By Saleem Shaikh
Thu, 31 Oct 2013
Thomson Reuters Foundation
Short climate video story
Pakistan’s mountain farmers struggle with erratic weather
By Saleem Shaikh
Tue, 8 Oct 2013
AlertNet Climate, Thomson Reuters Foundation
KARIMABAD, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the mountains of northern Pakistan, some farmers say rising temperatures are giving them bumper harvests, even as climate and agricultural experts worry about the consequences of warming for the glaciers that are vital for the country’s irrigation.
“Many years back, the weather used to remain cold and cloudy most of the year. But now we have (more) warm months that are helping our staple, cash and fruit crops to grow faster and longer, and post higher yields,” said Sultan Khan, a farmer in Karimabad, a village in the picturesque Hunza valley of Gilgit-Baltistan province.
Farmers in Hunza say maize never used to grow taller than 3 feet (1 metre) during its five-month season (June to October). But a longer growing period and warmer days are helping the stalks reach up to 7 feet (2 metres). The maize yield has increased by an estimated 20-25 percent, they add, and harvests of other crops are also bigger.
Nonetheless, farmers in this remote area also complain that a lack of government guidance has left them uncertain as to whether to adjust their planting schedules to take advantage of the earlier onset of summer, since they do not know if the changes in weather patterns are permanent.
The Hunza valley perches on the north side of the Hunza River in the Upper Indus Basin, some 675 km (420 miles) from Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. The valley lies at an elevation of around 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) and is surrounded by much higher mountain peaks and glaciers.
Ali Madad, a 76-year-old farmer in Barashal village, said that because of warmer temperatures, glaciers are melting more consistently, which makes his livelihood easier. “Now the streams, which are a major source of irrigation for mountain agriculture, flow even in winter,” he said.
Whereas snow used to begin falling in the valley around mid-October and continue for six months, it now begins in late December and ends a couple of months later, he added.
Temperatures that would fall as low as minus 16 degrees Celsius a dozen years back now rarely drop below minus 2 degrees. Summer, previously a three-month season, has become correspondingly longer, Madad said.
In Karimabad, Sultan Khan observed that winter snowfall is now less than 5 inches, in sharp contrast with the 13 inches or more typical a decade ago.
Local agriculture expert Fida Karim said only the mountain peaks now get covered with snow in winter, while the middle and lower latitudes hardly receive any snowfall. Rakaposhi, a spectacular peak in the Karakoram mountain range and the twelfth highest in Pakistan, has not been completely covered in snow since 2008, he added.
According to Karim, over the last five years, the winter snowfall in the valley has melted in just a few weeks in March. It used to remain until at least the end of April.
The changes experienced by farmers in the Hunza valley are different from those happening elsewhere in Gilgit-Baltistan. In other parts of the province, the winter season both begins and ends later than it used to, delaying the snow melt needed for irrigation and stunting the growth of crops.
But even in the Hunza valley, the changes in the onset of the seasons are a problem for vegetable and fruit farmers like Shehla Hayat.
“Every year in October, the shift from summer to winter used to be gradual. But for the last four years each October, hotter summer days (have) become cooler abruptly,” the 35-year-old farmer said, while harvesting fodder outside her house in Barashal village.
The sudden plunges in temperature, together with unexpected rainfall, have badly affected local crops of apples, apricots, pears and potatoes when they were nearly ripe, causing losses for farmers, Hayat said.
GLACIER MELT FEARS
Climate and agricultural experts warn, meanwhile, that the long-term consequences of the rising temperatures and glacial melt could be dire.
Inayat Karim, a mountain farming conservationist at the Baltit Rural Support Organisation in Hunza valley, said the Ultar glacier, which looms over Karimabad to a height of 7,400 metres (24,300 feet), has been shrinking since 1999, and a previously snow-covered peak is now bare.
Shahana Khan of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme said the valley now receives rain as well as snow in the winter months.
“This points to a scary scenario for sustainable flows of the Hunza River,” Khan said, pointing out that declining snowfall will eventually reduce levels in the Hunza River, which accounts for 25-30 percent of the water that flows into the Indus River – in turn vital to much of the nation’s agricultural economy.
There are short-term problems for the Hunza River too. Farmers say it has become increasingly turbulent in recent years due to increased glacial melt in the summer months, which sometimes causes it to breach its banks.
The director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, Arif Mahmood, is concerned by the retreating snowline in the high mountains.
“In the past, mountains in the valleys like Gilgit, Hunza, Skardu and Shigar in the Upper Indus Basin (UIB) used to receive huge snow in their lower altitude areas, between 2,000 and 3,000 metres. But this is no more the case,” he said.
“There has been a surge in heat wave incidences in UIB areas,” Mahmood continued. “The temperature now goes up beyond 40 degrees Celsius in summer as compared to (an earlier) maximum of 28 degree Celsius some 10 years ago.”
There has also been an unusual shift in monsoon patterns, which are becoming heavier and moving to higher altitudes, he added.
Mahmood warned of increasing flash floods and landslides in the UIB region if temperature increases continue.
The senior weather official called for urgent action to make public infrastructure more climate-resilient, such as strengthening river banks and bridges, and to introduce new crop varieties. Otherwise, local communities will be increasingly threatened by torrential rains, floods and wildfires, he warned.
Thomson Reuters Foundation – Thu, 1 Aug 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.