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Here's why we should care about climate change

Updated Apr 22, 2017 06:43pm

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A boy walks through a village in Kalash valley | Photos by Danial Shah
A boy walks through a village in Kalash valley | Photos by Danial Shah

July 26, 2015 was just like any summer day. Mohiuddin, 65, with a wrinkled face, thin beard and round eyes, closed his grocery shop, offered his evening prayers in a nearby mosque and walked home for dinner. As he went past a stream, he saw its water flowing at a faster than usual pace. Other villagers around him also noticed the same and took it as a sign for something usual: the summer floods. Mohiuddin thought the flood would come and go like it did every year, without causing much harm to his village.

He lives in Reshun Gol, a small village 63 kilometres north of Chitral town. Located at an altitude of 2,030 metres above the sea level, the settlement comprises small houses scattered throughout a mountain valley along a road that links Chitral with another town, Mastuj. 'Gol' in local Khowar language means a water stream passing between two mountains.

Famous for its lush green fields, fruit orchards and picturesque view, the valley has been inhabited by people for more than a millennium because of its fertile soil and freshwater streams, flowing downhill from the glaciers above. Each house here had a kitchen garden that supplied vegetables for the whole year. Sources for making a living were aplenty: men worked on farmland and sold fruits; women reared livestock. For as far back as Mohiuddin’s memory can recall, his ancestors have been living here in complete harmony with their natural surroundings.

Certain that there was nothing to worry about with the approaching flood, he went to his orchard, watered the apple trees and plucked some fresh grapes to eat after dinner. His children were studying inside the house and the women of his family were in the kitchen, cooking. He went indoors and lay down on a cot, waiting for dinner to be served. Suddenly, he felt the earth beneath him vibrate. He then heard a roaring sound. “At first, I could not understand what it was,” says Mohiuddin. “We all got together and thought it was an earthquake.”

Before they could make sense of it, there was a loud shout outside: “Sailaab, sailaab, bhaago, bhaago (Run, run, it’s a flood).”

Women carry water canisters, after a flash flood destroyed their homes in Brep, a village near China
Women carry water canisters, after a flash flood destroyed their homes in Brep, a village near China

Mohiuddin still did not think much of the imminent calamity, but then the sound of water rushing downhill became much louder and stronger than anything he had heard during the previous floods. The earth started trembling incessantly. “It felt the mountains were falling apart. The noise caused by huge boulders falling down and crashing against other objects was so high that I could not hear even those standing at an arm’s length from me.”

Now, entire families have been forced to migrate away from the streams that once sustained them, but now swell into unexpected floods of unparalleled ferocity.

By the time he rushed outdoors, the water had almost approached his house. He hurriedly took his family with him and immediately shifted to a high spot on the other side of the road. The debris the water was bringing with it carried massive trees, some of them, according to Mohiuddin, as old as 500 years. Once out of the flood’s way, he looked around and realised that his four-year-old daughter, Mehak Rani, was missing. “I rushed back towards my home and saw nothing but massive boulders and rubble there,” he says. “Mehak was gone,” he says with teary eyes.

Also read: The coast is clear—The vanishing mangrove forest of Karachi

When the flood left the village, it took away three lives and washed away 132 houses. It also destroyed a community hospital and a 4.2 megawatt hydroelectric power station that provided electricity to most of Chitral district.

About 80 kilometres northeast of Reshun Gol, another lush and fertile village called Brep, on the road between Chitral and Broghil, was hit by a similar flood the next day. The raging, swelling, rushing waters destroyed 112 of the village’s 484 houses.

Mohiuddin and his family – like many others who lost their houses to the flood in Reshun Gol – now live in a rented house a little away from the stream. Some villagers are still living close to the stream in shelters provided by the Aga Khan Planning and Building Services (AKPBS), a non-governmental development organisation.

A few have migrated to Chitral town. Such displacement is unprecedented by local standards. In the past, only a few young men would leave the village to find work elsewhere, especially during the winters, to earn some extra cash. Now, entire families have been forced to migrate away from the streams that once sustained them, but now swell into unexpected floods of unparalleled ferocity.

Mohiuddin, however, has plans to go back to his house. He believes he can muster enough help from his neighbours to remove the boulders and rebuild the place, even though he knows well that it can be hit by another flash flood.

