Frequent floods intensify migration, food security in Pakistan’s mountainous north

Frequent floods intensify migration, food security in Pakistan’s mountainous north

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 By Saleem Shaikh

Ghizer, Pakistan: Body of Ishaq Khan shivers when he recounts an unfortunate flash flood in 2010, which buried his maize and potato crop with mud and washed away over a dozen fruit trees he planted 45 years ago.

Though the 68-year-old farmer has managed to rebuild his home now in one year’s time with local earthen and wooden material, he lacks resources to be able to restore his two-acre fertile field now under the mud and heavy boulders washed down by the devastating flash flood in Damaas valley of Gilgit-Baltistan region’s scenic Ghizer district, Pakistan’s north.

A boy looks at Gizer river, main tributary of the Indus river in picturesque valley of Gizer district, Pakistan’s north. The locals say the river often gets swollen and pose serious risk to different mountain communities on its either side as local temperature continue to rise, causing paced-up glacial melt which generates flash floods. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

A boy looks at Gizer river, main tributary of the Indus river in picturesque valley of Gizer district, Pakistan’s north. The locals say the river often gets swollen and pose serious risk to different mountain communities on its either side as local temperature continue to rise, causing paced-up glacial melt which generates flash floods. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

“It was one late midnight of 6 August in 2010 when sky was heavily overcast with roaring black clouds, which triggered heavy rains non-stop for several hours. While it was raining, we saw a roaring flash flood coming down a mountain so fast that we were only able to save our lives by fleeing to a higher ground,” the father of six children recalled, pinching his chin.

A boy looks at Gizer river, main tributary of the Indus river in picturesque valley of Gizer district, Pakistan’s north. The locals say the river often gets swollen and pose serious risk to different mountain communities on its either side as local temperature continue to rise, causing paced-up glacial melt which generates flash floods. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

A boy looks at Gizer river, main tributary of the Indus river in picturesque valley of Gizer district, Pakistan’s north. The locals say the river often gets swollen and pose serious risk to different mountain communities on its either side as local temperature continue to rise, causing paced-up glacial melt which generates flash floods. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

He added, “I was piercing my nails into my scalp and weeping helplessly out of grief while the flash flood destroyed my home. As many as 13 fruit trees and my near-harvest maize and potato crop were buried by the mud brought down the mountain by the gushing deluge water.”

A farmer struggles to reclaim his field by spading away silt deposited on his field in flood-prone Damaas village in picturesque valley of Gizer district, Pakistan’s north. Traditionally, the village is located in non-flood area. But three floods have hit it in 2006, 2010 and 2015, respectively, with 2010 flood being the most devastating. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

A farmer struggles to reclaim his field by spading away silt deposited on his field in flood-prone Damaas village in picturesque valley of Gizer district, Pakistan’s north. Traditionally, the village is located in non-flood area. But three floods have hit it in 2006, 2010 and 2015, respectively, with 2010 flood being the most devastating. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

Tears from wretched Ishaq Khan’s eyes tricked down his cheeks as he recounted the story of damages to the tune of over US$ 14,000 in just a matter of one hour before his eyes.

Standing over what was once his fertile field of maize and potato and fruit trees, Ishaq Khan,68, shares about how a single devastating flash flood in 2010, which washed away his home, crops and fruit orchards in just one night, plunging him into a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger. It was one late midnight of 6 August in 2010 when sky was heavily overcast with roaring black clouds, which triggered heavy rains non-stop for several hours. While it was raining, what he saw was a roaring flash flood coming down a mountain so fast that he was only able to save his and his family’s lives by fleeing to a higher ground. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

Standing over what was once his fertile field of maize and potato and fruit trees, Ishaq Khan,68, shares about how a single devastating flash flood in 2010, which washed away his home, crops and fruit orchards in just one night, plunging him into a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger. It was one late midnight of 6 August in 2010 when sky was heavily overcast with roaring black clouds, which triggered heavy rains non-stop for several hours. While it was raining, what he saw was a roaring flash flood coming down a mountain so fast that he was only able to save his and his family’s lives by fleeing to a higher ground. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

“Now, my only source of livelihood is goats and sheep. For, I am now landless. Yet I hope will have enough money one day and will recover my field and re-grow crops on it when I will have enough money,” he hoped.

Farmer-turned-herdsman Ishaq Khan of Damaas valley says he used to harvest 800 kilograms of almond, 2,000 kilograms of walnut and grapes every year and sell them in a local market in Gahkuch, district headquarters of the Ghizer district.

