Climate change leaves women in Skardu facing disaster

Updated 16 Jan 2020


Ruqqaiya Bibi of Kotham Pine is still waiting for an opportunity to restart her life. — Photo by Shabina Faraz
Ruqqaiya Bibi of Kotham Pine is still waiting for an opportunity to restart her life. — Photo by Shabina Faraz

Rosi Bi, a middle-aged woman from Skardu’s remote Sadpara village, can clearly illustrate how rapidly livelihood in her area has been affected by climate change.

“Our forefathers have been livestock farmers for centuries, and we too, used to earn our bread and butter through our cattle and their milk. But now, everything has changed,” she said.

“We can no longer breed cattle as the snow and erratic weather patterns affect the supply of fodder. Today, the animals are only kept for domestic use. To earn a living we cultivate potatoes and other vegetables instead.”

Sadpara lake. — Photo by writer
Sadpara lake. — Photo by writer

Situated near the majestic, colour-changing Sadpara Lake in the Karakorum mountain range, Sadpara village is about 30 kilometres from Skardu. It has a total population of three thousand.

The women hailing from Sadpara village have been farming cattle for a living for centuries. But, much like Rosi Bi, have been adversely affected by climate change. Many of their husbands live outside the village due to employment opportunities, so these women are solely responsible for raising their children as well as domestic chores.

Also read: Climate change affects women more. What can the state do to intervene?

Rosi Bi is an expert on livestock farming but is now exploring alternative means to earn an income. Like other families in the village, she owns a modest amount of land — about 1,200 to 1,800 square yards — where she farms potatoes and other vegetables. Due to the long winter there is only one farming season, but demand is growing due to increased tourism. The women supply most of their crops directly to hotel owners, and earn about PKR 100,000 per year selling potatoes and PKR 50,000 for other vegetables.

The province of Gilgit-Baltistan is a mountainous region. The three great mountain ranges — the Karakoram, Himalayas and Hindukush — make it a great tourist attraction. The region is home to K2, the world’s second highest peak, plus five other peaks over 8,000 metres. This area has the world’s largest fresh water reservoir in the form of 5,100 small and large glaciers and 119 lakes. Pakistan’s northern areas are also home to over 300 species of wildlife, including the endangered snow leopard and brown bears. A 6,592 square kilometre forest also adds to the beauty of this area.

The Indus flowing near Skardu. — Photo by writer
The Indus flowing near Skardu. — Photo by writer

Unfortunately, unpredictable changes in climate have deeply affected this beautiful region. This is primarily experienced in the impact it has on growing cattle fodder, which has become very difficult.

Ghufranullah Baig, an assistant director in Gilgit-Baltistan’s disaster management authority confirmed that the region is facing severe weather conditions. According to Baig, temperatures this year fell as low as -34 in the Deosai national park region. Skardu city faced a record four feet of snowfall this year. Along with a prolonged winter season, heavy snowfall and rain, the Karakorum ranges are also facing a new geological phenomenon in the shape of debris flow, with three such instances recorded in 2019.

Kotham Pine village which is situated about six kilometres from Shigar witnessed heavy debris flow this year.

More on this: What's it like to suffer from climate change in Pakistan?

“The entire village was asleep but we woke up when we heard a strange noise. We came out from our homes and saw a sight which we will never forget. A huge amount of mountain rock and mud mixed with rain water was gushing down and destroying our village,” said Ruqqaiya Bibi, a resident of the village.

The aftermath of a debris flow. — Photo by writer
The aftermath of a debris flow. — Photo by writer

Two casualties were reported in this disaster, which also killed more than 150 cattle and washed away the standing crop.

Ruqqaiya Bibi lost her home, cattle and everything else she owned in this incident. As the government gave a very low amount to villagers in terms of aid, she is now dependent on relatives for survival.

Most women in the region have a fate similar to that of Rosi Bi and Ruqqaiya Bibi. Through sheer resilience, they are learning to survive in the face of severe weather conditions and unpredictable disasters like floods and landslides. If they manage to survive these disasters, they lose all their belongings and have to start a new life and a new means of income.

In Skardu, women farmers are experiencing a similar situation, where climate change is forcing them to deviate from centuries old traditions to adopt new means to earn a living.

Empowering women

The Agha Khan rural support programme (AKRSP) which has been working in this region to empower women for decades has now extended its operations to climate change-hit areas. The organisation is training women to cope with severe weather conditions.

A vegetable cultivation project for Gilgit-Baltistan. — Photo by writer
A vegetable cultivation project for Gilgit-Baltistan. — Photo by writer

Shabana Raza, who works with the Durain Cassim Fund of AKRSP, said the organisation is making women more resilient against climate change and economic prosperity is a measure

“Mass forest cutting is the basic reason behind heavy floods and landsliding in this sensitive ecosystem,” she said, adding that the organisation is inspiring women to plant more trees.

“Women are developing their own nurseries, planting trees and also selling them. We provide saplings and then buy back [grown ones] from them — through this system, hundreds of thousands of trees have been planted.”

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She also said women are being trained so they can partake in different economic activities. “There is an increase in tourist flow and we are working on ecotourism, which increases demand of milk, other dairy products and vegetables. Traditionally women used to consider selling milk as a sin. We educate them, provide training for egg hatching, yogurt and cheese packaging and the cultivation of off-season vegetables. Now these women are well-trained business owners. We are also persuading them to continue cattle farming, especially of mountain goats and sheep, so we can revive the traditional shawls and carpet industry which has a high demand in the international market,” said Raza.

Habiba Iqbal from Aastana, an area in the suburbs of Skardu, used this training to start her own nursery of eucalyptus trees as a side business to support her family. Gulshan Begum is now running a beauty parlour in Kehkashan Market in Skardu. She started her business fan investment of PKR 20,000.

Kashish beauty parlour. — Photo by writer
Kashish beauty parlour. — Photo by writer

Initially, we faced difficulties but we have paved way for upcoming business owners, said Gulshan while remembering her initial business days.

But while some women have quickly adapted to their new jobs, Ruqqaiya Bibi of Kotham Pine is still waiting for an opportunity to restart her life. Rozi Bi, too, is looking for interest-free government loans so she can start weaving traditional shawls. They are examples of women living in these mountainous regions who, though resilient in the face of disaster, still need support to overcome the challenges brought on by climate change.

This article was originally published on The Third Pole and has been reproduced with permission.