He also understands the cost of his determination to stay in his native village: some changes and adjustments will have to be made. “I now have to rely on the market for goods that my own kitchen garden and fruit orchards once provided,” he says. “I need more cash in hand than I did in the past.”

Villagers in Reshun Gol do not know what is causing flash floods. Experts say the reason is as obvious as a snow-capped mountain in the Himalayas: temperatures are rising and glaciers are shrinking and melting.

Evidence of that abounds. The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) records changes that have taken place in the earth’s temperatures since 1880. NASA's data shows that “the 10 warmest years in the 134-year record have all occurred since 2000, with the exception of 1998. The year 2015 ranks as the warmest on record.”

Also read: Victims of neglect—Monsoon rains devastate the southern parts of Sindh

The data obtained from the Pakistan Meteorological Department shows mean surface air temperature in Pakistan has risen at the annual rate of 0.099 degree Celsius between 1960 and 2010, resulting in a total increase of 0.47 degree Celsius in 50 years. A 2010 report prepared by an official task force on climate change, set up by the Planning Commission of Pakistan, states that the average annual temperature in the country has increased by 0.6 degree Celsius during the last century. Temperature increase over northern Pakistan during the same period of time, however, was higher than in the plains: 0.8 degree Celsius.

No magic wand can reverse the process. Meteorologists, instead, are focusing on successfully predicting the arrival of flash floods.

Pakistan’s north is ringed by three major mountain ranges – the Karakoram, the Hindukush and the Himalayas – where mountain peaks can be as high as 8,000 metres above the sea level. Nestled around these peaks are some of the largest glaciers outside the earth’s polar region. Their importance to life and lifestyles in Pakistan is easy to gauge. Muhammad Iqbal Khan, who works as consultant geographer and glaciologist with the climate change division of the federal government, says glaciers in the northern areas provide 60 per cent of all the water that flows through the Indus River — that benevolent irrigator of farmlands and magnificent producer of hydro-electric power.

These glaciers are receding as layers of their pristine ice melt due to rising temperatures. This is creating massive lakes of water held back only by a thinning veneer of ice. When temperature increases further, these lakes burst through the ice, leading to a sudden discharge of huge volumes of water. This causes flash floods that are known among scientists by a rather unwieldy name: Glacier Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF).

FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance, an affiliate of the Aga Khan Development Network, regularly monitors around 32 glaciers in northern Pakistan. It carried out a survey between 2007 and 2012 to assess the likelihood of GLOFs and the threats they pose to the lives and livelihood in northern regions of Pakistan. Around 658 villages in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral were found to be vulnerable to flash floods caused by glacial bursts.

Here is how the survey was conducted: A geologist working with FOCUS marked glaciers – for their width, thickness and length – and gave tools to community activists and shepherds to monitor changes in these parameters on a monthly basis. Based on the data thus collected, different areas were marked to be under different degrees of risk.

Also read: Slulmords of the sea—How the land mafia destroyed a once thriving fishing community

If changes in the glaciers are found to be sudden, local communities are informed immediately to take action — which means either running away to safety or creating embankments to divert the waters away from human settlements. “The survey has helped us in issuing early warnings to the villagers about the arrival of flash floods so that they can save their lives and valuables,” says Nusrat Nasab, Chief Executive Officer of FOCUS.

The two glaciers present above Reshun Gol were found to have gone through sudden changes recently. “There are at least seven glacial lakes within them,” says Hamid Ahmed Mir who monitors GLOFs as a field manager in Chitral for a project funded by the United Nations Development Programme. “These lakes are located on high elevation,” he says. If and when these burst – and that is no longer improbable – their waters will rush downward at breakneck speed. Mir then states the obvious: “These lakes are extremely dangerous to the communities living downstream.”

No magic wand can reverse the process. Meteorologists, instead, are focusing on successfully predicting the arrival of flash floods. In some cases, their predictions have already led to early warnings to the communities at risk. Villagers in Brep, for instance, were told in advance last year about the coming flash flood.

The Pakistan Meteorological Department issued this warning on July 24, 2015: “During [the] next 4-5 days a severe weather system is likely to persist in [Gilgit-Baltistan] and Chitral, having potential to produce Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF).” This helped the villagers save their lives and valuables by moving to safer places just in time.

