Pakistan is the eight-most vulnerable country to climate change. What does life in such conditions look like? The Climate Stories Pakistan team travelled the length and breath of the country to collect stories of people's climate suffering as well as of their resilience. These accounts showcase the human dimension of climate change and will hopefully inspire empathy and collective action in face of increasing catastrophes.
Sheri Bano is the only woman organic farmer we met in Hunza. Originally from Altit, she uses only organic methods to grow vegetables, which are used in her own restaurant in Karimabad, Hunza.
“Our hotel [Hidden Paradise] became famous for organic and traditional food,” she shared. She used to run the restaurant with her husband and when he passed away, her son took over the family business. The interesting thing about her restaurant is that it is 36 years old and is run entirely by her family.
“We did not keep staff from outside, everyone from the family would work there. When the kids were younger they'd do the work of waitstaff, and my husband and I would be in the kitchen. One of my sons who is differently-abled would help wash the dishes and clean,” shared Sheri Bano. Also, every vegetable is produced by them at home.
Some of the vegetables that she commonly grows now include carrots, cauliflower, peas, Chinese spinach and bell peppers. She plants new crops for every season, she tells us. “In July we have Chinese cabbage, spring onions and potatoes. In August we can grow methi, mustard seeds, horseradish and carrots.”
Sheri Bano uses animal waste as fertiliser instead of chemical fertilisers. She says that usually in colder regions, such as Hunza, there are no insects that attack the vegetables. But in case there are any, she burns wood or uses natural oils to kill them rather than buying pesticides from the markets.
However, the recent changes in weather patterns are affecting her food production. The increase in temperatures has led to the rotting of fruits and pest outbreaks. “The apricots get insects,” shared Sheri Bano. “It happens because of the sudden heat. And the same thing is happening with the apples. They fall before their time. The fruits don’t taste the same anymore and they don't ripen the same way. The taste that they used to have is not there anymore because of the weather.”
She has noticed weather patterns changing drastically in the past 4-5 years. “There used to be so much snow here that we would slip on it. It was so icy. Now the weather has changed, it's become very hot.” Not only has the temperature increased but it has also turned unpredictable as Sheri Bano noticed, “In the swimming pool outside, this year after 30 years there's been ice. This year it's been colder.”
Because of sudden changes in the weather, there have been unpredictable rainfalls. “When it's in the process of ripening, and it rains, the fruit is all wasted. We are not getting the kind of production we got before.”
Born in Keti Bandar in the 1940s, Siddiq Roonjho still lives in the fishing village 70 years later, unlike others who he has seen migrate in hopes of a better life. “Here,” he says, “there's no livelihood, and no sweet water to drink.”
However, it was not always this way. In the past, the four major creeks in the area served as a source of freshwater, and agriculture flourished here: “We would grow so much rice that there used to be the scent of it around. The rice is finished now since the water is no longer sweet.”
Around 90% of the population here is engaged in fishing activities. Roonjho, a fisherman by trade, fondly remembers the time when the creeks were abundant with fish. In his youth, fishermen would not go out to the rough seas in June, July and August. Instead, they would lay their nets in the creek: “We'd go every day and each fisherman would get 200-300 (pieces) of palla.” In the past few years, “when the [fresh] water dried up, so did the palla.”
The flora of the area is also dwindling. Mangrove forests were once aplenty, each a marker of a particular area due to its dense canopy: “We would differentiate each place with the kind of vegetation that was there.” Today, Roonjho asks: “Where are these mangroves now? They're not there.”
This is because of two main reasons: seawater intrusion and deforestation. Deforestation took place on a large scale here, as mangrove trees were the only source of heat and light for these people: “There was no gas or anything at that time. We used to use wood as fuel.” The sea has come closer too in the past few years: “The sea was around 70km away. Now, it's only 20-25 km away,” he says.
The state of the environment holds great meaning for Roonjho and those like him, as they depend on natural markers to forecast weather, shirking newer technology: “Previously, we would go according to our own estimate. We would figure it out according to how the sea looked.” They cannot rely on these estimates now as the weather has become unpredictable.
According to Roonjho, fishing practices have also changed quite a lot which has decreased the population of marine species: “We used a silk thread to catch fish in the past. Now, the nets are made from plastic. It's very dangerous as it catches everything, even the baby fish.” The size of the fishnet holes has also decreased in size over the years which has led to indiscriminate overfishing.
Sonia Kanwal is from the beautiful Reshun valley in Chitral. She was 22 years old when the flood hit her area in 2015. “They say that every 25-30 years, there is a flash flood like this. But in my life, it was the first time I witnessed a flood of this scale.” Talking about climate change, she said, “the actual reason for its occurrence was the glaciers bursting because of increased heat. We hear these from our elders.”
Sonia still remembers the suddenness of the disaster and the intensity of the noise: “It was Ramazan and I was preparing for the isha prayer when the flood came. I heard the noise from far and warned everyone that a flood was coming and they should run for their lives. The flood brings large boulders with the water from between the big rocks in the mountains, which causes the noise to be very scary. The flood was upon us in a matter of seconds. A flood comes that fast.”
Sonia recounts her thoughts at the time of the incident: “When the flood comes, you think now that the flood has come, I am gone. My life is meaningless. I will be swept away. You just keep on running and feel as if the water is right upon you. That is how you feel.”
The flood cost Sonia and her family most of what they had: “Our houses were completely swept away. Our crops, our lands all were destroyed. Whatever little land was left, it was divided amongst my father and brothers. Thankfully, no lives were lost as we all climbed up the mountain for safety.”
Her family later rebuilt their house on the opposite side of the river as did most others in the area. She talks about how the most difficult part about starting life anew was building a house in these harsh conditions. “There was a time when my father’s cousin was plastering the walls and helping with the construction of our new house. But we could not find any labourers in the area to help bring the cement to the house. So, I had to carry the cement bricks myself. It was such a difficult time for me.”
With the physical, tangible burdens that were left in the aftermath of the disaster, there were also the mental struggles that Sonia faced. The post-traumatic stress from having braved such an incident left her reeling: “When I sat on the dastarkhwan, sometimes I would hear voices of people screaming about approaching floods and I would scream and run to my room. At times I would also wake up in the middle of the night, screaming. A person is left mentally distraught after these floods.”
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Amber Ajani was the Project Lead for Climate Stories Pakistan and holds a Master's in environmental science from the American University. She is a UN Fellow, National Geographic Explorer and a Fulbright alumna.
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