Aid lacking in flood-hit Pakistan, fresh rains due

Saleem Shaikh
Thomson Reuters Foundation – Wed, 21 Aug 2013

A family carries their belongings as they wade through floodwaters in Dera Allah Yar, in the Jaffarabad district of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, Aug. 6, 2013. REUTERS/Amir Hussain

 

SIALKOT, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Saleema Bibi died at the age of just 29 when the roof of her house in Talwandi village in northeast Pakistan’s Sialkot district collapsed under heavy monsoon rains. Her husband and three children were badly injured.

“The roof of our house, where we all were sitting on a cot-bed, caved in after failing to withstand torrential rain that lasted for five hours,” sobbed Bibi’s husband, Muzzamil Raza, describing the tragedy that hit his family on Aug. 14.

As the monsoon brings seasonal downpours and floods across Pakistan, Sialkot – 192 km (122 miles) from Islamabad – is the worst-hit district in Punjab province, in terms of fatalities and property damage.

An estimated 200 villages in Sialkot are waist-deep in floodwater, which has damaged homes and public infrastructure, as well as rice, cotton and vegetable crops on thousands of acres, according to local disaster officials.

Emerging from Himachal Pradesh state in northern India, the ChenabRiver enters Pakistan after passing through Indian-administered Kashmir. It flows through Punjab province’s northeastern districts and joins the Indus River in Multan district in southeast Punjab.

According to Asjad Imtiaz Ali, chairman of the Federal Flood Commission, the Chenab has experienced its first flood in 30 years, following exceptional rains in its catchment area.

“The river broke its banks at different places as the water level rose, particularly after India released (on Aug. 14) surplus floodwater into the river in its territory, to the sheer surprise of the Pakistani authorities concerned and without prior intimation as required under the Indus Waters Treaty agreement,” Imtiaz Ali told Thomson Reuters Foundation.

FOOD FEARS

Pakistan has suffered economic damages of more than $16 billion as a result of consecutive monsoon floods each year since 2010. Some 4,000 people were killed, thousands injured and millions displaced from their homes, according to the Economic Survey of Pakistan 2011-12.

This year, again, the swelling floods in the Indus River and its tributaries in Pakistan – the Chenab, Jhelum, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej – are leaving behind a trail of devastation.

As of Aug. 21, 118 people had been killed, 812 injured and over 399,000 affected in different parts of the country. An estimated 1,700 villages have been hit by flash floods, with many of them vanishing completely, according to the latest loss and damage report from the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

Around 11,200 houses have been damaged fully or partially, and summer crops – rice, cotton, sugarcane, maize, peanut, millets, sunflower and vegetables – on over 325,000 acres of land have been devastated by heavy rains and flash floods.

Iftihar Ahmed, chairman of the Pakistan Agriculture Research Council, noted that prices of vegetables used in daily cooking have jumped 300 percent, raising “a serious threat of food insecurity” if damaged road and rail networks are not repaired urgently and financial support is not provided for farmers to re-sow their crops.

All rivers, including the Indus, are now flowing at full capacity, while the country’s two largest reservoirs, Mangla and Tarbela, in northern Pakistan are close to their maximum volume for the first time in many years.

People living near the reservoirs fear their homes will be washed away, as government authorities have asked them vacate the areas, amid the latest forecast for another spell of torrential rain during the last week of August in southern Punjab, eastern Balochistan and southern Sindh provinces.

The Punjab Disaster Management Authority said Mangla Dam and the Jehlum River had already overflowed on Aug. 15, flooding at least 500 houses in 12 residential areas of Kallar Syedan, a town in Rawalpindi district, a few kilometres east of Islamabad.

Nawaz Suleman, a resident of Dhoke Mistrian, one of the flooded suburbs, said the area looks like a collection of islands but local officials have not responded to pleas for families to be relocated to a safer place.

CATASTROPHE LOOMS?

Flood Commission Chairman Imtiaz Ali said the coming bout of rainfall – due in the last week of August and first week of September and predicted to be the most intense so far of the ongoing monsoon – is likely to be catastrophic, as all the rivers are already in high flood and the reservoirs are brimming.

“Disaster management authorities have to take all possible measures to relocate people from vulnerable areas to safer locations and arrange for food items, medicines and water for emergency needs to avoid further death tolls,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation from Lahore, the capital city of Punjab province.

The floodwaters are now rushing southwards into Sindh province.

Sharjeel Memon, a spokesperson for the Sindh government, said from Karachi that the provincial authorities have declared an emergency at three main barrages – Guddu, Sukkur and Kotri – and have asked the Sindh Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), the Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority and the Sindh Irrigation Department to remain on high alert to cope with the emerging flood situation and provide relief.

‘DESPONDENT’ SURVIVORS

Patchy aid responses by the disaster management authorities have drawn criticism from flood victims, humanitarian agencies and disaster risk management experts alike.

NDMA officials say they have taken adequate relief measures in flood-hit areas, but this claim has been met with scepticism.

The NDMA said 60 relief camps have been set up, housing 2,800 people. It has distributed nearly 23,000 tents among flood-hit families and provided them with 500 blankets.

But flood relief expert Sattar Zangejo said no substantial aid operations are being undertaken by the PDMAs in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan, where he has been travelling to survey the situation for international humanitarian groups.