A flash flood is different from a seasonal flood not just in intensity and velocity but also in what it brings along with it. A seasonal flood carries sediment that increases the fertility of land and thus helps agriculture, says Mir. “GLOF, on the other hand, brings mass boulders of rock and a lot of sand with it which render land infertile.” A GLOF also uproots orchards and destroys standing crops which sometimes are the sole sources of livelihood for an affected community, he points out.

Not everyone takes these explanations seriously. Afiat Khan, 55, continues to believe that “floods are caused by Allah who is not happy with our deeds.” There were four murders in and around my village in 2015 alone, he says. “How will God be happy with us if there is no peace?”

Khan, a resident of Reshun Gol, has sold 120 goats and sheep to a local butcher over the last year or so to make ends meet. The flood has rendered his farmland unfit for cultivation but he is stoic in the face of suffering. “Either people are not regularly saying their prayers or they are moving away from what the religion ordains,” is his explanation for his village’s collective misery.

It is difficult to explain the science of climate change to locals like Khan, especially given that the melting of glaciers cannot be attributed to a single factor that the villagers can themselves see. Experts, however, agree that increased human footprint in these environmentally important areas is perhaps the biggest reason why climate phenomena such as GLOF have become common recently.

Also read: It’s raining records

For one, increase in population has increased pressure on forests and grazing pastureland. More people mean more livestock they own. They send their animals to alpine pastures on high altitude for grazing where goats and sheep each year consume millions of saplings of tomorrow’s trees.

People living in high-altitude areas are almost entirely dependent on forest wood for fuel. This always comes from nearby forests which, as a result, have entirely disappeared from where they once abutted villages. “When I was a child, I remember getting wood from trees almost next to the village,” says Mohiuddin. “Now my children have to travel far to do the same. Sometimes it takes them days to collect wood to last a month.”

A farmer waters his vegetables in Samti village, Muzaffargarh district
A farmer waters his vegetables in Samti village, Muzaffargarh district

Development practitioners point out how the depleting forest cover results in – or at least intensifies – natural calamities. “Deforestation is the major cause for flash floods and landslides. Trees prevent land erosion during flood, keeping soil intact. They not only slow down the flow of a flood but also reduce the damage it may cause,” says Nasab.

Aziz Ali Dad, a social scientist from Gilgit-Baltistan, explains in a paper, Building and Rebuilding Risks, how modernity and access to modern amenities have built pressure on natural resources in the northern areas of Pakistan, making them vulnerable to environmental hazards. “Construction of roads to villages has increased the market value of land as compared to that of lands that are isolated or not attached to main highways,” he says. “A road facilitates inflow of market goods on the one hand and enables people to sell village products in a market on the other,” he adds. This two-way commerce, along with the vehicular traffic that the roads generate, puts massive pressure on the ecological resources – such as streams, pastures, and fauna and flora -- of these areas.

As one window of agricultural opportunity closes on the farmers, researchers at the Climate Change Centre are expecting that another will soon open.

Even when the local residents are seeing environmental pollution increase around them and their pristine habitats turn into ugly replicas of the architectural monstrosities of urban Pakistan, they want roads. Being close to a road sometimes brings unexpected rewards. When a village linked to a road is hit by a natural disaster, its residents get a lot more money in compensation than those living in an inaccessible area, Dad says.

The roads do something else too. They help the timber mafia to transport trees cut down from forests for selling in big markets downcountry as fuel and raw material for construction and furniture, says Dad. That “this leads to deforestation” is painfully plain to anyone concerned about the shrinking of the country’s already meagre forestry resources.

All these human activities together, he says, are the main reason why people in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral are facing frequent flash floods. The intensity and frequency of these floods will only increase if deforestation is not stopped and reversed, he remarks.

Karam Khan is a short and thin old man, approximately 75 years old. Wearing a big white turban, sporting a long, white beard and thin, trimmed mustache, he looks like a character from a period movie about rustic mountain folk. He walks with the help of a wooden stick in his right hand.

Khan has spent his entire life farming with the help of traditional knowledge about weather and rain patterns. Steeped in local lore and native traditions, he follows the indigenous Bikrami calendar rather than the Gregorian one. “I was never wrong in predicting rains,” he boasts. And his weather forecasts always helped him maximise the productivity of his 12-acre farm.

