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The wrath of Gaia

August 26, 2012

Dr Mehjabeen Abidi Habib has recently completed a PhD in resilience and the adaptive capacity of rural communities to social and ecological disturbance in the coastal and Karakoram regions of Pakistan. She is a visiting research associate at Government College University, Lahore, and Oxford University, UK. Here in this interview with Moniza Inam, she describes the various aspects of climate change and its effects on the communities in general and women in particular.

How is climate change being felt in Pakistan? How is it perceived?

“There was a time when the old Hindu names of the agricultural months could tell us what to expect for every season — now, well Assu is not quite what it should be,” this is what our wise old dhobi teaches me about climate change as we discuss the seasons in Lahore. As an avid gardener, I wait for the right time to plant my precious seeds, minimise watering, and prepare for pest outbreaks. He launders, dries and irons clothes, using both the open air as well as electricity in his home, so it matters to him how the water and humidity cycles will affect the output of his trade.

Climate change is widely referred to by people all over Pakistan, even in some of the remotest villages and deserts. Sometimes, it is synonymous to natural disasters including earthquakes, floods and sea storms. Sometimes, climate change justifies changing periods of drought and rainfall, and in places, it is attributed to the changing relationship of man and nature.

In the Indus Delta, one of the country’s poorest settlements, fisherfolks explain a traditional world view of the unpredictable cycles of nature. They say that humans and all natural things are tied in a relationship reciprocal to each other, an action invites a reaction, and that all creation is held together by certain norms of behaviour. Break these normal behaviours and you will unleash the wrath of nature. “Earlier we could predict the patterns of the sea, now the knowledge that our elders taught us to read the signs of nature is no longer useful,” they exclaim.

Is there a difference between how climate change affects rural areas and urban areas? Are there any particular sectors which are shrinking because of climate change?

In addition to empirical observations above, climate data analysed by the meteorological department informs us that weather patterns will change in the future. The wet regions of Pakistan will become wetter and the dry regions even drier, thus the Makran coast may experience more droughts. The Karakoram glaciologist, Ken Hewitt observes that our glaciers are acting in unpredictable ways, some shrinking and others expanding, hence this will affect the whole life blood of Pakistan’s Indus River System in which 80 per cent of the water comes from these glaciers.

In my view, it is a false separation to think that somehow the urban areas are more under our control and less susceptible to the changes of natural cycles. Yes, agricultural production is very dependent on water and weather patterns, and farmers are already changing sowing times or are switching to less sensitive crop varieties. It is true that the old knowledge about agricultural patterns will not suffice, and climate unpredictability will need both farmer empirics and informed science.

Cities, too, are really as dependant on natural resources but maybe it is less obvious since these are more human constructed and managed domains. But if Karachi is hit by greater cyclones, then surely its road and water drainage systems will have to better follow natural slopes so as to work with the contingencies of more rain, as Arif Hasan, our foremost urban planner reminds us. Climate change will force us to remember that natural cycles are far beyond our control — this is how humans have lived in all of history, except perhaps for the past two hundred years when we felt we could reign supreme.

Do you think climate change affects women differently from men?

Research in Upper Hunza suggests that women are quite differently concerned with the impacts of climate change. Indian scholarship tells us that rural women take a long view of the importance of managing natural resources that they control. Men from the same households, on the other hand, will often commit to short-term cash-based livelihoods away from the farm. In Pakistan, women use water, trees, soil and crops for the sustenance of the family: for nutrition, child-rearing, animal care and housing. All of these natural resources are subject to the unpredictability that climate change brings.

For example, Hunza’s women are worried that grass types in high altitude pastures are changing and these are important for livestock. In Cholistan, women have changed the routes they walk to collect water since traditional rainwater ponds aren’t yielding in the same way.

Have more equitable societies been able to make effects of climate change more neutral?

Climate change is challenging our society to face uncertainty in nature and draw upon resources within society so that people can live according to their aspirations. As the concerned UN body points out, societies most vulnerable to climate change are those with ‘the multiple stressors’ of low institutional capabilities, weak economies and poor capacities. So it seems that perhaps societies with institutions that involve people, their knowledge, and good connections with outside resources are the ones most able to adapt.

Some communities I know such as Shimshal in Hunza are inspiring in their ability to study and understand climate change in their microcosm. They draw upon their natural and social resources without waiting for outsiders and act to reduce damage to their homeland and to themselves.