Zangejo worked with Oxfam and Plan International on relief and rehabilitation operations during the last three monsoon floods.

In Punjab, more than 90 percent of people have not received any assistance this time, and have had to relocate independently, he said.

“Despondency among the flood victims fleeing affected areas in Punjab and Sindh provinces was visible on their faces,” he said. “There is a clear absence of arrangements by the PDMAs for food items, medicines, clean drinking water and safe sanitation.”

There may be a bureaucratic reason for the delay in launching relief operations.

On Aug. 17, Ahsan Iqbal, Federal Minister for Planning and Development and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of Pakistan, told media in Islamabad that Rs. 16 billion (about $154.8 million) is urgently required by the NDMA for emergency flood operations.

“The federal finance ministry has been requested to make the required funds available and we hope it will release the funds soon to expedite relief and rehabilitation operations in flood-hit areas,” Iqbal said.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are Islamabad-based correspondents specialising in climate change and development issues.

Weblink: http://www.trust.org/item/20130821100743-izs0m/

Northeast Pakistan hit by ‘surprise’ floods, as monsoon rains intensify

Saleem Shaikh
Thomson Reuters Foundation – Thu, 1 Aug 2013

A mud house surrounded by floodwater in flood-hit Narowal district, Punjab province. PHOTO/Punjab PDMA

SIALKOT, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – “We kept quivering with fear the whole night and could not sleep even a wink,” recalled Salma Zehra, a mother of five teenage children. The family trembled to think that the roof of their mud house could cave in at any time, as the rain lashed down in a huge thunderstorm.

By early morning on July 22, the house in Mehtabpur village in northeast Pakistan’s Sialkot district was waist-deep in water. The torrential downpour had left Zehra’s two buffaloes dead, the 45-year-old said in a shaky voice.

Another bout of heavy rain followed later that night. The Dek tributary of the Chenab River in Sialkot, 192 km (122 miles) from Islamabad, burst its banks, submerging more than 72 villages in the district.

Besides Sialkot, other districts in Punjab province have also suffered massive damage to crops across 1,000 hectares of land, as well as to properties. According to the district disaster management authorities of Sialkot, Gujranwala and Narowal, an estimated 400 villages have been flooded.

Officials have declined to give final figures for the losses, but say dozens have died and thousands of people remain stranded in the affected parts of the three districts. Some are starting to return home, but many houses have collapsed and must be rebuilt, they report.

Sialkot District Coordination Officer Iftikhar Ali Sahu told Thomson Reuters Foundation thousands of people had been trapped on the roofs of their houses during the worst of the flooding. “Mortality among cattle is high – the number of dead animals continued to rise as the floodwaters began to recede on July 26,” he added.

The situation in adjoining districts is just as bad. In Narowal alone, around 2,000 people were marooned on their rooftops in some seven villages a week ago.

Less than 30 percent of the floodwater has yet to recede, according to Mujahid Sherdil, director-general of the Punjab Provincial Disaster Management Authority.

Machines have been brought in to help drain water out of the flood-affected areas, and he hopes the task will be accomplished in the next two to three days, he told Thomson Reuters Foundation from Lahore.

Sherdil said the torrential rainfall had caused breaches of irrigation canals, streams and natural dams, and the floods had washed away crops, livestock, roads, bridges, buildings and even entire villages.

Farmers say surviving cattle in flood-hit areas are now at risk.

“Besides paddy, maize and vegetable crops, fodder fields are also underwater. This has created an acute shortage of fodder, and it is barely possible to save our cattle from the looming threat of hunger and disease,” said Zehra’s husband, Ghulam Abbas.

METEOROLOGISTS ‘STARTLED’

The above-normal monsoon rains in Punjab’s northeastern districts have taken weather experts by surprise.

“Last month, we predicted that this year monsoon rains across the country would remain normal with no possibility of flooding. But unexpected heavy rains in the northeastern districts are startling for us,” said Ghulam Rasul, a senior weather scientist at the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) in Islamabad. “This shows how monsoon rains have become erratic and unpredictable in timing, volume and intensity.”

Sherdil, head of the Punjab disaster management agency, said the heavy rains and flooding had caught them unprepared.

“We were closely following the weekly and monthly forecasts of PMD that never predicted heavy rains of unprecedented significance for July in northeastern parts, which have been nearly 40 percent above normal for the month,” he said.

It has been difficult to get aid into the affected areas due to damaged and flooded roads and bridges, he said. “Nevertheless, we left no stone unturned to get the emergency relief items including food, medicines, to the flood victims on boats – although (they arrived) a bit late,” he added.

MONSOON SHIFTS

In June 2012, scientists argued in the Nature Climate Change journal that global warming would make understanding changes in the South Asian monsoon more difficult.

They said the impacts of short- and long-term monsoon shifts would affect the lives of over a billion people in the region, who rely on rainfall for agriculture, hydropower generation, economic growth and basic human needs.

Understanding how the South Asian monsoon will alter due to climate change is necessary to cope with the effects, reduce the risk of disasters and safeguard people’s livelihoods, they underlined.

“Addressing the uncertainties in projected changes of the monsoon variability in coming years will remain a daunting challenge for climate scientists,” said Arshad Abbasi, a water and energy expert at the Sustainable Development Policy Institute in Islamabad.