Karam Khan lives in Wasti Haji Murad, a small village in Rajanpur district, 110 kilometres southwest of Dera Ghazi Khan city. It lies in the eastern foothills of the Sulaiman mountain range. For centuries, the village has been entirely dependent on rains for agriculture and drinking water.

Also read: Monsoon mayhem—What Pakistan's floods in recent years mean for the near future

Rain in Saavan (the monsoon month that starts in the middle of July and lasts till the middle of August) had been a blessing for us,” he says. “That season used to bring us enough water to irrigate all our farmland throughout the year.”

Embankment built in Badin to protect lands from the intrusion of sea water
Embankment built in Badin to protect lands from the intrusion of sea water

The Sulaiman range is located mainly in northern Balochistan, with some parts of it in south-western Punjab. The highest peak in the range – at 3,487 metres above sea level – is Takht-e-Sulaiman (Throne of Solomon).

Monsoon rains on the naked brown and purple mountain peaks trickle down nine to 10 months a year through natural streams – known as rod kohi or hill torrent. Rainwater is then channeled to the fields through natural and man-made waterways to irrigate crops. Each of the 132 families living in Wasti Haji Murad own some agricultural land. Not linked to the rest of the country through a road, its 1,000 or so inhabitants are completely dependent on the yield of their crops and livestock to make ends meet.

Over the last few years, weather and rain patterns have been changing, hurting their agriculture and threatening their economic well-being. “It either rains heavily in a very short period of time or it does not rain at all. Both are harmful for crops,” says Karam Khan.

In December 2012, all the rain held back for months suddenly hurled down as a flash flood. The deluge overran embankments, destroyed water channels at a massive scale and ruined crops in the entire foothills. Since then, Wasti Haji Murad and its adjoining villages have suffered flash floods every year, though not in winters. “Most of my fields have been washed away in these floods,” says Karam Khan.

His farming has been running in loss for the past three years and he fears that 2015-2016 will be no different – and not just because of the floods. “It did not rain at all when my crops needed water last winter.” There have been no winter rains in the area since the end of 2012.

While the traditional rain pattern enabled farmers like Karam Khan to grow two crops a year, unpredictable rains and flash floods are forcing them to grow only one. Their sowing season disturbed by floods, summer crops – such as rice –are taking longer than usual to grow, leaving almost no time for sowing winter crops. “Rice in my fields used to take 60 days to be ready. Now that has increased to 90 days,” says Karam Khan. The additional 30 days fall in months when winter crops such as wheat are usually sown.

Also read: Punjab's fields of change—The changing face of wheat harvesting

Flash floods create other problems too. They fill the fields with boulders and stones that need to be removed before making cultivation possible again, says Karam Khan. In the absence of a drainage system, floodwater also stays in the villages for weeks, causing diseases among human beings and livestock.

A study published by the Pakistan Meteorological Department in 2015 explains why the area is experiencing intense but shorter monsoon activity and next to no rains in the rest of the year. Rising temperatures are having a major impact on rain patterns in the regions located in the foothills and plains, reads the study titled Regional Precipitation Response to Regional Warming in Past and Future Climate. “One degree Celsius rise in temperature increases the water holding capacity of air [by] about 7 per cent,” it says. “… events like rain or snow storms, tropical cyclones, and thunderstorms get fuelled up with an increased supply of moisture that eventually produces more intense precipitation episodes, increasing the chances of floods.”

Mohiuddin who lost his home in a flood in Reshun Gol village
Mohiuddin who lost his home in a flood in Reshun Gol village

The study shows that changes have occurred in the amount, frequency, intensity and type of rain, owing to increased water vapor content in the atmosphere which, in turn, has resulted from increase in global sea surface temperatures and rise in earth surface temperatures caused by greenhouse gases. The inhabitants of Sulaiman range have suffered immensely as a result.

“The flood history of Rajanpur district is such that 76 villages were affected with hill torrent in 2003 but this number increased to 421 in 2010,” says Jamshaid Farid, program manager at Help Foundation, a local community-based organisation working on mitigating the impact of climate change.