A view of once-fertile maize, potato and what fields now under the mud and heavy boulders washed down by the devastating 2010 flash flood in Damaas valley of Gilgit-Baltistan region’s scenic Ghizer district, Pakistan’s north. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

A view of once-fertile maize, potato and what fields now under the mud and heavy boulders washed down by the devastating 2010 flash flood in Damaas valley of Gilgit-Baltistan region’s scenic Ghizer district, Pakistan’s north. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

Locals say the floods are extremely rare in our valley. But the area has suffered three floods since 2010.

“Damaas area didn’t witness any flood during last 200 years. But, it suffered flash floods in 2006, 2010 and 2015. This is really surprising for us,” said Musa Khan, a local weather man of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, who has been recording weather for the last 10 years.

Retired military men Muhammad Saleem,63, said that all of 25 farming families displaced by the 2010 flood are still in tents and spending miserable lives, many of them often sleep hungry.

A farmer standing over what were once-fertile maize, potato and what fields now under the mud and heavy boulders washed down by the devastating 2010 flash flood in Damaas valley of Gilgit-Baltistan region’s scenic Ghizer district, Pakistan’s north. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

A farmer standing over what were once-fertile maize, potato and what fields now under the mud and heavy boulders washed down by the devastating 2010 flash flood in Damaas valley of Gilgit-Baltistan region’s scenic Ghizer district, Pakistan’s north. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

The farming activities have come to a complete halt as farms are still under the mud. The farming families lack resources to reclaim their fields.

With adequate resources, landlords of the Damaas village have migrated to Gilgit, Chilas, Mansehra and Islamabad cities and managed to rebuild their lives in the urban centres, Saleem says but asks, “where do we poor go since we have no money?”

“We have no choice but to live in tents in pathetic conditions, often without food and potable water,” he disgruntles.

Masoom Shah lived in picturesque Darkut valley, some 103 miles from Gilgit –capital of Gilgit-Baltistan region. His account paints another grim picture.

 Losing everything to the flood, he migrated with his family of eight to Gilgit city to feed his family.

A young boy sits over a big boulder past overlooking Karakoram glaciers in scenic Darkut valley, some 103 miles from Gilgit –capital of Gilgit-Baltistan region. His account paints another grim picture. The devastating flood in 2010 devastating large-scale farm fields and homes, forcing over 100 families to migrat to nearby Ghakuch and Gilgit towns in search of livelihoods. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

A young boy sits over a big boulder past overlooking Karakoram glaciers in scenic Darkut valley, some 103 miles from Gilgit –capital of Gilgit-Baltistan region. His account paints another grim picture. The devastating flood in 2010 devastating large-scale farm fields and homes, forcing over 100 families to migrat to nearby Ghakuch and Gilgit towns in search of livelihoods. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

“I had my own wood carving factory in Darkut, where I had seven labourers employed at my factory. But now I have been reduced to doing labour at the wood carving factory in Gilgit city after I lost my factory and house to the 2010 flood, which destroyed our fruit orchards, standing maize crop in Darkut,” Shah said. He suffered economic damages of US$ 21,000, which he lost in just one night’s flood.

“We really lost everything we had,” 45-year-old told this scribe in a gloom-ridden, chocking voice.

Masoom Shah said that his family was spending the lavish life; but here it was struggling to survive because of economic crisis and hunger.

“Having lost their belongings and livelihoods to the floods, over 100 families of the Darkut valley have migrated to Ghakuch and Gilgit cities in search of livelihoods,” said Babar Khan, Gilgit-based mountain conservationist and disaster risk reduction expert at the World Wide Fund for Nature – Pakistan (WWF – P).

Many of them are less likely to return to their normal lives for want of resources, he fears.

Khan told this scribe, standing what is now a buried field in Damaas, that in recent years climate change-induced migration from remote mountain valleys to nearby by urban centres like Gilgit has emerged as a serious problem in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is home to over four thousands glaciers.

Khan highlighted, “Increasing incidents of flash floods in summer months, which occur when rising summer temperatures speed up melting process of the glaciers, have become a growing threat and key cause of rise in migration,”

At present, there is no data available about the climate change-induced displacement of mountain communities caused due to hydro-meteorological natural disasters, which include flash floods, avalanches, landslides, rock-falls, soil-erosion, river-erosion and torrential rains.