Arshad Khan, the executive director of the Global Change Impact Study Centre (GCISC), the research arm of Pakistan’s Federal Climate Change Division, said the country is in the grip of unpredictable weather patterns.

Intense monsoon rains will be a common phenomenon, particularly on the country’s southern plains which lack water reservoirs and are highly vulnerable to floods, he warned.

And a spurt in the speed of glacial melt, due to rising global temperatures and above-normal monsoon rains, is likely to cause rivers to overflow and burst their banks across the country, he added.

GOVERNMENT EFFORTS

Officials at the Climate Change Division, which operates under the oversight of the prime minister, said efforts are underway to tackle the vagaries of climate change across different sectors of the economy, particularly agriculture and water.

“Consultations are being made with national and provincial disaster management authorities, and officials of federal and provincial environment, agriculture, irrigation departments to implement national climate change policy to mitigate the impacts of changing weather patterns and erratic monsoon rains,” said a senior official, who coordinates policy at federal and provincial levels.

The Climate Change Division is developing climate adaptation plans for the agriculture, water and irrigation sectors, which will be implemented in Pakistan’s four provinces in collaboration with international NGOs and provincial government offices.

It is also working on programmes to ensure that climate change is considered in other sectors such as health and education, to make them more climate-resilient.

Abbasi of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute said the best ways to avert the growing threat of floods in Pakistan include efficient watershed management, reforestation in northern mountain areas and the revival of riverine forests.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are Islamabad-based journalists specialising in climate change and development issues.

Weblinkhttp://www.trust.org/item/20130801085120-sk59n/

Pakistan breaks India’s record mangroves plantation

By 
Lahore Times
Published: June 24, 2013

KETI BUNDER, Sindh: “The Sindh Forest Department has set a Guinness World Record for planting a maximum number of mangroves saplings at Keti Bunder” on Saturday (June 22), informed the Additional Secretary Sindh Forest and Wildlife Department, Mr. Aijaz Ahmed Nizamani at a press conference held here, in Keti Bunder, a coastal town in Sindh.

He was accompanied by Mr. Mahmood Akhtar Cheema, Country Representative, IUCN Pakistan; Mr. Riaz Ahmed Waggan, Chief Conservator of Forests and Mr. Muhammad Umer Memon, Project Director Sindh Coastal Community Development Project (SCCDP). Two independent adjudicators for the Guinness World Records event, Mr. Rafi-ul-Haq and Dr. Shaukat Hayat Khan also joined them, along with Mr. Tahir Qureshi, Coastal Ecosystem Expert, IUCN Pakistan.

The announcement was made, shortly after 300 coastal community volunteers had planted 8,47,257 saplings, breaking an earlier record of 6,11,000 saplings planted by India in 2010. While congratulating the nation, he thanked the forest department employees, coastal community volunteers and the coastal experts for their tireless efforts in achieving this goal.

He also informed the media that the Asian Development Bank has announced Rs.5,000 as a special reward for each of the volunteer. ADB has funded a 5-year long Sindh Coastal Community Development Project in the area in partnership with the Sindh Forest Department. A special shield was awarded to Mr. Tahir Qureshi for his exceptional conservation work in the Indus Delta over the last few years.

While congratulating the efforts of the Sindh Forest Department, Mr. Mahmood Akhtar Cheema said that there have been competitions between Pakistan and Indian in sports but a competition in the field of environment is even healthier, as in the end it will only lead to healthy ecology in both the countries.

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Government budget cuts threaten Pakistan’s climate change efforts

Saleem Shaikh
Thomson Reuters Foundation – Thu, 11 Jul 2013 01:35 PM

The Leh Nullah river, which flows from Islamabad to Rawalpindi, is dangerously clogged with debris and garbage as the rainy season starts. Photo/Muhammad Javaid

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A sharp cut in government funds for Pakistan’s main climate change agency may mean little to thousands of people in homes perched along a flood-prone river in the city of Rawalpindi. But it could tip them into crisis during the monsoon season that has just begun.

The natural river – known as Leh Nullah – doubles as a drain, and is now contaminated with rubbish and sewage. It has burst its banks several times in the past, severely damaging houses. The last time this happened was in July 2001, when flooding cost 35 lives and swept away several slum areas.

The Leh Nullah winds 30 km east from Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, down to low-lying Rawalpindi. It has six major tributaries, three originating in the foothills of Islamabad’s scenic Margallah Hills.

Amid economic woes and a fiscal squeeze, Ishaq Dar, the finance minister of Pakistan’s new government, announced in last month’s budget speech a massive cut of over 62 percent in annual spending for Pakistan’s government department charged with tackling climate change.

A few days earlier the country’s climate change ministry – which had only existed since April 2012 – was downgraded to a division. The Climate Change Division is part of the Federal Cabinet Secretariat which functions under the oversight of the prime minister.

The moves have drawn strong criticism from climate scientists, as well as local and international organisations working to boost the country’s resilience to climate impacts.
They warn that the spending cuts may be felt on the ground as early as this year’s monsoon season, which runs from July to September.