The main factor behind such large-scale destruction is that far more water flows during flash floods from the top of the mountains to the plains below than the existing water channels can handle. “Water channels around the Sulaiman range have the capacity to carry 250,000 cusecs of water but peak water discharge through these channels during a flash flood was recorded to be 725,000 cusecs, nearly thrice their capacity," states a report by the Help Foundation.

Non-governmental associations are trying to help local farmers as much as they can with limited financial and human resources. “We are coming up with strategies to make farmers climate resilient as part of an Oxfam-funded programme. We have given trees of 20 different types to households displaced by land erosion so that they plant those around their houses,” says Farid. “We have also introduced kitchen gardening for farmers so that they can grow their own vegetables instead of buying them from the market,” he says. “This will reduce their financial burden.”

Boats stranded on the slush left behind by high tide on the Arabian sea coast near Siddique Dablo village
Boats stranded on the slush left behind by high tide on the Arabian sea coast near Siddique Dablo village

The foundation has also introduced crops such as mustard and grain sorghum which can resist climate change. “These crops have the capacity to adapt in the face of environmental stresses and disturbances,” Farid says. Even with such measures, he forecasts that “191 villages are likely to be affected in 2016 due to hill torrents.”

Another Help Foundation pilot project envisages diverting some of the flash floods into cleaned and deepened irrigation channels so that they can carry more water than they already do. “We involved the local community; we made them aware of the importance of cleaner, deeper channels for their irrigation needs; we provided them funds and we urged them to work together,” says Farid.

Also read: A disaster foretold - What Pakistan can do to improve its flood management

One of these channels passes by Wasti Kamal Khan, 18 kilometres to the east of Wasti Haji Murad. Its cleaning and deepening lasted 18 months and ended on December 31, 2015. Since then, it has benefitted vast tracts of lands that were barren before. “For over 21 years, my land had been lying fallow but now my farmland gets eight times more water than it did in the past,” says Kamal Khan, 55.

The increased availability of water has raised per acre yields. Before 2015, an acre of rice would produce around 240 kilogrammes but now that has gone up to 560 kilogrammes, says Kamal Khan. Even more importantly, farmers are sowing water-intensive crops such as cotton and rice – something unheard of in this parched patch of scrubland only a decade or so ago.

These success stories hardly hide the fact that hundreds of small villages in Dera Ghazi Khan division, located between the river Indus to their east and the Sulaiman range to their west, remain vulnerable to flash floods. Their first inhabitants must have thought that they should settle down where they could have access to water for irrigation and domestic usages — that is, close to where hill torrents flowed. That originally advantageous position has now become one of the biggest threats to the existence of their successors.

Muhammad Ali, a 55-year-old farmer, lives in Charsadda, about 30 kilometres to the north-east of Peshawar. About 15 years ago, he stopped growing traditional crops and started cultivating strawberries in a rented farm. For 13 years, strawberries provided him an annual profit of 700,000 rupees -- far more than what the traditional crops ever earned him.

In February this year, he was scared of even looking at his crop. Strawberries were rotting even before they ripened – a repeat of what had happened to the crop last year. In 2015, he earned only 140,000 rupees which could not even pay for all his production costs. “Whatever I earned last year was given to the people who had given me loans to finance my crop,” he says. This time round, the crop will not be yielding anything better.

Muhammad Ali remembers the month of February to be much colder a few years ago than it is now. That cold weather suited his strawberries well and allowed them to ripen perfectly. There has been another change in the weather of late — more and unpredictable rains in the winter months of November and December. That has been delaying the sprouting of his crop which requires the land to be dry and warm, not wet and cold. “Together, these weather conditions make the fruit stay small,” says Muhammad Ali.

A farmer checks his strawberry plants to asses the effect of rising temperature in Charsadda
A farmer checks his strawberry plants to asses the effect of rising temperature in Charsadda

Even the summers are different now. Intercooperation, an organisation running a climate change adaptation programme, funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) in Peshawar and its adjoining areas, states that the average summer temperature has palpably increased in lower altitude areas, such as Charsadda. This is reducing crop yield due to heat and water stresses. In a report titled Climate Change: Adaptation Needs for Agriculture and Water Resource in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa by the Livelihood Program Hindukush, the organisation says higher temperatures have also increased the water requirement of crops.

As weather and climate change, local farmers are at a loss to understand how to cope with such shifts. There is hardly any help out there and they have few resources to cope with the change.

