Every year as the summer months approach, the mountain ranges in the country attract hoards of tourists seeking a temporary respite from the sweltering sun that dominates the rest of the country. Over the last few decades, the number of visitors has risen at a striking pace and over a million people visited the northern areas during the summer of 2016 alone.

The most easily accessible, and consequently the most crowded destinations during summer, are the galiyat, which lie at the western foot of the Himalayan range in Pakistan. The reason for the ease of accessibility is the road infrastructure developed by the British in the early 19th century. Remnants of the colonial era can be spotted across these small towns in the schools, churches and stone and wooden cottages that gave the towns in these green mountains their unrivalled charm. But development works over the years, coupled with the lack of planning and architectural knowhow have resulted in the construction of buildings that are strewn carelessly across the mountainside, making for unpleasant views and a considerable reduction in green space.

The most basic need for a market to develop is the existence of proper infrastructure, simply to facilitate buyers and sellers to access the market. Accessibility brings endless opportunities for investments, development and growth. But regulations must be implemented to protect the society and the environment from any negative outcomes, and this is hardly ever the case in Pakistan. An example of this is what happened in the Margalla Hills in Islamabad. Amidst haphazard plans for road and tunnel developments to make rapid transport easier at the possibly large cost to the environment, civil society came into action. The Margalla Hills Society was set up in the 1980s, which advocated for the protection of wildlife and for consideration to be given to conserving green space, bringing this issue to the forefront of policy debate. Several infrastructural developments considered damaging to the environment were resultantly halted. Unfortunately, with the galiyat, no such civil society action has taken place and regulations are either non-existent, or compliance is not deemed necessary.

The locals in the galiyat resided in huts and cottages built in areas off the main town roads, usually accessible by foot or smaller private roads. As tourism grew over the last few decades, the roads in the mountains that once offered breath-taking views of the west end of the Himalayan mountains became increasingly crowded by visually and spatially disruptive constructions in the form of grey block shaped shops. With increased business opportunities, more and more people have begun to take interest in buying land in these areas. While that may have been a good thing as the demand for land increased its value and made it possible for more people to profit from their holdings in these areas, it brought with it the lack of knowledge and disregard for the architectural styles that were native to these towns. We failed to acknowledge that much like any other town or city, these hill stations had a character that made them so attractive. Private landowners commenced construction of large hotel buildings and three and four storey houses, many of which have been converted into hotels and rest houses. These unchecked constructions are not only visually unattractive, but are also not made to weather the regular storms, rain and snow in these hills.

And if these constructions were not concerning enough, the latest fad in this summerhouse market is that of apartment complexes. There is no answer as to why we need multi-storey apartment blocks in the mountains where overpopulation is not an issue. Several distasteful structures have been raised in the galiyat, and buyers are flocking to these areas. With a small two-bedroom apartment costing well over Rs 10,000,000 with views of now densely populated hills, the price tags on these apartments match their big city counterparts. This is easy business, and even hotels in Nathia Gali that once sold the experience of being in the mountains with cottages for rent, wide green spaces and garden barbecues, have now cemented their gardens and constructed large apartment complexes that dwarf their rustic wooden cottages. There appears to be no regret over cut trees, the lack of green space, disruption of the natural ecosystem and the sheer annoyance caused to locals who now see metropolitan structures in small towns in the hills. This influx of tourists and investors has created what is an unregulated market for houses. Land is selling fast, foundations are being laid for new developments and the environmental costs of these developments are not being assessed.

The galiyat are also home to the Rhesus Macaque monkeys, which were a rare sight in these hills only two decades ago. With increasing interactions with humans and less tree cover, these shy creatures can now be found everywhere in these towns, with people feeding and playing with them, or sometimes provoking them to attack by throwing litter and rocks at them. It is an appalling sight when one begins walking along the great pine trees in Nathia Gali, only to find a sudden clearing made for yet another modern multi-storey construction, where these monkeys now swing from iron beams instead of tree branches. This clearing of green space, lack of reforestation and haphazard construction is a great cause for concern and is not only limited to Murree and Nathia Gali, but can now be seen with large billboard signs for “modern apartments” and “luxury homes” placed in Barrian and Khaira Gali, otherwise less popular towns of the Galiyat. Moreover, the recent widening of roads encourages tourists and street vendors to converge on the sides of the roads, where they share the space equally with the monkeys. The lack of bins allows people to dump non-biodegradable rubbish over the side of the roads into the forests. The dangers plastic waste can pose for the wildlife around them are great, but are not a concern for tourists.

Another alarming consequence of these unsustainable developments is the increased likelihood of, and greater intensity of landslides in these towns. This happens quite frequently in and around the Galiyat, where roads and houses are frequently damaged. The cutting down of trees to free up space for housing and commercial constructions is a very common human cause for the increased occurrence of such natural disasters. It is imperative that this is brought into check before the safety of residents and visitors is compromised further and the investments of countless people are razed to the ground.

The continuation of these developments in the Galiyat can create terrible consequences for the inhabitants of the region. Although they could mean good things for the price of land and property businesses, their unsustainability must be brought under check. We need strict laws in place regarding construction in such areas with regards to the architectural foundations and building materials for houses, and requirements for reforestation and elimination of green space need to be defined.