In Rawalpindi, the Leh Nullah brims over during monsoon, posing a risk to thousands of families in the settlements it snakes through. Weeks before, government authorities usually remove debris and garbage dumped in the channel so floodwater can flow through unimpeded.

But no such activity has happened this year, according to Joseph Jacob, a local fruit vendor who lives with his family on the drain’s right bank. “We are in a state of fear, and will be compelled to fend for ourselves during the forthcoming monsoon season,” he said.

Thousands of natural flood drains in urban areas are vulnerable to surging waters during the monsoon. But local newspapers report that most have not been cleared as the government has not provided the necessary financial support.

“We have written so many letters to the government for the release of funds and apprised them of the looming threats if the Leh Nullah is not cleared of debris before monsoon season. But such pleas seem to have fallen on deaf ears, because there has been no response as yet,” said Saqib Zaffar, Rawalpindi’s district coordination officer.

‘CAR WITHOUT FUEL’

The finance minister has earmarked just 59 million Pakistani rupees (around $590,000) for the Climate Change Division for the 2013-14 financial year that began on July 1, compared with Rs135 million in 2012-13.

Nearly two thirds of this year’s spending is for four ongoing projects. Only two new initiatives – the development of an information system to manage water and sanitation and the establishment of a high-tech climate monitoring centre – were granted funds, according to budget documents.

Pakistan’s total outlay for the new financial year is Rs3.6 trillion, while it faces a fiscal deficit of Rs1.6 trillion.

As a part of government austerity measures, the finance minister announced a 30 percent cut in non-salary expenditures for all federal ministries and divisions.

The government also slashed the number of federal ministries from 40 to 28 last month, including converting the climate change ministry into a division.

Dar told parliament these “unavoidable” budgetary measures would save about 40 billion rupees.

“It is like you are given a car but there is no fuel to drive it,” said a senior official at the Climate Change Division who did not want to be named. “This will scuttle our mitigation and adaptation initiatives launched last year,” he added with disappointment.

The official told Thomson Reuters Foundation the division had requested a budget of around Rs100 million. The Planning Commission of Pakistan, which approves development programmes weeks before the new budget is unveiled, had principally agreed to it before the budget announcement on June 12, he added.

“But to our sheer surprise, no such (amount) was granted,” he said, adding that the commission had also dropped four new climate schemes relating to water, agriculture and renewable energy.

Jawaid Ali, a former director-general at the climate change agency, slammed the “abysmally low” budget allocation, saying it reflects how climate change mitigation and adaptation remain at the bottom of the new government’s priority list.

Even the division’s day-to-day functioning will be severely hampered, he said, not to mention its joint ventures with U.N. agencies.

INTERNATIONAL CASE UNDERMINED

Officials at the Climate Change Division who look after partnerships with international organisations fear the cut in spending could affect Pakistan’s efforts to highlight its climate change vulnerability at the global level.

Tauqeer Ali Sheikh, Asia director for the Climate and Development Knowledge Network (CDKN) and head of LEAD Pakistan, an environment and development organisation, said Pakistan is among the top 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, but the meagre budget allocation reflects the government’s poor understanding of this.

“Because of official apathy, Pakistan is also losing its representation at international forums for highlighting its vulnerability to harsh weather patterns,” he said.

Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry, a lead author of the National Climate Change Policy, said Pakistan may face international isolation if it does not take far-reaching measures to cope with climate stresses.

Azeem Khoso, deputy director for regional planning, echoed his concern. “If the country does not participate in international activities for want of funds, the global community will think Pakistan is not serious in coping with the vagaries of climate change and improving national resilience,” he cautioned.

Pervaiz Amir, a member of the Prime Minister’s Task Force on Climate Change, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that officials from India and Bangladesh effectively fought their case for receiving international funding at climate talks in Bonn this year. But there was no representative from Pakistan to argue the same – which he described as “unfortunate”.

Still experts say Pakistan can still improve its resilience to climate impacts even with a lower level of government spending.

Sheikh said Pakistan should continue to draft workable mitigation and adaptation plans across a range of social and economic sectors.

“Such plans can help win foreign funding for the country and substantiate its urgency and seriousness in tackling climate change – particularly in the water, agriculture, health and energy sectors,” he said.

“But all government ministries, divisions and departments have to work collaboratively with the Climate Change Division to achieve this,” he emphasised.

Saleem Shaikh is climate change and development reporter based in Islamabad.

Weblink: http://www.trust.org/item/20130711133533-z7p9x/

Cheap loans offer Indonesians alternatives to rice growing as rainfall decreases

Saleem Shaikh
Thomson Reuters Foundation – Wed, 10 Jul 2013 09:15 AM

Kaswati stands at her stall in Pagon village, Indonesia, holding a pouch of jackfruit snacks.TRF/Saleem Shaikh

 

PAGON, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Falling yields forced rice farmer Shamsuddin Bin Rus to consider abandoning his land and moving to the city to find work as a labourer.

But his 41-year-old wife, Kaswati, came to the rescue by participating in a loan programme that enabled her to start her own small business selling jackfruit snacks.

Low rainfall in recent years has reduced the harvest from her husband’s 2.5-hectare (6-acre) paddy plot in Pagon village, in coastal Subang district some 130 km (80 miles) southeast of Jakarta. The 58-year-old rice farmer said he used to get more than five tonnes of rice per hectare, but now reaps less than four.

