South Asia has been recognized as one of the hotspots of climate change, and mountain ecosystems and communities in the region are considered to be the most vulnerable to climate change. They heavily depend on natural resources for their livelihoods, are more prone to extreme events and natural disasters, and suffer from widespread poverty, marginalization, and, often, from socio-political unrest.
Evidences of global warming induced changes in mountainous areas (such as change in temperatures and precipitation patterns, increased frequency and intensity of extreme events, and glacier recession) have been collected and studied by the scientific community.
The village of Hundur has almost totally depleted its forest to meet its energy need
Such variations have major impacts both locally, in the mountain community in Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as on the larger scale on the entire country. The high mountains of Pakistan supply water to the Indus river basin through local precipitation and glacier melting. Water availability for the communities depends critically on how the climate changes locally in the mountain regions.
How do communities in Northern Pakistan cope with climate change and environmental pressure? What is their perception of change and which adaptation mechanism have they developed? A new joint project between the University of Hamburg (Germany), and the Islamabad-based think-thank Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), has explored the socio-economic impact of environmental pressure and climate change and variability in the Yasin valley in Ghizer District (Hundur and Darkut villages), and in lower Hunza (Hussainabad), central Hunza (Altit), and Upper Hunza (Gulmit and Shiskat).
The fragile environment of Northern Pakistan has been deeply affected and the local communities have been noticing climate change impacts. Natural disasters, such as floods, landslides and lake formation, have deeply transformed their environment and their primary sources of livelihood, agriculture and livestock.
|After the Attabad lake submerged the Karakoram Highway – the only road in the area – there have been cases of women delivering their babies on the boat on their way to hospital|
In the Yasin valley of Ghizer district (Hundur and Darkut village) a substantial chunk of agricultural land and many houses were washed away by the flash flood of August 2010. Agricultural production was significantly reduced by the lack of land, which was further increased by the necessity of using the remaining land for the construction of new houses. Growing population and its increasing demands for housing and livelihood resources, and particularly energy requirements, have further degraded the fragile environment. The village of Hundur has almost totally depleted its forest to meet its energy requirements for cooking and heating, which still rely entirely on firewood.
The degradation of forests, which were functioning as slope stabilizers and preventing soil erosion, made the village more vulnerable to potential disasters such as flash floods, as well as to financial stress. Currently, the community spends more on firewood for heating and cooking than on any other household requirements.
Economic shocks induced by environmental degradation and climate change are particularly affecting the agricultural sector, and are visible in both the Ghizer and the Hunza-Nagar District. But there is a difference between these areas. Upper Hunza has been severely impacted by the formation of the Attabad lake, as a result of the massive landslide occurred in 2010. The lake submerged agricultural land and houses, and pasture areas were also affected by the slide. The community reported significant changes in the weather and precipitation patterns after the formation of the lake. All these factors are affecting the productivity of agriculture and orchards substantially. According to the local community, the scale of production and the quality of fruits have decreased, and new crop and plant diseases have emerged.
A change in temperature has been perceived in both the research areas. The month of June has been colder in the last two to five years, causing the failure of wheat, a crucial mono-crop in these regions.
In Upper Hunza, the availability and the cost of transportation is causing additional economic shocks to the community. The only way of communication, the Karakoram Highway, has been submerged by the Attabad lake. The only way to cross it is through a precarious boat service. The villages of Gulmit and Shiskat were famous for potatoes and fruits, but the high cost of transportation made the production unprofitable. The community, which benefited incredibly in terms of development by the introduction of potato as a cash crop over the last 20 years, has virtually lost its most important source of income. On top of that, the disaster also affected other major local businesses, tourism, and blocked the trade route with China.
Besides the economic shocks, the disaster also triggered psycho-social problems in the affected communities. The submergence of their agricultural lands and housing forced the victims to move to other areas, which has led to the disruption of their social fabric. The lack of access to social services, and particularly to health facilities (there are neither hospitals nor doctors in the villages, but only two dispensaries) further jeopardizes the lives of the population, especially women, who have been the principal victims of this situation. Cases have been reported of women delivering their babies on the boat on their way to hospital, and related fatalities have been registered. After these accidents, pregnant women are shifted to Karimabad about a month before expected delivery.
In the face of climate change and environmental pressure, labour migration, sided by relief by the government, the Chinese government, and (I)NGOs, is the major coping mechanism adopted by the communities. Virtually every household in these villages has resorted to labour migration in order to cope with the decreased agricultural productivity and a lack of jobs. Environmental pressure is certainly one of the factors triggering migration, which is mostly internal or seasonal, and rarely international. Remittances are now one of the major sources of income for mountain communities.
Migration is not a gender-neutral phenomenon. Only adult males are opting for this livelihood strategy. Traditionally in these areas, as well as in most of South Asia, women carry out the lion’s share of agricultural work. Migration and environmental pressure are increasing the drudgery for mountain women. Most of the local women have experienced increased workload during the migration of male members of their households, and some of them have also denounced decreased mobility, difficult access to health facilities, as well as decreased economic security. If other male members are not present in the household, women are also taking care of the financial management of the household, and they are entitled to directly manage the remittances. In such cases, male outmigration could lead to women’s empowerment. Male outmigration is also leading to a decrease of livestock, as fewer men are available to go to high altitude pastures. This factor, coupled with the loss of pastures due to environmental degradation, is tremendously reducing what was before one of the most important livelihood source in both Ghizer and Hunza-Nagar.
Impacts of climate changes are range from individual to the community, national, regional and international levels. Individuals and communities have lost their livelihood sources and also face threats to their physical security in case of extreme climatic events and natural disasters. The impact is also very alarming on the national and international levels. The fragile environment of these areas can affect the environmental services, particularly provision of water to canal systems of Pakistan and India, that can jeopardize the food security of the whole South Asia.
Therefore, strong policy actions need to be taken to address this situation. The 2005 formation of a National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is a welcome move, but Pakistan is still lagging behind. We need a National Adaptation Programme of Action (NAPA) and a comprehensive national climate policy.
The article is based on the preliminary findings and observations of the Gender and Environmental Migration project. Dr Giovanna Gioli is a research fellow at the Climate Change and Security Research Group at the University of Hamburg in Germany. Talimand Khan is a survey specialist at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad
This article was originally published at: The Friday Times
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint or stance of SDPI.