Chitral Struggles With Climate Change Impact, Seeks Assistance

Floods and heavy rains due to climate change impacts have been ravaging the Chiltral Valley for the better part of a decade, putting all of its residents in danger, including the endangered Kailash tribes

Chitral Struggles With Climate Change Impact, Seeks Assistance

"I was sleeping when I heard a loud crash and found myself trapped inside the rubble of our home," recalls Arisha, who was stuck when the roof of her wood and mud house collapsed as heavy rains lashed Chitral and much of the country in April. 

"I was stuck and couldn't move. I thought I would never see my family again," she said, adding, "I thought it was the last day of my life."  

But after frantic efforts that lasted over five hours, her family and locals managed to rescue Arisha from the rubble.

Arisha's house collapsed due to three consecutive days of rain in the Chitral valley. The rains on April 15 caused flooding in the valley's streams and drains. They also triggered landslides that blocked two major highways connecting the valley to the rest of the country, including the main Chitral-Peshawar and Chitral-Mastuj roads. 

 Floods due to heavy rains on April 15 have struck many places of Chitral due to climate change effects.

Residents of Chitral and the neighbouring Kalash valleys in northern Pakistan have been on the receiving end of climate change for the better part of a decade. Even though Pakistan, and especially the Chitral region, contribute among the least to global warming by way of emissions, it has been facing impacts of climate change in the form of extreme heat in the summer followed by heavy rains and flooding due to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). Flash floods destroyed crops, houses, and livestock, and swept away critical civilian infrastructure such as bridges. 

The Chitral Valley, in particular, is littered with victims of various floods or other natural disasters.

Saira Bibi is a 35-year-old resident of Bumburet Valley in the Kaislah region, home to the historic Kailash people — whose culture has been recognised by the United Nations. She lost her house and her husband in the floods which tore through the valley in July and August 2022. Together with her four children who survived, she now lives in a small house within the same valley. 

"Natural disasters affect us every year. I just want to go back to my old home, but it is gone," she laments. 

Saira Bibi further said the floods were unlike anything she had ever witnessed. "Our elders said that they have never experienced such floods before."

The super floods of July and August 2022 claimed many lives across Pakistan, including Chitral, where it damaged infrastructure in the valleys of Bumburet and Rumbur, where most of the endangered Kalash people reside. 

Dr Qamaruz Zaman Chaudhry, the former head of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, said that the 2022 floods in Chitral were the result of the climate phenomenon known as [El Niño], which is a climate pattern that describes the unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. The second reason was aggressive deforestation in the region, which has left the mountainsides in the valley bare and vulnerable to erosion and landslides, he added. 

The Kalash people are not alone in their plight. Thousands of other people in the Chitral district and other parts of Pakistan are facing similar challenges due to climate change. 

A house in the Reshun Village which was destroyed due to the heavy rains and floods.

Amir Ali Shah, a 50-year-old resident of the Reshun village in Chitral, lost his house and several acres of land last summer after the Chitral River rose and spilled over. However, this was not the first time he had fallen victim to flooding and other natural calamities caused by climate change.

Six years ago, Shah had to rebuild his home when the river shifted towards his house and washed it away.

"The river not only washed away our home but also our entire life savings," he lamented, adding that the river forced them to relocate. 

Shah further stated, "We have been affected not only by the flood but also by the rise of the river, which has destroyed half of the Reshun valley." 

The climate change victims said the government has not provided them with any assistance. 

"We need a proper house to settle down in, and the government should protect our village by building (flood) safety walls."

The Reshun village has eight small and large hamlets and a long history of GLOFs which have swept through the valley.

Floods due to heavy rains on April 15 have struck many places of Chitral due to climate change effects.

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a non-governmental organisation, prepared a report on the damage caused by a GLOF in 2015. The report noted the GLOF had caused an estimated loss of $15 million in the Reshun Valley of Chitral alone. 

The report further warned that the frequency and intensity of GLOFs were expected to increase due to climate change and glacier retreat. The AKDN's prediction has proven to be relatively true.

The report recommended several measures to mitigate the risk and effects of GLOFs, calling on the government and other stakeholders to invest in long-term solutions by involving local communities in the planning and execution of these projects. 

The government has initiated several measures to combat climate change in the area, including the National Climate Change Policy, the National Disaster Risk Reduction Policy, the Billion Tree Tsunami Project, and the Clean and Green Pakistan Campaign. However, these efforts need to be scaled up with more effective implementation, with the active participation and inclusion of local communities, particularly the vulnerable and marginalised groups. 

While the government focuses on that, it also cannot lose sight of the victims of climate change who are scattered across the country. In the Reshun Valley, where a GLOF destroyed lives nine years ago, little progress has been made in addressing the issue of floods. This is similar to the story in other parts of Chitral.

Moreover, the government has yet to allocate sufficient funds or resources to rehabilitate the flood victims or rebuild affected areas and infrastructure. 

But it is not just the government that has yet to fulfil promises. NGOs and donors have also not followed up on their commitments to provide support. 

The residents of other flood-prone areas of Chitral, including the Reshun Valley, live in constant fear and uncertainty without any support. Not only are they in fear of losing their homes, their possessions and lives, but also their identity and way of life. 

Saira Bibi is still awaiting the assistance the government and other organisations promised. She expressed the need to restore her home and her desire to preserve her culture and religion, which are threatened by climate change and external influences.