“How can we depend solely on farm income any longer when the rainy season is delayed by 25 to 30 days every year and ends 10 to 15 days earlier, and (it does) not rain as much as it used to?” Kaswati said.

“Every year, we do the same labour (and) sow the same amount of paddy seed on the land, but the crop productivity is no longer the same,” she said.

But the couple have not had to leave their home in search of work thanks to a scheme set up by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The project, which began in 1997 in several villages in Subang district, offers low-interest loans to people in farming communities to help diversify their incomes, so they can better survive economic losses from poor harvests amid changing weather patterns.

BOOMING BUSINESS

Kaswati borrowed 4 million Indonesian rupiah ($400) from the scheme at an interest rate of 1 percent in 1999. She also joined an economic self-help group that was part of the programme.

“Having received training about efficient use of the credit, I launched a small-scale jackfruit snacks stall in my village,” she said.

Over the years, her business has boomed. From monthly sales of 40,000 rupiah ($4) in 2000, she now earns 4 million rupiah ($400) per month, having expanded to markets in other villages in Subang and adjoining districts.

Bin Rus said that, without his wife’s earnings, the family would have fallen into poverty and debt. Now he no longer needs to borrow cash for seed from moneylenders, who charged high interest or forced him to sell his crops to them at below-market rates.

Ronald Hartman, IFAD’s programme manager in Indonesia, said the loan scheme has been scaled up to raise the living standards of the poorest rural families in 18 provinces.

Experience has shown that low-income farmers and fishermen are creditworthy and demonstrate economic initiative when mobilised into self-help groups, he added.

Group members have chosen from up to 200 types of business activities, ranging from livestock-raising to small-scale trade, food processing and handicrafts. Most are given training in financial planning and management, Hartman said.

IFAD reports that over the years the scheme has loaned a total of 113 billion rupiah ($11.4 million at current exchange rates) with a repayment rate of 86 percent. The incomes of participating families have risen by 41 to 54 percent.

RICE IMPORTS

Agriculture is still a major source of income in Indonesia, employing 57 percent of the labour force and accounting for two thirds of the country’s GDP. But changing climate and weather patterns have forced some to abandon farming, putting the livelihoods of whole communities at stake.

According to the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics, data gathered from 174 climate stations in major food-producing areas of the country indicate that rainfall is declining by nearly 250 mm per year. Indonesia receives on average 1,755 mm (69 inches) of precipitation annually.

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of rice after China and India. But in the past five years, the country of 248 million people has also become the world’s seventh largest rice importer, requiring an annual average of over 1.1 million tonnes of imported rice to meet its domestic needs.

Zulkifli Zaini, a crop scientist with the International Rice Research Institute in Indonesia, said the Southeast Asian nation’s rice output has not declined, thanks to the cultivation of improved varieties. But the fact that it has remained static over the past five years is a cause for concern.

Rice accounts for half of per-capita food consumption, so meeting rising national demand has become a daunting challenge for the government.

Experts are pressing for climate adaptation programmes that will increase crop planting areas and boost crop intensity and productivity, alongside campaigns to lower the average consumption of rice.

“Improved land management practices that contribute to soil moisture retention and maintain the amount of nutrients in the soil at appropriate levels can strengthen resilience as well as enhance productivity,” said Ir Haryono, director general of the Indonesian Agency for Agriculture Research and Development.

He also stressed the importance of helping farming communities diversify their income sources to survive shocks from erratic weather patterns. Replication of IFAD’s loan programme in other provinces could help with this, Haryono added.

Kaswati, meanwhile, is making the most of her entrepreneurial success.

“Before I rolled out the business…I had no say in our family affairs and was completely dependent on my husband economically,” she said. Now her husband listens to her and values her decisions about family matters.

Saleem Shaikh is a climate change and development reporter based in Islamabad.

Weblink: http://www.trust.org/item/20130709182526-2zp8u/

Pakistan wilts under record heat wave

A farmer transplants rice after previously planted seedlings were damaged by a blistering heat wave in May 2013, in Taxila, 23 km (14 miles) northwest of Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital city. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Saleem Shaikh

Saleem Shaikh
Thomson Reuters Foundation – Tue, 4 Jun 2013 12:15 PM

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Zulekhan Mumtaz has seen her livelihood as a seller of camel milk turn sour because of a brutal heat wave that left Pakistan sweltering for three weeks in May with temperatures up to 51 degrees Celsius.

“My customers say they can no longer buy spoilt milk and squander their money,” the 31-year-old said, looking at the clotted yellow liquid.

“How can I buy fodder for the camel and food for my two children if the heat wave damages my milk?” she asked, resting with her animal in the shade of a tree in an upscale residential neighbourhood of Islamabad.

Pakistan in recent weeks has suffered its most severe heat wave in decades, with temperatures reaching as high as 51 degrees Celsius (124 Farenheit) on May 19 in Larkana, a city of two million people in southern Sindh province. This was the highest temperature for that month recorded there since 1998, when the mercury had peaked at almost 53 Celsius (127 Fahrenheit).

Lahore, Punjab province’s capital of about 15 million population, was the hottest city in the country on May 24 at 47.4 Celsius (117 Fahrenheit), hotter than any May since 1954.

