Losing lives and livelihood: Climate change in Pakistan's north poses big risks

Schools, prayer halls and health units are increasingly being damaged by natural disasters.
Published April 28, 2016

UPPER INDUS BASIN: The lives and livelihood of local inhabitants are being severely affected by climate change-induced natural hazards: social and physical infrastructure is critically endangered, and there seems little hope that things will change for the better as risks to irrigation and agriculture increase.

Flash floods, avalanches, Glacier Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), and landslides have become common natural disasters in the Upper Indus Basin of the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region, where they are claiming the lives and livelihoods of many.

Before the recent April flash floods and landslides, nine people were killed in the Chitral district when a powerful avalanche hit, burying a number of people alive. A number of the victims were schoolchildren coming back home after taking their exams.

Surveying disaster risks

Natural events have destroyed agriculture lands, standing crops, irrigation channels and orchards. 27 people have died as a result, 260 villages damaged and livestock injured.

According to a survey by Focus Humanitarian Assistance (FCA), a subsidiary of the Aga Khan Development Network, much of the area is under risk. The four vulnerable districts include Chitral, Ghizer, Hunza and Nager. Out of the 620 villages in these districts, 20 per cent are highly vulnerable to multiple natural hazards.

The survey further shows that around 48pc of the houses (over 36,738 units) fall under the category of “multiple hazard zones”.

Based on the survey, the Chief Executive Officer of FCA, Nusrat Nasab, presented a paper at an international conference at Kathmandu. Nasab asserted that while damage to physical infrastructure is easily seen, social infrastructure is equally vulnerable to natural disasters.

600 out of 1,312 schools (45pc) fall in the multiple hazard zones, and of these, 297 (23pc) are at medium to high risk.

Similarly, out of the 2,253 prayer halls, 52pc are located in multiple hazard zones, and 26pc are located in medium to high risk zones.

Of the 271 health units in the area, 36pc are located in multiple hazard zones and 17pc are at medium to high risk. Over 356 bridges and 1,509 other facilities are also at risk.

Nasab also brought attention to the increasing number and frequency of natural disasters: last year, over 131 events occured between July 15 and Aug 3 alone. These consisted of GLOFs, debris flow, and flash floods in the Chitral and Gilgit-Baltistan areas.

“The sources of livelihood of the villagers are largely affected due to change in weather condition, damaging of infrastructure and disturbances in the ecosystem," Nasab noted. As a result, many are migrating to other cities to flee from there worsening socio-economic situation, where they mostly depend on agriculture and livestock.

"But there are those who do not have the option to migrate because of risks," Nasab clarifies. "And those risks are only growing."

Fighting landslides

"It seems like we are in the epicentre of both the floors and the earthquake," says Bajaur Khan, a farmer in one the Kalasha valleys of Chitral.

Torrential rains and cloud bursts in the mountainous areas have indeed increased in intensity, resulting in frequent landslides. The disasters damage local communities, where the majority of the population is dependent on small landholdings. These continuously diminish in productivity and size.

Baber Khan, the head of WWF in Gilgit-Baltistan, confirms that hydro-meteorological hazards are on rise in the mountainous areas. Bajaur remembers the 2010 floods— a dreadful time— but he says the 2015 floods were even worse.

"We lost everything," he says of the flash floods last year, which inundated his orchards, standing crops, and fertile arable lands. Almost 80pc of his arable land was washed away. He managed to cultivate just two 40-kilogramme sacks of maize last year, instead of the 30 sacks he used to every year.

Irrigation slows to a trickle, but GLOFs threaten

Hamid Ahmed Mir, an environmentalist in Chitral, adds that diminishing fresh water resources is also intensifying the damage.

“Glacier water is the basic source of irrigation, which is decreasing at fast rate,” he explains. 80pc of irrigation channels were damaged in the 2015 floods—none of these have been restored.

“The recent rains provided temporally relief, but most farmers do not have water for irrigation,” he says. “I think the miseries of these communities are growing with each year, not lessening.”

According to Manzoor Ahmed at the Pakistan Meteorological Department in Chitral, temperature rise in the region is also adding to the risks. Heatwaves bring with them temperatures reaching 42 C, a new phenomena for the locals.

in the past however, heavy prolonged rains meant the head was not an issue. Rainwater combined with high temperatures and humidity caused the glacier lakes to burst and provide irrigation water.

Nusrat Nasab believes there is a need for strengthening early warning systems and enhancing community preparedness. These, combined with better land use planning and strengthening government partnerships, are the only ways these communities can be made secure.

This piece first appeared on the thethirdpole.net and has been republished on Dawn.com with permission.