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Nithin Coca headshot

Pakistan Aims to Plant a Billion Trees in a Green 'Tsunami'

By Nithin Coca

Pakistan has its sights set on an ambitious effort to help the country recover from years of rampant deforestation and increase resilience to floods, droughts and other extreme weather events expected to increase with climate change.

Pakistan has a sordid history of environmental degradation. Since gaining independence from Britain in 1947, the densely-populated South Asian nation saw nearly all of its primary forests cut down while its population grew by an astounding 600 percent.

More recently, the country began to feel the brunt of extreme weather events linked to climate change. In 2014, massive flooding resulted in hundreds of deaths, and thousands more were displaced. Northern Pakistan, the focus of the project -- aptly named the 'Billion Tree Tsunami' -- faces even more extreme, immediate challenges, including frequent landslides.

This will only get worse, as the country is heavily dependent on water from Himalayan glaciers during dry seasons. As climate change warms the world's highest mountain range, Pakistan will be impacted with more unreliable water resources.

All these impacts are made worse by deforestation, which further limits the ability of land to hold water -- making floods more likely and droughts more extreme. That is why the government embarked on this plan, working with numerous global NGOs to help restore Pakistan's environment.

“By planting trees, we have supported biodiversity, restored degraded forests, revived rural communities and provided carbon sequestration to combat climate change,” said David Boyer, director of the Aga Khan Fund for the Environment, one of the organizations that's helping to plant trees in Pakistan, in a press statement.

A billion trees sounds like a lot, but the question is whether this is merely a political symbol or real action. So far, the progress sounds steady, and the commitment seems real.

"The project kicked off in June 2015 and so far 250 million saplings have been raised in largely private nurseries across [northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province]. These saplings are now being planted across the province," Rina Saeed Khan of The Third Pole, a multilingual platform dedicated to the Himalayan watershed, wrote in a blog post.

"The remaining 450 million saplings are being naturally generated in forest enclosures, which are being protected through the participation of local communities. All this will hopefully allow [Pakistan] to achieve its target of 1 billion plantations by the end of next year."

Also quite heartwarming is that the opposition is also calling for their own plan to green the country. Imagine that: two political parties fighting with each other to be more green. Why can't we have this in America?

The plan is not without its drawbacks, though. For example, it makes far too heavy use of non-native plants, including the notorious eucalyptus tree -- which we here in California are all too familiar with. Though it is fast-growing and provides usable wood quickly, it's deep roots can quickly deplete water tables and impact the ability of other plants to grow. In water-scarce regions, this tree can cause more harm than good.

Using native plants would be better, as they are acclimated to the climate and geography and stand to produce more environmental benefits.

Nevertheless, Pakistan's Billion Tree Tsunami is a step forward. And it's the first of what must be many massive environmental restoration projects around the world -- to not only rehabilitate degraded land, but also help us prepare for the inevitable climate impacts.

Photo Credit: Usman Liaquat via Wikimedia Commons

Nithin Coca headshot

Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environmental, social, and economic issues around the world, with specific expertise in Southeast Asia.

Read more stories by Nithin Coca