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Climate change leaves women in Skardu facing disaster

Women villagers have had to make drastic changes in the face of unpredictable weather patterns that have upended traditional ways of life in the mountainous region
<p>Ruqqaiya Bibi of Kotham Pine is still waiting for an opportunity to restart her life [image by: Shabina Faraz]</p>

Ruqqaiya Bibi of Kotham Pine is still waiting for an opportunity to restart her life [image by: Shabina Faraz]

Rosi Bi, a middle-aged woman from Skardu’s remote Sadpara village, can clearly illustrate how rapidly livelihood in her area has been affected by climate change.

“Our forefathers have been livestock farmers for centuries, and we too, used to earn our bread and butter through our cattle and their milk. But now, everything has changed,” she said.

“We can no longer breed cattle as the snow and erratic weather patterns affect the supply of fodder. Today, the animals are only kept for domestic use. To earn a living we cultivate potatoes and other vegetables instead.”

Situated near the majestic, colour-changing Sadpara Lake in the Karakorum mountain range, Sadpara village is about 30 kilometres from Skardu, the capital city of the Baltistan region in Pakistan. It has a total population of three thousand.

Sadpara lake [image by: Shabina Faraz]
Sadpara lake [image by: Shabina Faraz]
The women hailing from Sadpara village have been farming cattle for a living for centuries. But, much like Rosi Bi, have been adversely affected by climate change. Many of their husbands live outside the village due to employment opportunities, so these women are solely responsible for raising their children as well as domestic chores.

Rosi Bi is an expert on livestock farming but is now exploring alternative means to earn an income. Like other families in the village, she owns a modest amount of land — about 1,200 to 1,800 square yards — where she farms potatoes and other vegetables. Due to the long winter there is only one farming season, but demand is growing due to increased tourism. The women supply most of their crops directly to hotel owners, and earn about PKR 100,000 (USD 644) per year selling potatoes and PKR 50,000 (USD 322) for other vegetables.

The province of Gilgit-Baltistan is a mountainous region. The three great mountain ranges – the Karakoram, Himalayas and Hindu Kush – make it a great tourist attraction. The region is home to K2, the world’s second highest peak, plus five other peaks over 8,000 metres. This area has the world’s largest fresh water reservoir in the form of 5,100 small and large glaciers and 119 lakes. Pakistan’s northern areas are also home to over 300 species of wildlife, including the endangered snow leopard and brown bears. A 6,592 square kilometre forest also adds to the beauty of this area.

The Indus flowing near Skardu
The Indus flowing near Skardu [image by: Shabina Faraz]
Unfortunately, unpredictable changes in climate have deeply affected this beautiful region. This is primarily experienced in the impact it has on growing cattle fodder, which has become very difficult.

Read: Climate change hits herders on Himalayan meadow

Ghufranullah Baig, an assistant director Gilgit Baltistan’s disaster management authority confirmed that the region is facing severe weather conditions. According to Baig, temperatures this year fell as low as -34 in Deosai, a national park in the region. Skardu city faced a record four feet of snowfall this year. Along with a prolonged winter season, heavy snowfall and rain, the Karakorum ranges are also facing a new geological phenomenon in the shape of debris flow, with three such instances recorded in 2019.

Kotham Pine village which is situated about 6 kilometres from Shigar, the second largest city of Baltistan, witnessed heavy debris flow this year.

Read: The Indus – a river of growing disasters

“The entire village was asleep but we woke up when we heard a strange noise. We came out from our homes and saw a sight which we will never forget. A huge amount of mountain rock and mud mixed with rain water was gushing down and destroying our village,” said Ruqqaiya Bibi, a resident of the village.

The aftermath of a debris flow [image by: Shabina Faraz]
Two casualties were reported in this disaster, which also killed more than 150 cattle and washed away the standing crop.

Ruqqaiya Bibi lost her home, cattle and everything else she owned in this incident. As the government gave a very low amount to villagers in terms of aid, she is now dependent on relatives for survival.

Most women in the region have a fate similar to that of Rosi Bi and Ruqqaiya Bibi. Through sheer resilience, they are learning to survive in the face of severe weather conditions and unpredictable disasters like floods and landslides. If they manage to survive these disasters, they lose all their belongings and have to start a new life and a new means of income.

In Skardu, women farmers are experiencing a similar situation, where climate change is forcing them to deviate from centuries old traditions to adopt new means to earn a living.

Empowering women

The Agha Khan rural support programme (AKRSP) which has been working in this region to empower women for decades has now extended its operations to climate change-hit areas. The organisation is training women to cope with severe weather conditions.

A vegetable cultivation project for Gilgit-Baltistan [image by: Shabina Faraz]
A vegetable cultivation project for Gilgit-Baltistan [image by: Shabina Faraz]
Shabana Raza, who works with the Durain Cassim Fund of AKRSP, said the organisation is making women more resilient against climate change and economic prosperity is a measure

“Mass forest cutting is the basic reason behind heavy floods and land sliding in this sensitive ecosystem,” she said, adding that the organisation is inspiring women to plant more trees.

“Women are developing their own nurseries, planting trees and also selling them. We provide saplings and then buy back [grown ones] from them — through this system, hundreds of thousands of trees have been planted.”

She also said women are being trained so they can partake in different economic activities. “There is an increase in tourist flow and we are working on ecotourism, which increases demand of milk, other dairy products and vegetables. Traditionally women used to consider selling milk as a sin. We educate them, provide training for egg hatching, yogurt and cheese packaging and the cultivation of off-season vegetables. Now these women are well-trained business owners. We are also persuading them to continue cattle farming, especially of mountain goats and sheep, so we can revive the traditional shawls and carpet industry which has a high demand in the international market,” said Raza.

Habiba Iqbal from Aastana, an area in the suburbs of Skardu, used this training to start her own nursery of eucalyptus trees as a side business to support her family. Gulshan Begum is now running a beauty parlour in Kehkashan Market in Skardu. She started her business fan investment of PKR 20,000 (USD 129).

Kashish beauty parlour [image by: Shabina Faraz]
Kashish beauty parlour [image by: Shabina Faraz]
Initially we faced difficulties but we have paved way for upcoming business owners, said Gulshan while remembering her initial business days.

But while some women have quickly adapted to their new jobs, Ruqqaiya Bibi of Kotham Pine is still waiting for an opportunity to restart her life. Rozi Bi, too, is looking for interest-free government loans so she can start weaving traditional shawls. They are examples of women living in these mountainous regions who, though resilient in the face of disaster, still need support to overcome the challenges brought on by climate change.

woman holds green beans in her hand
Hope is delicate as beans in a hand [image by: Shabina Faraz]

Comments (2)

The IUCN list Himalayan brown bears as vulnerable, and they are listed under Schedule 1 of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972.
Snow leapard is not endangered IUCN calls it Vulnerable.

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