Chitral Is Battling The Effects Of Climate Change

Chitral Is Battling The Effects Of Climate Change
Climate change is the greatest challenge faced by our world today. This may seem to be a grandiose statement but sadly it is the one thing that will affect the lives of everyone alive today, and our future generations. Preventing or reversing climate change is theoretically possible but by and large, that ship has sailed. The focus should now be on how we can live with this difficult new reality and try to limit its disruption of human civilisation. Pakistan is in no way immune to this global phenomenon and one of the most affected regions happens to be Chitral.

Due to Chitral’s unique geographical position, it has a climate quite different to the rest of Pakistan. Lying behind the cloud shadow that is formed by the spur of mountains along its eastern flank, Chitral is cut off from precipitation coming from the East. Thus, Chitral received little to no precipitation from the Southwest Monsoon which is prevalent in Pakistan from July to September. This has now changed.

For the past two decades, the monsoon has started reaching Chitral and although the weather is still largely dry from June to September, cloud outbursts on the mountains of Lower Chitral lead to severe flooding. As I write, most of the nullahs in Lower Chitral have been affected by severe flash flooding and the irrigation systems of many villages have been destroyed – which will have an adverse effect on the autumn maize crop. The flooding this year has not been as bad as 2010 and 2015, but nonetheless is concerning. The occasional monsoonal outburst has been something that happens in Lower Chitral since time immemorial and people have always been vigilant during July and August, but now it has become a regular part of the weather and the rule rather than the exception.

Crops inundated in Shishikoh, Lower Chitral

Another newer phenomenon, though, has now raised its head due to the increase in temperature. And it is far more disturbing and disruptive than flash floods caused by rain.

Lower Chitral has always had hot summers but now forty-degree (Celsius) weather for weeks on end has become normal. Only a decade ago there would only be a handful of days where the temperature touched 40 C. More disturbingly, Upper Chitral and the higher glaciated valleys in Lower Chitral have started getting very hot summers. This has resulted in a phenomenon called Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF).

GLOFs occur when a glacier starts melting from the inside, forming a liquid centre which eventually breaks through the ice surrounding it – causing a massive flash flood. This year, at least four such events have occurred in Upper Chitral including one in Miragram, Upper Chitral, which occurred just a few days ago (15th August), resulting in the road and a major bridge being swept away and leaving the cluster of villages isolated. Other than GLOFs, general glacial melting has increased at a rapid pace and the Chattiboi and Chiantar glaciers in Yarkhun, which are the two major sources of the Chitral river, are now kilometers shorter and significantly shallower than they were in the past. This causes the main river to flood and cut away at its banks. The village of Reshun in Upper Chitral has particularly been affected, and almost half of its total land area has now been lost to the river over the past decade. Furthermore, this increase in the river level also affects the areas downstream of Chitral with the Afghan provinces of Kunar and Nangarhar, as well as the districts of Mohmand, Charsadda and Nowshera in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa sustaining flood related damage. Unfortunately, this will only continue to get worse in the coming years.
All irrigation networks and pipelines supplying drinking water have been washed away, and electricity is intermittent at best. Neighbouring Ghizer, Gilgit, Dir and Swat have also been badly affected

The increasing temperatures also have another impact upon Chitral, especially Lower Chitral and Chitral Town. Every year, the winters are getting slightly warmer and drier. The last proper winter Chitral Town experienced was the month of January 2020. That month experienced about ten days of snowfall with interludes of a few days of sunny but freezing weather, with the minimum at -9 C and the maximum at 3 C. This meant that for the entire month, the whole area was covered in a blanket of snow. This is how winters in Chitral used to be 50 years ago, and it was because of the ample snow that stayed on the mountains well into summer that Lower Chitral never faced any shortages of water.

The author surveying flood Damage in Chitral Gol Nullah

Since that month, Chitral has only had a few spells of snowfall, with 2021 being entirely dry and January 2022 only seeing three snowy nights. If the current warming trends continue, then within a couple of decades Chitral Town and the entire main valley of Lower Chitral will stop receiving snowfall and the high mountains surrounding it will also get much less snowfall than they used to. Chitral is already water-stressed. The residents of Chitral Town have barely enough clean water to meet their household needs, and this problem will become more pronounced with each passing year.

What can be done to help Chitral cope with climate change? A few things come to mind. As the effects are now here to stay, all that can be done is to adapt to the new scenario. Advanced scientific warning systems must be installed in every side valley so that GLOFs and flash-floods can be foreseen well in advance and the local communities warned. Given how far Chitral is from any ocean, cloud fronts can be predicted quite accurately weeks before they get here. Protection walls have to be built: both along the river and along each side valley to mitigate flood damage. Also, the nullahs themselves should be cleared from debris and deepened by several feet so that floods can flow straight down into the river. Tree plantation should be the utmost priority, but due to the hot, semi-arid summers of Chitral, all plantations need to watered regularly and fossil fuels should not be used to get the water to these plantations – which is what is currently being done. Instead, sustainable sources of energy such as solar and wind power should be implemented to pump water from the river to the saplings. The use of biomass for heating and cooking purposes will also have to be curtailed, but that will be a hard sell for people who already live just above the poverty line. Thus, funds will have to be brought in to finance all of the above.

The Chitral River constricted due to the effects of a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) in Meragram, Upper Chitral

Carbon offsetting can prove to be a valuable tool for generating the funds required for converting power sources to more environmentally sustainable methods. I personally intend to launch a project to get this started, but carbon offsetting on the micro level is still a very new process. Nevertheless, given the unique and extremely vulnerable status of Chitral with regards to climate change, I am sure corporations and governments will be open to the idea.

The future of Chitral depends on how we handle the climate crisis. If we don’t cope with these adverse conditions - which have been thrust upon us by the world at large - we will end up being climate refugees.

We Chitralis are a resilient and ancient people who have faced a challenging climate for millennia and thrived. But the situation we are in now is different and we will need external help to get us through these new climatic challenges.


Post Script: I finished writing the above piece on the 19th of August, and since then, things have deteriorated rapidly. As I write this, it has been raining almost non-stop since that date and the maximum temperatures have fallen down to the teens, but what is worse is that every major nullah in Chitral has now either flooded once or is in a constant state of flooding. All irrigation networks and pipelines supplying drinking water have been washed away, and electricity is intermittent at best. Neighbouring Ghizer, Gilgit, Dir and Swat have also been badly affected. The reason behind this is a very rare occurrence in that the monsoon has been met by a strong front coming south from Siberia. The flow of the Kabul River in Nowshera has now surpassed that of the 2010 floods and most of the district is threatened to be inundated.

We need help! This is an appeal to both the provincial and federal governments, as well as the international community. The term 'Climate Emergency' may be a cliché one but for us, it is very real and we are living it!

The author is the ceremonial Mehtar of Chitral and can be contacted on Twitter: @FatehMulk