8 things Pakistanis taught us about climate change

People all across the country are instinctively aware of climate change.
Published September 19, 2019

We keep hearing that Pakistan is the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change in the world, but it can be difficult to comprehend what it means to our population on a personal, everyday level.

We decided to investigate this very question through our project Climate Stories Pakistan by travelling to various regions of the country and listening to individuals, families and communities living the harsh reality of the climate crisis. During the course of our research, we observed a few consistent themes.

Deforestation, lack of energy sources & poverty are interconnected

We observed that across the mountainous areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, the forest cover is rapidly becoming very patchy. Travelling from an urban centre, any area of Pakistan’s north looks green enough but it’s only when you look closely and compare a few mountains that are mostly covered with tall trees that you realise how many mountains have very few trees on them now.

Deforestation has fast taken place because population growth and energy needs have spiked over the past decades and people must cut trees for firewood. In rural Chitral, communities do not have access to natural gas while electricity supplies are highly unreliable and intermittent. So, most people resort to burning firewood for keeping their homes warm in sub-zero temperatures that last for long stretches of time every year.

Most people are so poor that if they need wood from one tree, they cut down two trees to sell wood from the other one for a very small profit; if they don’t, someone else most definitely will. This is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons where personal gain supersedes the community and the environment. In the long-run, everyone will lose.

We were able to fully understand this Catch-22 situation when me met Tanveer Ahmed, a resident of Pahlawanande in Bumburet Valley, Chitral who said the following words:

The deforestation rate in Pakistan is approximately 0.5 per cent per year, which is high and downright horrifying for our country’s future. It is also important to acknowledge that the burden of forest conservation cannot be solely put on local communities who only take what they need to barely survive, and who often lack the resources to protect forested areas from the large-scale, illegal activities of the timber mafia.

Frequent floods & housing issues are only going to intensify with time

During our extensive travels across the different valleys of Chitral, we observed a strange pattern that most people were rebuilding their homes in the same areas hit by floods. It may seem counterintuitive, but people don’t have the option to sell their lands and move elsewhere; nobody wants to buy land that is at risk of a natural disaster.

Also, most people don’t have the money to relocate because buying new property is very expensive up in the mountains since there is less habitable surface area.

In a few cases, the government has given compensation money to flood affectees to help them relocate. This compensation money is never a fair amount. It is always a small fraction of the money needed to buy new land or to construct a house from scratch.

The state is setting people up for failure as the frequency of natural disasters will increase in the future because of climate change. In such a risk-prone scenario, where will people go? Will we ignore them because they are poor, and therefore invisible? Till when will the state have to be reminded that providing safe housing to people is its Constitutional duty?

People who don’t lose homes but lose all of their farmland to a flood also face major setbacks in life because their farm produce is often their main source of food/livelihood. Musharraf Khan from Krakal in Bumburet Valley is one such person who lost all his agricultural land as well as his shop to a flood. The government has promised to compensate him for his shop, but not for his agricultural land.

Post-climate disaster trauma is real

As the climate crisis intensifies in Pakistan, we are increasingly ill-equipped to deal with a population that is traumatised. Climate trauma can be induced by being directly impacted by natural disasters such as floods or by being displaced due to water shortages or unproductive soils.

It can create feelings of chronic fear, deep sadness and yearning for the past and loss of a sense of safety. Climate affectees here have little to no help because mental health counselling is not a priority anywhere in Pakistan.

For instance, Keti Bandar used to be fit for farming because of its fertile soil back in the day. Then, sea levels began rising rendering the soil saline. People shifted to fishing as an alternate livelihood.

Over the years, the number and varieties of freshwater fish have also reduced due to seawater intrusion and there is a deep sense of sadness and dejection among people like Siddiq Roonjho.

Similarly in Ishkoman Valley, District Ghizer a glacial lake outburst flood occurred in the fall of 2018, resulting in the formation of a new lake that submerged the entire village of Badswat underwater. The flood also brought with it huge rocks and boulders downhill that destroyed the neighbouring village of Bilhanzbala.

Fida Ali, a 14- year-old boy, described to us the feelings he has whenever he thinks about the flood and his former home in Bilhanzbala:

There is immense climate change-related helplessness among the poor in Pakistan. The government should understand that any intervention at this point will be welcomed, acknowledged and appreciated.

Changing rain patterns are playing havoc with livelihoods

Rain patterns are changing everywhere in Pakistan, be it Chitral, Okara, Manchar, Nagarparkar or Karachi. Simply put, these unpredictable patterns of rainfall are ruining livelihoods. In agriculturally-rich areas like Depalpur, District Okara wheat crops have been repeatedly damaged every summer due to early and unexpected rains. This has resulted in massive financial losses for farmers.