In areas located in plains, the monsoon rain pattern, too, has changed, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Department. These areas used to get rains in July and August, but now the rains have shifted to June and July, which hurts the yield of crops such as maize. Last year alone, the department states, the yield of corn crop dropped by 6 per cent to 18 per cent in different parts of the country.

“Weather pattern has changed,” says Dr Jawed Ali, who works as a director of the Climate Change Centre at the University of Agriculture, Peshawar. “It is pretty evident that the winters and summers are becoming longer in plain areas, leaving less time for autumn and spring.”

These changes are having their biggest negative impact on wheat yield in Pakistan’s plains, says a 2015 report by the Pakistan Meteorological Department. Published in the Pakistan Journal of Meteorology and titled Impact of Rainfall Frequency during Late Spring Season on Wheat Crop in Major Agricultural Plains of Pakistan, the report states that wheat yield has declined due to increased temperatures and unpredictable rains.

Over most of the low elevation agricultural plains, the report says temperatures during the last week of February and the first 10 days of March remain 3-6 degree Celsius above normal. This expedites the biological life cycle of crops as plants undergo accelerated maturity. “Early maturity [does] not allow [the crop] to gain the normal weight, size and starch contents in the wheat grains.”

An increase in the maximum and minimum temperatures has also shortened the winter season in the plains, while the summers have become longer. This has reduced the length of the sowing season for winter crops, including wheat.

As one window of agricultural opportunity closes on the farmers, researchers at the Climate Change Centre are expecting that another will soon open. Wheat crop now ripens in March, a month earlier than in the post, due to warmer weather, says Dr Jawed Ali. This gives the farmers the whole month of April to grow something that can ripen quickly and is harvested in time for the sowing of the summer crops, he adds. Rising temperatures, according to him, can also increase wheat yield in high altitude areas such as Chitral, where the colder climate usually keeps the production of the crop rather depressed.

He, however, warns that the changing weather patterns will have a highly negative impact on the long-term availability of water for agriculture. “There is no strategy to store water for future needs,” he says. Since water stored behind natural glacial dams is bursting into flash floods, there is a serious possibility that we will run out of water altogether after these glacial resources are exhausted, he points out. What will happen when there is no more ice left to melt? Where will water come from then?

Samti is a small village in Muzaffargarh district, about 20 kilometers to the north of Multan city. It lies next to the river Chenab and is prone to multiple natural disasters, ranging from riverine floods and water logging to prolonged drought.

“Flood water stays in the area for weeks and renders the farmland unsuitable for cultivation,” says Muhammad Iqbal, a local farmer, who lost his entire wheat crop in the floods in 2010. “After the water finally recedes, the livestock gets diseases because of having consumed stagnant flood water,” says Bibi Sharifi, another local resident.

Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, a Lahore-based ecologist and writer, has worked closely with farmers in Muzaffargarh on climate change. For the past 10 years, she says, the farmers have noticed that the floods are getting bigger, more frequent and rather unpredictable.

“Their traditional knowledge of the arrival of floods is vanishing. Now they do not know when a flood will hit their area,” she says.

A boy walks in a field destroyed by a flood  in Samti village, Muzaffargarh district
A boy walks in a field destroyed by a flood in Samti village, Muzaffargarh district

As weather and climate change, local farmers are at a loss to understand how to cope with such shifts. There is hardly any help out there and they have few resources to cope with the change. The scale of mitigation efforts by community-based organisations remains small and their effectiveness dependent on the availability of regular donor funding.

Doaba Foundation, a community-based development organisation working in Samti village, has tried to fill the vacuum with a small-scale solution. It has provided financial and technical help to Samti’s residents to build their houses on raised platforms – five to six feet above the ground level – that are lined by trees. When a flood hits the village, the villagers shift to these raised structures along with their valuables. “The trees around my house protect the land from erosion during the flood,” says a farmer.

The raised platforms have at least helped the villagers save their lives and protect their houses and belongings from destruction, says Javed Iqbal, who works for Doaba Foundation.

Muhammad Ismail is a fisherman in Keti Bandar area, 150 kilometres to the south of Karachi. He lives in a small village, Siddique Dablo, which is an island in Hajamro Creek and is home to about 40 families.

