Water, Women and Climate Change

By Taseer Beyg

The Wakhi people belong to a language community living for centuries around the Pamir mountains. Up to 70,000 Wakhi speakers are settled in remote and mountain reaches of Pakistan (Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral), Tajikistan (GBAO), Afghanistan (Wakhan District) and China (Xinjiang) region. The Wakhi language is endangered and included in the “Red Book” of languages published and maintained by UNESCO.

The Wakhi settlements, generally, are located in remote areas, with little or no access to basic amenities of life. The Wakhi speakers in Chipursan Valley of Gojal, District Hunza, are also faced with myriad issues due to unsafe and unreliable transport systems, extreme temperature and low land productivity. Access to health, clean drinking water and electricity also remains a major challenge for the communities.

Having adopted for thousands of years to the mountain ways of life, the Wakhi speakers have leanred to rely heavily on natural resources to sustain their way of life.

Access to water, as in any society or civilization, plays a central role in determining the size and sustainability of the settlements. However, access to clean drinking water is fast becoming a challlenge, as climate change threatens water sources, including streams, glaciers and springs.

A teacher carrying water on her back for domestic consumption

The Wakhi people living in Sher-e-Sabz in Chapursan valley, have limited access to road, internet, power, hospitals and other basic facilities.

Winter temperature in Shehr-e-Sabz drops to -25 to -30 degree Celsius, resulting in freezing of water channels, safe drinking water pipelines and toilets. The locals are, therefore, forced to fetch Water from rivers and nearby streams to drink and fulfil their basic domestic needs.

As water scarcity hits the valley every winter, the locals, especially women, must walk for long distances carrying drums and pots to fetch water. This routine is repeated multiple times every day, often in freezing temperatures.

Mother and son inside their traditional Wakhi/Pamiri house

These photographs show the women and children of Shehr-e-Sabz engaged in their routine winter activities. The issues and routines, however, are not unique to Shehr-e-Sabz or Chipursan Valley. Similar challenges are being faced by residents of almost all remote villages of Gilgit-Baltisan, especially during winters and in the wake of natural disasters.

Women of the community complained for not having basic necessities despite different organizations working in the valley to strengthen livelihood. They said, “90% of the diseases experienced and reported [in our village] are weather based. When Winters arrive, it becomes hard to survive for elders and children and many end up having pneumonia, bone diseases, respiratory issues”. They also highlighted that women with pregnancies are worst affected, especially if the men and boys are away for work or education”. The risk of miscariage, the women said, increases manifolds due to extra physical stress pregnant women have to experience.

Another issue is that the water consumed from the river is not tested or certified from any laboratory for consumption by the Government or any other organizations and the community is forced to consume it unaware of any hazards, namely microbes, that might be present. People rely on the water using their traditional folk knowledge.

The water is not tested in a laboratory to identify any health hazards

Hunza is a climate challenged region, like some other parts of Gilgit-Baltistan. In the past the inhabitants have faced natural calamities such as floods, landslide and glacial outburst due to sudden change in the climate. Shisper Glacial Lake outburst, Shimshal Pamir Glacial Lake outburst, Batura Glacier outburst and Attabad Lake Disaster are some of the major calamities that have hit the valley over the last several decades.

Any furhter sudden change in climate will affect the livelihood of the mountain communities, by altering the region’s geography.

Water of the glacial stream is also used by domesticated animals

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