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Living in thin air

Oxygen, water, food, shelter and sleep – these are the five basic human needs for survival on our planet. A person can survive without food for at least 21 days. This was evident from Mahatma Gandhi’s first Hindu-Muslim unity fast from September 18 to October 8 in 1924.

However, survival without water is an entirely different tale. There are several estimates about the survival of homo sapiens without water under natural environmental conditions. Some scientists believe that humans can survive without water for at least a week in winter when cold weather conditions prevail while this period is reduced to only three days in summer.

Sleep and shelter are also fundamental human needs. We can survive without sleeping for at least 144 hours. In the absence of shelter, humans can survive for at least a month or longer. Among all other needs, oxygen is far more crucial. Without oxygen, people can survive for only two or three minutes. Let’s consider the availability of oxygen for people in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

GB is a transitional zone between South and Central Asia. The region is laden with multiple natural resources. These include pristine glaciers; permafrost; rivers; lakes; wetlands; peatlands; rangelands; unique biodiversity; forests; agri-land; and suitable weather conditions for survival.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature Pakistan (WWF-P), GB can be ecologically divided into four major zones: the alpine scrub zone; sub-alpine forest zone; montane temperate forest zone; and montane subtropical forests. The region boasts landmasses of diverse altitudes. Atmospheric pressure and oxygen availability change at different altitudes. It is widely known that higher altitudes like mountains or highlands have lower oxygen levels. The reason for the low concentration of oxygen at higher altitudes is gravity, which holds most oxygen close to the earth’s surface.

Plants are the only living bodies that can produce or replenish oxygen via photosynthesis. Around 9.4 percent of GB is covered with forest. Of this forest area, only four percent constitutes natural forests that are ever-green and productive. The remaining five percent or more are ‘social forests’ that typically comprise fruits and fuel wood trees.

Another important aspect of these social forests is their deciduousness. Trees in these forests shed their leaves in winter, which falls between October and March in GB. Photosynthesis does not occur in deciduous forests across GB during winter. As a result, no oxygen is available from these deciduous plants in winter. Moreover, natural evergreen forests in the region only provide oxygen within a limited range.

Like other parts of Pakistan, GB is also an electricity-scarce region where people mostly use fuel wood and LPG to cooking food. Additional energy is required to combat the harsh and prolonged winter months. So, the people of the region cut a large number of trees to meet their heating and cooking needs. The poor in GB are also using coal, plastic, old tyres, waste oil and other flammable waste materials during winter to meet their heating and cooking needs.

In addition, the ever-increasing number of non-custom paid vehicles has become an emerging concern for the region and is likely to affect the availability of oxygen in winter. It is a widely acknowledged fact that the burning of fuel wood, LPG, waste material or vehicle fuel ultimately emits several gases into the air. These gases include carbon monoxides, hydrogen, methane, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides. The gases also require a significant amount of the oxygen to make stable oxides, molecules or compounds in the atmosphere. Through these anthropogenic activities, the availability of oxygen is either reduced at a rapid pace or reacts with other gases and makes it difficult for people to access oxygen.

In winter, people in the region tend to remain indoors in rooms that are equipped with heating facilities. A limited amount of social activities take place due to harsh weather conditions. Medical science has revealed that continuously remaining in one place for a long time may reduce or deplete the level of oxygen available in the human body. This condition is known as hypoxia or the lack of oxygen in blood or tissues.

An oxygen deficiency results in several diseases, including heart attacks, lung infections, hypertension, fatigue, short-term memory loss, muscles loss, and eyesight problems. Oxygen deficiencies in our blood cells may damage our heart muscles and ultimately weaken the heart and its functions. The number of people who have abruptly suffered heart attacks in GB during winter has soared in the recent past.

A series of discussions that this writer had with experts indicate that the exceedingly high incidence of heart attacks in GB during winter are not only an outcome of an unhealthy diet but are also triggered by limited physical movement as well as oxygen deficiencies.

In this regard, GB’s health department needs to investigate the factors that have resulted in oxygen deficiency in the region and their influences on the heart. From an ecological standpoint, the oxygen deficiency in the region can be reduced by planting local evergreen plants. Efforts ought to be made to plant cedrus deodara, juniperus macropoda, quercus ilex, pinus gerardiana and pinus wallichiana. This would be an effective step because these plants can provide a steady supply of oxygen throughout the year.

The writer is a doctoral student of environmental sciences at the Nanjing Institute of Geography and Limnology.

Email: farasatwwf@yahoo.com

Farasat Ali, "Living in thin air," The News. 2018-05-14.
Keywords: Environmental sciences , Environmental issues , Environmental conditions , Weather conditions , Sulfur oxides , Pollution , Forests , Weather , Mahatma Gandhi , Gilgit-Baltistan , WWFP