Over the last few years, he has seen his lifestyle and means of livelihood undergo serious changes. He does not know how much more change is in store for him, but he is certain that the land under his feet is sliding into the sea.

That has, indeed, already happened at least once, albeit temporarily. In the summer of 2012, the entire Siddique Dablo village went under the Arabian Sea during an unusually high tide. Ismail then had to take refuge, along with his family, on a small wooden boat. His wife cooked on the same boat and their children spent their entire day on it. They had no toilet facilities, having to relieve themselves in full view of others. They spent nine whole days this way.

A high tide is normal in the summers, but it is utterly abnormal for a high tide to stay that way for nine days in a row. Ismail is unaware of the reasons for that and he does not know if and when a similar prolonged high tide will materialise again.

The fishermen at  Keti Bandar area
The fishermen at Keti Bandar area

He, however, knows that continuing to live on the island is not going to be easy. Due to the frequent intrusion of seawater, the groundwater has become salty and unfit for human consumption. One of his main daily rituals, besides going out into the sea for fishing, is to travel to Keti Bandar to fetch drinking water for his family.

The island, as well as the entire area surrounding it, is located where the Indus meets the sea in hundreds of rivulets known as the Indus River Delta. When fresh river water enters the sea, their union produces a unique ecology which thousands of fishermen make a living from.

According to the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF), the delta is one of Pakistan’s five most biologically and botanically diverse areas. The Sindh Forest Department endorses this by saying that the coastal mangrove forests in this area are a rich source of nutrients for a variety of marine species.

Extending over 132,000 hectare and representing about three per cent of Pakistan’s total forest area, these mangroves have been seriously degraded over the last 50 years as a result of inadequate flow of river water into the sea, industrial and urban water pollution that the river brings with it from up country, and the cutting down of trees for fuel or to clear land for construction and agriculture. Now that the sea level is rising, these forests are threatened even more due to the intrusion of the salty seawater inland.

The official task force on climate change says the main factor responsible for the intrusion of seawater into the Indus delta is insufficient flow of Indus water downstream Kotri Barrage near Hyderabad. The other, and perhaps the bigger, culprit is climate change.

Studies carried out at the National Institute of Oceanography verify that the sea level along the coast of Pakistan has been rising due to the increase in the sea surface temperature, approximately by 1.2 millimetres each year. This increase is more or less in consonance with the average global sea level rise of 1.5 millimetres per year since 1960, as recorded by multiple studies on the rise in the sea surface temperature.

On paper, this increase looks minuscule, but in practice, sea level rise by a millimetre results in seawater intruding inland by at least a kilometre. By this speed, the sea will reach the town of Thatta in the next 50 years and the city of Hyderabad in a 100 years.

Researchers such as Nasir Ali Panhwar and Asif Inam point out that the seawater has already travelled 80 kilometres upstream in the coastal areas of Thatta, Hyderabad and Badin districts. The primary impacts of rising sea level along the coastal zone, according to these researchers, include the risk of erosion of beaches, flooding and the inundation of wetlands and lowlands, salinisation of ground and surface waters and an adverse impact on coastal agriculture.

“About 40 years ago, the sea was 50 kilometres downstream from where it is now,” says Ismail. “It was not like this,” he says, as he points to the salt-riddled mud left behind by a high tide around the coast. He recalls that his father was an agriculturist and “we had freshwater coming from the Indus”, which was used both for both drinking and irrigating the crops.

Ironically, those most vulnerable to disasters caused by climate change are the ones who contribute least to it.

Coastal agriculture and sweet river water have gone long past. In February 2010, the task force on climate change reported that sea intrusion has eliminated 500,000 hectare of fertile land in Thatta alone (this is roughly equal to 12 per cent of the entire cultivated area in Sindh), displacing about 400,000 families from their farmland.

Ismail and his fellow villagers are now trying to live off fishing, which is also becoming increasingly difficult due to the depleting mangrove forests, where a large number of the Arabian Sea fish hatch. They may continue to live on the island a few more years, but they will eventually have to migrate to the mainland. Ismail knows that, but he does not know how he and the other villagers will cope with the exigencies of that migration.

To help deal with such problems in the short run, the WWF has provided them technical support and money to build elevated houses. There are about 30 such houses in Siddique Dablo village, including Ismail’s. These single-room houses are made of wood and palm leaves and are meant to be a measure to protect the villagers and their belongings from the immediate impact of a high tide.