“Absence of such data is a main roadblock to managing the climate change-induced migration in the region, which is aggravating with each passing day as frequency and intensity grow in hydro-meteorological natural disasters,” concedes Shahzad Shigri, director environmental protection agency of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Farmer-turned-herdsman Ishaq Khan, 68, ekes out his livelihood by rearing tow cows and three goats. A single devastating flash flood in 2010 washed away his home, crops and fruit orchards in just one night, plunging him into a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger. It was one late midnight of 6 August in 2010 when sky was heavily overcast with roaring black clouds, which triggered heavy rains non-stop for several hours. While it was raining, what he saw was a roaring flash flood coming down a mountain so fast that he was only able to save his and his family’s lives by fleeing to a higher ground. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

Farmer-turned-herdsman Ishaq Khan, 68, ekes out his livelihood by rearing tow cows and three goats. A single devastating flash flood in 2010 washed away his home, crops and fruit orchards in just one night, plunging him into a vicious cycle of poverty and hunger. It was one late midnight of 6 August in 2010 when sky was heavily overcast with roaring black clouds, which triggered heavy rains non-stop for several hours. While it was raining, what he saw was a roaring flash flood coming down a mountain so fast that he was only able to save his and his family’s lives by fleeing to a higher ground. Photo credit: Saleem Shaikh

Nevertheless, efforts were being made by the government to address the data gap inevitable for coping with worsening crisis of climate refuges in mountain valleys in Pakistan’s north, whose number is on rise, he added.

As mountain valleys surrounded by overlooking snow-capped mountain peaks of Karakoram, Hindu-Kush and Himalaya in the northern parts of the country are gradually warming up, weather patterns are fast shifting and becoming increasingly erratic, says Ghulam Rasul, chief weather scientist and glaciologist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD).

“This has led to rise in glacial melt even during winter months and many valleys areas like Damaas, Darkut, Yasin in Gizer district are witnessing rainfalls during snowfall months,” he highlights.

PMD’s climate models show that summers in the traditionally glaciated areas in the country’s north are becoming hotter and increasing in duration while winters are becoming less intense and decreasing in duration.

He warned that surging temperatures are most likely to increase the frequency of cloudbursts in the remote northern areas and pace up the speed of glacial melt, resulting in more frequent and intense floods.

“More floods and cloudbursts will aggravate the missies of farming communities in the remote mountain valleys, intensifying food insecurity because of more frequent damages to fields,” said Iftikhar Ahmed, chairman Pakistan Agriculture Research Council in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital.

He suggests that diversifying agro-based rural economy in the mountain valleys in one effective way for the farming communities to adapt to the shifting weather patterns and climate risks including floods.

In September, International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) launched an ambition US $120 rural development support programme to boost and diversify climate-vulnerable agricultural incomes and employments in Pakistan’s northern mountain valleys as a part of adaptation of agro-based rural economy to climate risks.

The programme would benefit at least 100,000 rural families in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, where over 90 per cent of the mountain communities eke out their livelihoods from climate-vulnerable agriculture.

IFAD has agreed to extend US$67 million to finance the Economic Transformation Initiative in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. The Pakistani government will cofinance with $23.63 million and lead the programme, Ahsan Iqbal, federal planning and development minister, told this scribe over phone.

He said, “The initiative will focus on augmenting agricultural productivity, introducing high-value cash crops and linking farmers to markets and introduce climate-resilient crop varieties. It would also improve on existing infrastructure such as irrigation systems and rural roads in the mountainous region, making them climate-resilient.

Director Environmental Protection Agency of Gilgit-Baltistan, Shahzad Shigri, says the natural extreme weather events have seriously dented the mountain farmers’ ability to continue growing crops, many of which have already reduced area under farming and migrating to nearby urban towns in search of alternative livelihoods.

“However, tapping the IFAD’s financial support for adapting mountain agriculture in GB province to shifting weather patterns and resilient to the extreme weather events can not only help tackle emerging issue of food insecurity but also poverty and mal-nutrition, which have increased manifold due to climate change impacts,” he said.

He suggested that while implementing the initiative, it must be ensured that diversifying income sources of the mountain communities, which heavily rely on farming as a source of income.

He hoped that adequate amount of the funding would be spent for agriculture sector’s adaptation to climate risks, which is vital to transforming the lives of mountain communities and dealing with mounting levels of hunger, malnutrition and poverty in the remote region.

This story was done under the ICIMOD Media Fellowship Pakistan 2015.

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About author

Saleem Shaikh

saleemzeal@gmail.com

The writer is a guest speaker on climate change and disaster reporting at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) – Islamabad. He is also a media trainer, freelance climate change and development science writer.