The E-35, or Hazara Expressway, is a 110 kilometre under-construction expressway linking Hasan Abdal in Pakistan's Punjab province with Haripur, Havelian, Abbottabad, Mansehra, Shinkiari, Battagram and Thakot in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
These cities are famous for their natural beauty, nestled as they are in the Himalayas. The expressway is facing the ire of local people for the damage it is doing to that environment.
People affected by the construction work in the districts of Battagram and Abbottabad have brought the construction to a halt. In Battagram work resumed after negotiations, but in Abbottabad locals are not allowing work to begin on a ten-kilometre stretch.
Anwar Baig, a property dealer and the senior member of the action committee set up in Battagram district, told thethirdpole.net that the tribal jirga set a deadline of July 5 for the government to fulfill the demands raised by the committee. If this deadline was not met, construction work in Battagram would be stopped as well.
"We will not compromise on the compensation [for land acquired by the government for the expressway], but we are also concerned about the environmental hazards which are now affecting the local communities," he said.
Baig said that earlier, the temperature in Battagram never went beyond 30 degrees Celsius, but this year it soared to 40. The locals were blaming this spike on the felling of trees and the sustained use of heavy machinery in the area where China is building a vast network of railways and highways as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) at an estimated cost of $62 billion.
The committee had demanded that a revised plan be presented to deal with these environmental changes, especially the cutting of trees and the construction work, he added.
Malik Maqsood Ahmed, a British-Pakistani, with businesses in London, is the president of the committee of the affected people in Abbottabad. He said that until their demands were met, they would not allow the construction of the road.
Both Baig and Ahmed are clear that they do not oppose the construction, or the CPEC, but they want fair compensation for the land, as had been promised, and a reduction in the environmental destruction in the region.
According to the information obtained from the National Highway Authority (NHA) and the revenue ministry of KP, 120 villages and 5,000 families will be affected by the road project. Half of these families who will have to relocate are from the lower middle class.
According to the KP forest department, 27,059 trees have already been cut down and 50,000 more will be felled for the project.
When contacted, the KP Environment Protection Agency said that the NHA had done an Environment Impact Assignment (EIA) report in 2013 but had not shared the results.
The Asian Development Bank (ADB) had uploaded an EIA report obtained in 2012, but the construction work only started in 2016 when the mega expressway route was changed and extended from Havalian to Thakot. It is not clear if the change and extension of the route had been factored in.
According to legal experts, a new EIA report must be filed, and a No Objection Certificate (NOC) needs to be issued. This is legally binding under the Environmental Protection Act (2014) of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Malik Amin Aslam, the Chairperson of Green Growth Program of KP and global Vice President of IUCN, said, "The EIA is a tool which would compile the environmental costs and benefits of all CPEC projects including the effect of tree cutting if being done. The cutting of any tree does certainly have a damaging effect on local climatic conditions."
Aslam, who is a former environment minister of Pakistan, said: "This is certainly a very fragile region ecologically and also one which is highly vulnerable to climate change owing to its geographic topography. In fact, what we have recommended through the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is to carry out a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of all CPEC projects which would provide a clear picture of the environmental impacts and the possible remedial measures required. Such an undertaking would not only ensure the eco-integrity, public transparency and global credibility of CPEC but also strengthen a long term sustainable future for Pakistan,
Mandi Zaman, a former deputy attorney general of KP, backs the idea of an SEA. "Pakistan and its Himalayan Hindu Kush region is already facing natural disasters due to climate change and environmental degradation. Now if the construction of the mega projects ignores the environment, it will bring more destruction to the community," he said.
Mustaq Ahmad Ghani, an elected Member of the KP Assembly from Abbottabad and spokesperson for the KP government, said that KP was already facing financial losses as well as loss of lives due to climate change. In this scenario, it was important to do a proper environment study in the area where CPEC infrastructure construction is under way.
He said that the provincial government was in touch with federal authorities to convince them to pay reasonable compensation to those affected and to conduct an environmental study that is of international standards. With the July 5 deadline fast approaching, it is to be seen how federal and provincial authorities deal with the demands of the people in the path of CPEC.