Such extreme temperatures – which are becoming more common as a result of climate change – are an enormous health threat. They also make almost every function of daily life a nearly intolerable struggle – including, for millions, trying to earn a daily living.

The camel milk vendor Mumtaz, who lives in a shanty village on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital, walks about four miles (6.5 km) daily to set up her roadside stall. Most of her customers are diabetes patients, among whom camel milk is very popular because it is a good source of insulin to help deal with the illness.

But “the heat wave has eroded my livelihood and made my camel sick because of frequent dehydration,” Mumtaz said, adding that the animal’s milk capacity had dropped by 70 percent. She sees her only remaining option as leaving the capital to return to her ancestral village.

Other livestock owners in Chak Shahzad, an area on the edge of the city popular with cattle farmers, report similar problems.

FEARS OF HUMAN, LIVESTOCK DEATHS

In the final week of May, Jamal Khan sold all 19 of his buffalos to a slaughterhouse in the city for about 2.1 million Pakistani rupees ($21,000), because his herd’s daily milk production had declined by 60 percent.

“I had no choice but to sell them, for fear of suffering heavy losses if they die of hyperthermia or repeated bouts of dehydration,” Khan said.

Deaths have not been limited to animals. Although officially confirmed figures of heat-related deaths are not available, local newspapers in Pakistan reported over a hundred deaths since early May.

Residents in most cities, towns and villages have been forced to stay indoors, leaving typically bustling shopping areas and business centres closed, and roads and highways deserted between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Left with limited options to cope with the heat, people have increased their consumption of cold beverages and fresh juices to try beat the sizzling heat and avoid dehydration and heat stroke.

Government hospitals across the country remained on emergency alert throughout much of the last month because of the heat wave.

“We have been advising the visiting patients (to increase) consumption of fresh water, juices, fruits and vegetables”, said Altaf Hussain, executive director of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences Hospital in Islamabad.

On May 27, rainfall finally brought a significant drop in temperatures to below 38 Celsius (100 Fahrenheit) in the Pakistani provinces of Khyber-Pakhtunkhuwa, Gilgit-Baltistan, Punjab and Balochistan.

But the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) predicted dry and very hot weather across the plains of Sindh province, in the south of the country, for the first week of June. Temperatures in Islamabad have rebounded by 10 degrees to 40 Celsius  (104 Fahrenheit) since the end of the month.

According to a meteorological department advisory, the heat wave is unlikely to completely loosen its grip until the beginning of the first monsoon rains, expected in the first week of July.

Qamar-uz-Zaman, vice president for the Asia region at the World Meteorological Department, said that extreme summer temperatures, which have become common during the last few years in Pakistan, can largely be attributed to climatic warming.

CROP LOSSES

Data gleaned last year from 56 meteorological stations throughout Pakistan show a marked increase over recent years in the frequency of heat waves and rising temperatures particularly in the southern plains and coastal areas, according to Ghulam Rasul, a senior weather scientist at the meteorological department.

Reports of severe damage to cotton crops and paddy rice nurseries have come from around the country.

Ibrahim Mughal, chair of Agri Forum Pakistan, said in a phone interview that the heat wave had struck when cotton and rice sowing were at their peak.

“Farmers will have to quickly re-sow their cotton and paddy crops to avoid further harvest losses,” Mughal said.

Pervaiz Amir, an agro-economist and member of the government’s Task Force on Climate Change, said that the heat wave increased the evaporation rate by 20 to 25 percent compared to normal summers. He advised farmers to irrigate their crops more frequently, at least once or twice a week, and to adjust the timing of irrigation to early mornings and late evenings.

He also urged planting of shade and fruit trees along water channels, to cut evaporation of water.

Pakistan’s Environment Protection Agency warned that people in urban areas are at greater health risk from heat waves than those in rural parts of the country, in part because urban areas often absorb more heat.

Saleem Shaikh is climate change and development correspondent based in Islamabad.

Weblink: http://www.trust.org/item/20130604105605-6fcrq/

Early warning technology protects Nepali villagers from sudden floods

The Phulping bridge crosses the Bhote Koshi River in Jhirpu Phulpingkatti, a village near Nepal’s border with China. It replaced an old stone bridge, remnants of which can be seen to the left, which was washed away in the floods of 1981. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Saleem Shaikh

Thomson Reuters Foundation – Wed, 22 May 2013 10:45 AM
Saleem Shaikh

JHIRPU PHULPINGKATTI, Nepal (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For years, Deepa Newar and her neighbours lived with the fear that their livelihoods – and even their lives – might be swept away without warning.

Newar and her fellow residents of Jhirpu Phulpingkatti, a village some 112 km (70 miles) northeast of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, live perched on the bank of the Bhote Koshi River. The river is prone to sudden, devastating floods that can swamp fields, carry away livestock and even kill those who do not manage to flee to higher ground.

The 2.5 acres (1 hectare) of land on which Newar cultivates paddy rice and maize have suffered severe flooding four times in the last 32 years, most recently in 2011.

Looking at the swirling grey waters of the river that flows into Nepal across the border with China’s Tibet Autonomous Region, 10 km (6 miles) upstream, the 39-year-old recalls those disasters.