These houses will be of no help when the sea finally takes over the island as a result of a rise in water level. The villagers will soon be doing what the residents of a nearby island did after their ancestral land went under. They are now living on the mainland in a settlement they have nostalgically named Amir Creek, after their original place of residence.

Ismail is also thinking of shifting to Amir Creek village where freshwater can be had from tankers and does not require travelling to a far-off town. Given his meagre income and no savings, this is a tough decision for him to make. Building a simple one-room elevated house will set him back by at least 100,000 rupees and he does not have that kind of money. To find some work other than fishing for survival will be the other challenge for him and his family, since none of them know any skill other than going out into the sea to wield a net.

The Mangroves of the Arabian Sea
The Mangroves of the Arabian Sea

These shifts, no matter how difficult to make for the local residents, cannot be postponed indefinitely. A number of ecological reasons, including the decimation of mangroves, have made them urgent. In a WWF assessment made in 2012, researchers found that fishing is becoming increasingly difficult due to the declining fish stock in the areas close to the shore. Fishermen have to travel farther away from the coastal waters for fishing and the season for fishing has also shrunk due to the rise in sea temperatures. Due to uncertain weather patterns, it is becoming difficult to navigate the fickle ocean in small fishing boats.

The change, however, is not unprecedented. After a cyclone hit the coastal areas of Sindh in May 1999, around 250,000 people were rendered homeless. Most of them were farmers. And then many of them became fishermen. “There was no water for agriculture after the cyclone,” says 48-year-old Razia, the wife of a farmer-turned-fisherman, who lives in Sheikh Keerio Bhandar village, about 40 kilometres to the south of Badin. Her family once owned 16 acres of land, but that has been lying “uncultivated for over 15 years now”.

This time around, the change will be taking place in the opposite direction: fishermen will be turning into farmers. To make farming sustainable, some non-governmental organisations, such as Laar Humanitarian and Development Programme, are encouraging local residents to create embankments to stop the sea from intruding inland. In late 2015, the organisation collaborated with farmers in Badin and built embankments around their lands. People like Razia are hoping that these embankments will help them cultivate their fallow lands again.

Climate Change Vulnerability Index, a European Union-sponsored global ranking of the countries that are most at risk due to climate change, analyses the physical exposure of a country to climate-related risks and its government’s capacity to adapt to climate change over the next 30 years. This index puts Pakistan among 32 extreme risk countries.

Germanwatch, an independent organisation that lobbies for sustainable global development, reckons (based on the data it collected between 1991 and 2010) that Pakistan is the eighth most vulnerable country to climate change. The situation appears to have only worsened since then.

A large part of Pakistan’s economy comprises sectors that are vulnerable to climate change and global warming — agriculture, fisheries, forestry and hydroelectric power generation. A vast majority of people working in these sectors are too poor to be able to cope with the ecological shifts and their accompanying natural hazards, residential and economic displacement.

Fishermen in Thatta and Badin use solar energy as an alternative source while they go for fishing in the deep sea
Fishermen in Thatta and Badin use solar energy as an alternative source while they go for fishing in the deep sea

Ironically, those most vulnerable to disasters caused by climate change are the ones who contribute least to it. It is industrial activities, personally-owned transport, roads, aeroplanes and large-scale construction that are most responsible for environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Dr Jawed Ali, a Peshawar-based researcher, points out that the government is doing almost nothing to counter these challenges. If anything, it is setting up coal-fired power plants which will only contribute to a further deterioration of the environment and will lead to a greater emission of greenhouse gases. According to him, no money is being allocated to cope with climate change and global warming in the national budget. Any small-scale projects that are running in different parts of the country are run by non-governmental organisations, mostly funded by — donors such as the United Nations, international charities such as Oxfam and foreign governments.

There is, however, not enough capacity within Pakistan to even use this foreign funding. We do not have the sufficient number of technocrats and skilled professionals who can work on climate change for the long run and come up with strategies for sustainable development, Dr Jawed Ali says. “I also fear that we hide mismanagement behind climate change.”


This was originally published in Herald's June 2016 issue under the headline 'Risky environs'. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.


All photographs are by the author, who is a travel writer and photographer. He tweets @DanialShah_ [31]