Wood-hungry Kashmiris spot opportunity in floodwaters

by Roshan Din Shad | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 26 September 2014 10:45 GMT

Jameel Ahmed and his children trap wood floating in the floodwaters of the River Jhelum, in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir. TRF/Roshan Din Shad

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Poor families who can't afford fuel have been netting firewood from flooded rivers, putting themselves at risk

MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – With a handmade triangular net, Jameel Ahmed combs the River Jhelum which runs through Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, hoping to catch wood washed downstream by floodwaters.

He pulls out the net every 10 to 15 minutes, and unloads the trapped pieces of wood into a basket proffered by his 14-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter waiting on the bank.

Ahmed wades some 20 feet out into the river near his home in Muzaffarabad’s Lower Chattar district, and stays there from dawn to dusk searching for wood.

“We are collecting this for fire to ward off the biting chill in winter because we cannot afford LPG gas, which is too costly,” the 36-year-old said, eating lunch on the bank of the flooded river.

An 11 kg cylinder of LPG sells for 1,900 rupees ($19), which is too expensive for his family, he added.

This month’s devastating floods that swept down Kashmir’s rivers have also brought an opportunity for thousands dwelling on their banks to collect wood for fuel and construction.

The flood on the Jhelum has now largely receded. But many villagers continue to comb local rivers for wood, which has become a precious commodity.

Over 15 days since the floods, Ahmed’s family collected some 400 kg of fire wood daily, worth a total of 90,000 rupees ($882).

The price of firewood has increased 50 percent in the space of a year, and it now sells for 600 rupees ($5.60) per 40 kg in the market. That means it is getting too expensive even for middle-class families, who are struggling with an energy crisis.

“I will gain more than 100,000 rupees ($980) from selling logs and not having to purchase LPG during winter,” said Hussain, 51, a father of six.

BAN IGNORED

Hundreds of people, including women and children from riverside towns and villages, thronged to riverbanks and brimming streams on Sept. 5 and 6, the first two days of the floods, to grab the precious wood washed along in the strong current.

A woman and a young boy drowned while attempting to pull logs out of the Jhelum river on Sept. 5 at the peak of the flooding.

“Emergency control rooms were set up at the offices of deputy commissioners of all 10 districts, and a ban was imposed (on Sept. 4) on the banks of rivers and swollen streams to keep the people away, but despite all this, two people lost their lives,” Akram Sohail, secretary of the State Disaster Management Agency, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Sohail said heavy rains affected 50,000 people in 130 villages in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Floods and landslides killed 64 people, injured 129, destroyed nearly 2,700 homes and partially damaged another 6,200, as well as wrecking roads and livelihoods.

The Jhelum river - which originates near Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-administered Kashmir – hit that city with the worst floods in living memory.

On the Pakistani side of the border, the government has said it will pay 1 million rupees to the relatives of each person killed by the floods, as compensation for the bereaved families. But that does not apply to those drowned while trying to gather wood from the rivers.

“Why (do) they put themselves in danger for wood?” asked Choudhary Abdul Majeed, the region’s prime minister, at a meeting with journalists.

But locals are continuing to ignore the ban, searching for wood to keep them warm during the winter when gas and firewood prices surge.

NO ALTERNATIVE

Nazeer Hussain, another Muzaffarabad resident, said the floods had brought huge pieces of wood downstream, and he had gathered both logs and kindling. He quickly shifted the wood to his home to avoid being caught by the Forest Department, and to stop others taking it.

“The authorities should provide an alternative to wood to the masses before imposing a ban, as the area is facing a severe shortage of wood and God has gifted it to us,” Hussain said angrily, as he stepped into the river holding his net.

Malik Asad, an officer for the state’s Forest Department, said 13,000 cubic feet of logs had been lost to floods in the Neelum valley - which will now be consumed in Muzaffarabad.

“Hundreds of families have enough firewood for two years as most of the wood coming down the River Jhelum was the right shape,” he said.

The Forest Department claims the right to logs floating in rivers, and has conducted raids to seize logs recovered from the water by villagers in six or seven places.

“We quarreled with the people grabbing logs, but we did not take (smaller bits of) firewood from them,” Asad told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The trend for fishing wood out of rivers is driven by an acute shortage of wood, poverty, and a lack of alternative fuel, he added.

SHORT SUPPLY

Aneeb Gillani, 30, who works in the government’s Earthquake Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Department, owns land on the Jhelum river bank. The flooded river deposited dozens of logs in the compound of his riverside restaurant in the Rawani area of Muzaffarabad.

“We have been waiting for wood to build two houses for two years after submitting an application to the Forest Department. Thanks to God, the river flood has made the task easy for us, and now we have enough wood for building and fuel,” he said.

It will save his family at least 200,000 rupees ($1,960) besides speeding up the construction process, he added.

The Forest Department, which provides timber for construction at subsidised rates, has been under pressure to bridge the gap between supply and demand.

“We need 2 million cubic feet of wood to meet the demand of the city residents for one year - against which we have been providing only 70,000 cubic feet of sub-standard wood, as there has been a ban on cutting down green forests since 1998,” said Forest Department officer Imtiaz Awan.

“Since then, we have been providing only fallen, dry and damaged trees as wood to the people,” he added.

Roshan Din Shad is a freelance contributor for the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

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