Despite mounting concerns about the adverse impacts of climate change worldwide, people in the mountainous areas of Pakistan’s Upper Indus Basin have welcomed the warmer winters these changes have brought.

People living in the hilly valleys in Gilgit-Baltistan province no long suffer the severe hardship of cold winters of past decades. They say the warmer weather has improved their quality of life, allowed farmers to grow wider variety of crops, and made their fields more productive.

“Thank God, we no longer suffer the severe cold months of winters that we used to when we were young”, said Abdul Aman, a farmer in Yasin valley. In the past, winter lasted from November until March, with heavy snowfall cutting villages off from the rest of the world.

“We see less snowfall and sometimes no snowfall throughout the winter,” he added.

Local communities used have to stock up on household goods to prepare for long tough winter months ahead when activities would come to standstill because of extreme cold and heavy snow. Now people don’t have to stay at home during winter; they can go out and socialise. “The traditional routine is seen no more and this has completely changed our society,” explained another local Thanat Shah. “This is the blessing of God: our new generation doesn’t have to worry about the winter,” he said.

At the same time, he admitted that less snowfall has reduced water supply in spring, causing problems for  farmers who depended on streams to irrigate their crops.

The locals of Darkut valley, in the northern reaches of Pakistan near the Tajikistan border, also say that two or three decades ago they were stranded by heavy snowfall and avalanches for one or two months every winter. “This situation does not happen now due to the relative warmness and less snowfall in the winter season”, said a local resident Ashraf.

The warm winters are also less expensive for the local community in terms of buying clothing, firewood and fodder for their cattle, who can now graze in the open pastures  throughout the winter.

Experts also acknowledge the benefits brought by warmer weather. Musa Khan, a deputy at the Gupis station in the extreme north of the country and senior official at the Pakistan Meteorological Department, said that Phander, Darkut and Qurqulti valleys are also no longer cut off from the rest of the country because of heavy winter snowfall.

A boon to agriculture

Locals say the warmer weather has agriculture. Farmers have begun to cultivate new crops and fruit, and the longer summer have increased the productivity of the lands and changed crops patterns in the uphill areas: fruit ripens faster and crops are ready to harvest sooner. Locals also say they are less reliant on the forest firewood to survive the harsh winters. In the past, chopping trees for firewood resulted in extensive deforestation.

“Climate change has also affected the crops pattern and their calendars too”, said Khan. In the Gupis valley, people now sow maize crops in May rather than the second week of June after harvesting barley. As a result, the maize crop larger in volume, he said. People have now dried apricots by the end of June rather than starting in the second week of July.

Farmers are growing new vegetables in the mountainous areas, said Dr Qamer-ur-Zaman Chaudhry, an expert in climate change and author of Pakistan’s first climate change policy, pointing out some of the benefits of climate change.  “The mountain communities have increased their activities in winter season and various types of  hardships including diseases have either disappeared or reduced significantly because of the changes in the weather conditions,” Chaudhry noted. However, there has been no specific research studies carried out about the future implications of these changes, he said.

Long term consequences

The benefits of climate change may be short lived and in the long term the negative implications are far more alarming, argued Ghani Akbar, a scientist at the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, pointing out the country’s extreme vulnerability to climate change.

As warmer temperatures melt glaciers, flash floods and landslides are becoming more frequent in the summer season and these risks will grow as temperatures rise, said Akbar.

In the long term, less snowfall will lead to the drying up of springs and water sources and adversely impact farmers who rely on glacier melt water and springs to irrigate their crops. Higher temperatures could also decrease crop productivity said Nand Kishar Agrawal, coordinator of the Himalayan Climate Change Adaptation Programme (HICAP) at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Scientists are still struggling to predict future changes in the Upper Indus Basin. “People and the authorities need to ready to flexible to adapt to the unexpected climate changes which effect their lives and livelihoods,” Agrawal suggested.

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