“(The river) left behind a trail of death and destruction whenever it has turned into a monster,” she says.

But Newar now enjoys a sense of safety for herself and her family, thanks to an early warning system for floods installed by the Bhote Koshi Power Company (BKPC) at its hydropower plant on the river.

GLACIAL LAKE THREAT

Flash floods can be caused by severe storms or the failure of levees, but the Bhote Khosi River is also susceptible to glacial lake outburst floods. These result from the catastrophic failure of a natural dam high in the mountains that contains glacial meltwater. Such failures are becoming a greater risk as warming temperatures linked to climate change lead to faster glacial melt and greater volumes of water in the lakes.

The Bhote Khosi river basin covers an area of about 3,400 square km (1,300 square miles) and has an estimated 150 glaciers. Of its 139 glacial lakes, whose area totals some 16 square km (6 square miles), 59 are highly vulnerable to outbursts, according to a study conducted by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental body of eight countries in the Hindu Kush-Himalaya region, including Nepal and China.

In 1981, a glacial lake outburst flood in the river basin washed away several bridges, including the China-Nepal Friendship Bridge along the Araniko Highway, said Pradeep K. Mool, a glaciologist at ICIMOD in Kathmandu.

Until 2010, floods could strike the villages with no warning. Residents had virtually no time to move to higher ground and were forced to leave behind their livestock and crops, suffering financial losses as well as emotional distress.

“Before the advent of the warning system … we were at risk of being washed away,” said Newar.

Janak Raj Pant, maintenance manager at the Bhote Koshi power plant, said that the river is subject to erratic flows, particularly during the monsoon. For this reason, the power company arranged for the early warning system to be installed in 2010 to benefit the downstream communities in Sindhupalchowk district.

5 TO 8 MINUTES WARNING

The early warning system gives villagers 5-8 minutes’ notice of a flood – just enough time to save themselves.

Five flood sensors are positioned near the Nepal-China Friendship Bridge, about 6 km upstream from the power station.

If the water in the river reaches a dangerous level, the sensors activate sirens placed at four locations, including one at the power plant. The sirens warn the communities to flee to higher ground. Residents use their mobile phones to warn other villages further downstream.

According to Pant, a glacial lake outburst flood takes about five minutes to travel from the Nepal-China Friendship Bridge to the plant. He says lives can be saved if people respond to the alarm immediately.

“At present, the warning system can make the sirens blare five minutes before any flood can strike any of the 79 downstream villages of Sindhupalchowk district,” said Pant, standing beneath the red siren mounted on a side wall of the company’s building.

According to Pant, it is not currently possible to give more warning because information on flooding is not available from the Chinese side of the border.

About 40 percent of the Bhote Koshi river basin is in Nepal, with the remaining 60 percent in China.

Other residents of Jhirpu Phulpingkatti agree that the system has given them a sense of security, but they would like the lead time given by the alarm to be extended.

More sensors need to be placed further upstream within Nepal, especially at glacier snouts and where glacial lakes have formed or are forming, commented Joydeep Gupta, a New Delhi-based journalist and expert on South Asia river basins and flood warning systems.

NEED FOR CHINESE HELP

The ICIMOD study shows that Nepal has experienced at least 24 glacial lake outburst floods. Of these, 14 are believed to have occurred in Nepal itself, and 10 were the result of flood surge overspills from the Chinese side of the border. According to data from the Nepal Meteorological Department, such floods occur on average once every three years in Nepal.

The glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas are retreating, which scientists believe is the result of climate warming. As glaciers melt, the water released into lakes can build pressure on the natural dams and increase the risk of an outburst flood.

“We have already sought proposals from interested firms to expand the warning system to other vulnerable districts (near) the Bhote Koshi River,” said Pant. “It is hoped that in coming months we should be able to install alarm systems in as many districts as possible.”

“(The) Nepali government should also replicate and establish such early warning systems at all streams to (avoid) or reduce loss of lives or damage,” said Gupta.

But priority should be given to the streams emanating from the unstable glacier lakes identified by ICIMOD in its recent study, he emphasised. According to Gupta, China, as the upstream country, should collaborate with Nepal to share information about flash floods or glacial lake outburst floods hours before they reach the Nepali border, to allow maximum time for warnings to vulnerable downstream communities.

“Any viable information-sharing system by which Chinese officials can pre-inform their Nepali counterparts of any risk of flash flood or (glacial lake outburst flood) would be very helpful. A similar system between China and India already saved many lives in a flash flood in the Sutlej river area a few years ago,” he said.

Saleem Shaikh is a climate change and development reporter based in Islamabad.

Weblink: http://www.trust.org/item/20130522093446-pfy20/

US supports Nepalese system to detect forest fires

By Saleem Shaikh
Thomson Reuters Foundation – Thu, 16 May 2013 02:53 PM

Hira Pulami peels bark from the trunk of a pine tree burned in a forest fire that broke out in mid-April in Seti Devi village, 16 km southwest of Kathmandu. TRF/Saleem Shaikh

SETI DEVI, Kathmandu (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – For Hira Pulami, seeing the charred trunks of the precious pine trees he grew up with is a cause of lingering pain. But he is hopeful that Nepal’s new forest-fire detection system will help avoid a repeat of the recent catastrophe that struck his village.

