When Pakistan gained its independence, the nation was about 33 percent covered in forests. The government's own figures show that tree cover is now just 4 percent of Pakistan's land surface, the loss all due to deforestation.
Much of the cutting is due to poverty -- lacking other resources and fuels, Pakistanis have resorted to clearing their forests to cook their food and boil water for tea. But most attribute deforestation to Pakistan's famous "timber mafia," a shadowy network of politically connected individuals and firms that chop down trees at will and cart them away under cover of darkness, with bribes to local and national officials guaranteeing that forest managers look the other way.
Journalists have been speaking out about the timber mafia for years. In a recent op-ed in the U.K. newspaper the Guardian, Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie called it "one of the most powerful and ruthless organizations within Pakistan," active in an illegal logging enterprise "estimated to be worth billions of rupees each year."
Historic downpour destroys poorly planned structures
Though the government has never reached agreement on a strategy to tackle illegal logging, the impact of deforestation is well-known. Since the Tarbela Dam was completed in 1976, the reservoir has lost roughly 26 percent of its total storage capacity, according to Pakistan's Ministry of Water and Power. Other reservoirs in the country have suffered capacity losses of 23 percent on average, all from siltation.
As the epic rains began in earnest in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa from about July 28, torrents rushing from naked hillsides quickly filled the Indus and other rivers well beyond their natural limits. Tarbela Reservoir, with 26 percent less room for water, filled quickly.
The downpour was historic. At height of the rains, government equipment recorded discharges at the Kabul River at more than 400,000 cubic feet per second, or cusecs, said Javeed Bokhary, an engineering adviser at the Federal Flood Commission. The previous record, set in 1929, was 250,000 cusecs. No one knows the precise discharge rate, as the rushing waters overwhelmed gauges.
Poor urban planning in the north made the problem worse.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and parts of the Gilgit-Baltistan zone in Pakistani-controlled Kashmir, buildings were placed right up alongside river banks, sometimes even in them. Bridges built after colonial times were also reinforced by infill that narrowed the river channels, to allow shorter bridges to be built and money to be saved on materials.
Flash floods consumed these buildings and bridges, killing scores. Much of the damage was also due to the fact that the Indus is partly used by illegal loggers to transport their bounty. Witnesses say logs smashed into homes and businesses and helped break bridges apart, adding to the catastrophe.
Critics of the government's flood response say that more water could have been kept in Tarbela Reservoir to spare communities downstream. Bokhary categorically denies this, saying that holding back any more water than the government did during the heavy rains would have risked dam failure.
"To fill the reservoir, there is a standard operating procedure. You cannot just fill it at random; you have to make do per day ... maximum 1,550 feet, and after 1,520 feet, you can only raise it by 1 foot per day," Bokhary explained in an interview. "There was still 20 feet of storage capacity ... but as I said, you cannot fill it by more than 1 foot per day. This capacity had to be released."
And while the rains were much heavier than ever experienced, the falling water also had much less river to flow through, even below Tarbela Dam.
As siltation has lifted the bottom of reservoirs, it has also raised the levels of most riverbeds. Evidence of the rise can be seen in the massive buildup of new islands upstream from Pakistan's dams, smaller dams built to raise river levels and channel more water into irrigation canals.