“Where does a wise man hide a leaf? In the forest. But what does he do if there is no forest? He grows a forest to hide it in.”

–Gilbert Chesterton

Earth Day was founded in 1970 by Gaylord Nelson, a senator and naturalist to create awareness among the people about diverse environmental issues facing the earth. Some 20 million Americans from thousands of schools, colleges and civil society took part in the celebration. Denis Allen Hayes, 25, an enthusiast, hitchhiked around the globe to get first hand knowledge of the impact of industrial and agricultural revolutions on the environment. Earth Day, a domestic event back then, is now celebrated throughout the world, and led to the legislation of at least two highly important environmental acts in the US; the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.

The steam engine developed by James Watt in the UK in 1776 paved the way for the Industrial revolution, while the “diffusion of giant dams, in turn, acted as a linchpin” for green revolution in the world. However, urbanization, population growth and increasing food needs throughout the world led to huge shifts of water from rural to urban areas- such as in China and parts of the US. Whereas at a run off level below 1700 cubic meters per person, food sufficiency becomes highly jeopardized, Pakistan subsists only at less than 1000 m3 water per person, a steadily decreasing figure. Pakistan has, therefore, been described aptly by the World Bank Report in 2008 as a water stressed (now “water scarce”) country in the world. In Pakistan, the lack of public awareness and the marked political divide has thwarted all attempts to construct additional reservoirs to collect rain and flood waters, notwithstanding the denial of 33 MAF waters of the eastern rivers (and now the threat of diversions to the western rivers) by India under the Indus Water Treaty. Over and above, an injudicious ground water pumping over this period points to the marked dichotomy in management of resources in the country i.e. the lack of management of rain and flood waters and the bad management of fresh, ground waters (aquifers).

While US President Roosevelt built some 40,000 dams and planted 98 million saplings through CCC, a youth force, during years of great economic depression and environmental disaster known as the dust bowl, Pakistan has so far remained oblivious to the need of any legislation or policy framework to deal with its water resources. The upper riparian India has constructed 3200 dams, whereas Pakistan continues to face deluge and catastrophic inundations due to recurrent floods and torrential rains, and drought due to acute shortage of water reservoirs in the country. With its cultivable land highly degraded (> 60 %) and dwindling, the introduction of high input, green revolution crops in the country in the 60s and the injudicious ground water pumping for irrigation dealt a severe blow to the aquifers and the soil alike.

While pre-Industrial, atmospheric CO2, a predominant green house gas was 281 ppm in the world, it rose to 381 ppm in 2005, and to 400 in recent years (c.f. Clive Chesterton, Australia). To thwart climate changes, the target of 350 ppm CO2 proposed at the Copenhagen Summit was not ratified by the developed as well as the developing economies of the world.

Pakistan has now risen to 10th from 12th on the list of the countries most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, according to a recently published index.

While cutting back consumption of fossil fuels and planting trees, grasses etc., both in private and public places all year round would help roll back the emission of green house gases and restrain global warming, planting saplings indigenous to the region such as Pepal, Amaltas, Neem, Shisham, Citrus and Kikar, and grasses including Leptochloa, a thermophilic salt tolerant grass used to utilize salt affected soils using underground brackish water (a“NIAB approach”) could be used to re-vegetate land and avert the loss of top soil.

In the US, China and Europe, most forests are new, and growing; some 3.8 billion young trees in US cities store ca.700 million tons of CO2 and sequester twenty three million tons per annum. The amount, though insignificant quantitatively, is better locked into plant tissue than released into the atmosphere.

In Pakistan, which has one of the highest rate of the felling of trees in the world, planting young and new saplings and trees is, undoubtedly the need of the hour. The significance of trees can be judged from their impact on the preservation of water sheds, prevention of floods, a counter against the perils of drought and the modulation of climate. Foresters have a saying: “the very best time to plant a tree like the best time to admit that energy is the master resource, is decades ago. The second best time is today.” In Pakistan, with over 60 percent of its cultivable land degraded, the loss of top soil (desertification) by recurrent floods is an eye opener for the administrators, policy makers, politicians, educationists and civil society in the backdrop of excessive felling of trees and a 30 % loss in the storage capacity of its two reservoirs (Tarbella and Mangla) due to silting.

Under a program called “One student-one tree,” and the monitoring of air for green house gases initiated by the author and his colleagues at the GCUF during 2010-2011, all the students planted a sapling each in their names at the campus and along some roads in the city as part of the curriculum, which was later emulated by all academic institutions in the country.

The writer is ex-director NIAB, Faisalabad, former HEC professor, UAF, ex-professor of Environmental Sciences, GCUF, and former member of the New York Academy of Sciences, USA.