“I myself planted with these hands many of the pine trees that burned down during the raging forest fire in Seti Devi last month,” he said sorrowfully.

Seti Devi is a scenic mountain village, 16 km southwest of Kathmandu. Popular with tourists, it is renowned for its ancient pine trees.

Pulami was asleep when the blaze erupted in his village on the night of April 14, proceeding to burn for almost 36 hours.

Army troops, backed by police and fire fighters, arrived some 21 hours after the fire began. The delay was caused by the village’s location on a steep mountain without proper road access, the 40-year-old said.

Pointing to a large area that now looks like unsightly wasteland, Pulami said that, after engulfing most of the tall pines in Seti Devi, the wildfire rapidly swept through the forests in the adjoining villages of Sheshnarayan and Chhaimale.

“Local people used every resource at hand to douse it, but in vain, for it was too fierce to be tamed by just a few of us,” he recalled.

Besides thousands of decades-old pine trees, precious medicinal herbs were also reduced to cinders in just a few hours, Pulami said, his voice choking with grief.

1,000 FIRES SINCE MARCH

Police deputy superintendent Guru Bishnu Kafle told Kantipur News TV on April 22 that, since the dry season started in the third week of March, Nepal had already witnessed forest fires in over 1,000 places, destroying both community and public forests and protected areas including the Chitwan National Park, Parsa Wildlife Reserve and Annapurna Conservation Area.

The forest fire season continues until mid-August, but official records indicate that about 60 percent of wildfires occur in March and April, Kafle said.

The major causes include mismanagement of the ‘slash and burn’ agriculture method in forests, lack of community awareness programmes, careless use of flammable substances, and the absence of plans to demarcate firebreaks.

Sundar Sharma, coordinator of the UNISDR-Regional South Asia Wildfire Network , said preparedness and response mechanisms for forest fires are weak in Nepal.

According to the Nepal forest fire management chapter of the network, around 239,000 hectares of forests were destroyed by wildfires in 2009-2010 alone.

RISING TEMPERATURES

Temperatures are rising in mountain areas close to Kathmandu, largely due to increased deforestation, as trees are cut down for fuel in the winter and land is cleared for urbanisation, which also hikes vehicle emissions and timber demand. The risk of forest fires is growing in line with these trends.

Pulami said forest fires have become more frequent as the local climate has warmed over the past decade. In the past, the winter cold would last until late April, but now warm days are occurring as early as mid-March, he explained.

“The latest forest fire incident in my village was the fourth in the most recent three years of my 40-year life,” he said.

So he was glad to learn that through a new SMS service that sends alerts to mobile phones, he can now be informed of a wildfire incident within just 20 minutes of its detection.

“(This) can really help us tackle a forest fire…before it spreads far and wide,” he said with hope. “Wildfires are easily controllable when on a smaller scale.”

U.S. SUPPORT

The “Forest Fire Detection and Monitoring System” was launched in March 2012 as a pilot programme in a few of Nepal’s forest districts by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Technical support has been provided by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with funding from USAID, under the multi-million-dollar SERVIR-Himalaya initiative.

The Nepalese system uses data from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) instrument on NASA satellites, combined with geographic information system (GIS) and remote sensing (RE) technologies, to carry out automated data acquisition, processing and reporting on exact fire locations.

After the successful test phase, ICIMOD rolled out the system in late April in collaboration with the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation in all of Nepal’s 75 districts, as part of national climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts.

Sudip Pradhan, leader of the project at ICIMOD, told Thomson Reuters Foundation that the system now sends forest fire alerts via SMS and email to 200 subscribers, who include district forest officials and local members of the Federation of Community Forest Users’ Group Nepal.

“In view of the country’s large area, satellite data have proved highly useful for near real-time fire detection, monitoring and assessment of burnt areas,” he said.

The system, planted on the roof of ICIMOD headquarters, receives images directly from NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites. These are processed by ICIMOD, and if fires are detected, alerts are sent out to subscribers in just 15 to 20 minutes to help them respond quickly, Pradhan explained.

RESPONSE KEY

Forest Management Officer Pashupati Koirala said the system would help his colleagues across the country, as well as the wardens of protected areas.

“Once the forest officers get fire alerts, they pass on the information to forest range posts and coordinate with the community forest user groups,” Koirala said. “This is really helping us overcome forest fires very soon after they break out, to stave off loss of life, as well as damage to forest resources and public properties.”

The fire notifications are particularly useful as they provide geographical details such as longitude, latitude, district and village names, and even ward numbers, he added.

Pramod Kumar Aggarwal, South Asia programme leader for the CGIAR Research Programme on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), warned that the success of the new system will depend on how forest officials on the ground react to the alerts.

“Certainly such an information system is a key to efficient protection of forest resources, and further progress can be achieved through timely and efficient response to the forest fire detection and monitoring,” he said.

ICIMOD’s Pradhan said the centre has chalked out a plan to share the system with other South Asian countries. Collaboration is underway with Bhutan and Bangladesh, and the technology will be soon transferred to them, he said.

Staff in forest departments and others concerned will also receive hands-on training to be able to run the fire detection systems effectively, he added.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are climate change and development reporters based in Islamabad.