While farmers have been noticing these changes in rain patterns, they are not equipped with the necessary knowledge to grow climate-resistant crops that can brave these weather changes. They don’t have access to crop insurance or alternate livelihoods either. This leaves them and the agricultural sector extremely vulnerable to the whims of changing weather patterns.

Alternately, the desert of Nagarparkar, Sindh had been facing a severe drought spanning several years until the monsoons of August 2019 finally changed the situation. When we visited Nagarparkar in March earlier this year, people’s livestock had been dying of thirst and heat due to prolonged lack of rain.

In Chitral, a trend of extreme summer rains has emerged over the past decade and these rains have been causing deadly floods.

Islamic teachings on protecting nature are not being propagated

In a Muslim majority country like Pakistan, love and respect for nature and the importance of conservation of the environment is not being discussed enough by religious scholars, clerics and imams at mosques even though Islamic literature about the topic exists. We also do not get to see any conversations revolving around Islam and the environment in mainstream media, especially from religious scholars who have a massive followings.

The one place in our entire journey where men and women effortlessly talked about how their faith teaches them about respecting nature and celebrating seasons was Bumburet Valley where the Kailasha minority lives and practises their faith.

During the course of our research, we observed that in some areas, faith-based organisations have prepared volunteers in their communities to provide help when a disaster strikes and are working to enhance local disaster preparedness – but in other areas, there are no early-warning systems in place at all.

This is still a reactionary approach. The situation can be so much better in a Muslim-majority country where religion can play a pivotal role in helping people take a proactive approach towards climate change by teaching to safeguard our natural resources before it is too late.

Pakistan needs to stop making infrastructural blunders

Massive engineering and planning blunders that cost millions to the national exchequer seem to keep taking place every now and then in the country. These are structures built in the hopes of solving problems, but have ended up resulting in the creation of even bigger environmental issues.

For instance, the construction of the Kotri Barrage led to the complete decay of Keti Bandar. Siddiq Roonjho shared with us his very personal and profound story:

Similarly, we found a dam built to conserve rainwater in Nagarparkar, but which does not do its job because it has been built at the wrong location. Therefore, when it rains, the water accumulated in the natural rainwater drain is unable to reach the dam where it could be stored.

Instead, the seasonal river has changed course because of the dam and this has drastically increased flood risk to nearby houses. Children now use the empty dam as a cricket pitch.

“Your eyes would well up if you saw how much water goes to waste here when it rains,” says journalist Saleem Khoso whom we met in Nagarparkar during our research. He is of the opinion that if this rainwater runoff could be managed and stored, the water scarcity crisis in Thar could be solved.

Climate migration is already a huge threat

In many parts of Pakistan, climate affectees have been forced to move to urban areas in search of better economic opportunities. In the future, this could significantly add to disproportionate urban growth that manifests in the form of increased slum settlements and poor quality of life in our big cities. It also puts our food security at risk as more and more farmers are forced to take up labour jobs in order to make ends meet.

People from communities in Thar are moving to big cities in search of work owing to droughts and low rainfall. They only return to their homes during the monsoon season to cultivate crops, if the monsoons take place at all. In most instances, men from the household migrate to the cities leaving behind the rest of their families in villages.

The victims of the 2010 floods are still struggling to choose whether to live challenging lives in cities such as Karachi or go back home where next to no economic opportunities await them.

What will become of these internally displaced people? How will they be resettled given they have no source of livelihood back home? These are serious questions that we must ponder over.

Communities are aware of the changing climate

We observed that people all across the country were instinctively aware of climate change. However, we noticed an interesting pattern. The people in Sindh and Punjab were not familiar with the term 'climate change' even when translated into Urdu, but in Gilgit, Hunza and Chitral people were not only familiar with the term but could also point to the factors causing it.

They also seemed to take a more proactive approach to dealing with the issue. Imtiaz Ahmed, a resident of Booni, Chitral talked to us about painting their tin roofs white so they could reduce sunlight reflecting directly onto the glaciers and prevent them from melting.

The Climate Stories Pakistan journey has taught us that our government and private sector need to come together on an urgent basis to try out pilot projects in smaller pockets of populations that can tackle climate change-related issues in innovative and efficient ways.

This is a responsibility that falls on everyone’s shoulder who enjoys even a little bit of privilege in Pakistan because poor and marginalised communities in our country are most vulnerable to the horrors of climate change.

Do you have stories of climate change to tell? Write to us at prism@dawn.com