles arc of the Himalayas, which runs through seven countries from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar, or Burma, in the east.

Sethi, citing official figures, says more than 3,000 square miles of dense forest were lost in 2001-03 in six already overexploited regions of the Indian Himalayas.

In Indian-held Kashmir, where an Islamic insurgency has long raged, 521 square miles vanished.

With the army making some areas off-limits as they fight militants, grazing grounds of traditional herdsmen have shrunk, intensifying their exploitation of pastures and tempting them to feed their cows, goats and sheep inside national parks, said Saquib Qadri, of the private environmental group HOPE.

"There has been ecological havoc in the last 15 years. Security forces, the militants, anyone who wanted to cut down a tree in Kashmir did so," Qadri said. "Future generations will curse us."


AP correspondent Matthew Pennington contributed to this report from Pakistan.

Source: Associated Press