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Hindukush to Paris: a life memory of a changing climate

"This is the time that brings back the sweet memories of my childhood living with my indigenous people in Chitral, in the Hindukush region of Pakistan in an environment that was peaceful, predictable and friendly for human habitation. I remember my grandfather immensely concerned about the weather and the travel advice he would give to people based on predicting the weather" writes Syed Harir on a time journey looking at the changes for the worst brought by climate change.

syed harir 1This is the time that brings back the fantastic and sweet memories of my childhood from 1970 onward, living with my indigenous people in Chitral, in the Hindukush region of Pakistan in an environment that was peaceful, predictable and friendly for human habitation. I remember my grandfather was immensely concerned about the weather and that he gave travel advisories on a yearly, monthly and weekly basis, predicting the weather conditions. He issued daily alerts of when to leave the house for school and what time to return. Being a religious scholar and elder of the region, he was fully enriched with the wisdom, knowledge, observation and learning from the past history and understanding of timings to cross passes prone to avalanches, areas with risk of rock falls, the intensity/magnitude of heavy snowfall, rain and what time wind would start, how to protect yourself from frosting and fizzling and how to respect nature and the environment. This was what kept us spellbound to him.

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People from nearby villages used to visit my grandfather (and my father after him) to seek their voluntary advice to construct homes in a safer place. Places that are safe from evils. I remember accompanying my grandfather and father more often for the site assessment visit to decide either to construct a house at a certain site or not, on the basis of assessment. They also used to explain different parameters of construction that are safer and blessed for the families. There was a controlled irrigation and pasture management system and no one was allowed to misuse the sacred natural resources. Today, recalling all of this, leaves me spellbound that people with wisdom and knowledge of natural resource management, disaster risk reduction, and environment protection more concerned about the future challenges, and were the predictors of the forces of nature.

My grandfather preached to people that utilization of the resources is the right and privilege of all people and all species and humans should take every precaution to ensure the interests and rights of all others are considered, since they are equal partners on Earth. With the passage of time, the values of society changed. The role of my family and the elders in our society diminished. Rights replaced responsibilities, individualism replaced collectivism, people started misusing the natural resources and the environmental changes became highly visible. My apprehension further accelerated, when I professional switched over my career from business entrepreneurship to Disaster Risk Management in 1997.

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The environmental changes and people’s perception to use natural resource further devastated the limited natural resources of the mountain environment. I am a witness to these changes, which are now the reality of life with continued weather and climate-related disasters during the last 10 years -2005 to 2015. In addition to the regular local disaster events, I have also seen unprecedented, unusual changes, like heavy snowfall, increased temperatures, changing patterns of crops, newborn human and animal diseases, reduced life expectancy, insect infections destroying crops and fruits, receding snow lines, melting glaciers, land degradation, the shifting and drying of springs, extreme rains, avalanches, landslides, land erosion, rock falls, debris fall, variations in weather, and shorter winters that are sometimes unpredictably harsh but sometimes normal. With the passage of time the weather, knowledge and perception of people has changed as well so the changes are now not only visible in the overall ecosystem and ecology but also on people’s perceptions.

The changes in weather patterns, ecosystem, and ecological behavior is challenging the lives and livelihoods of the mountain communities. Adaptation to the changes is very slow and the changes are much rapid, unlike in the past. The gap is accelerating the miseries of the living organisms in Chitral. Also, sunburn problems are significant having shifted down from 5,000 meters to 3,000 meters above sea level. The snow season became shorter, from five months to one month and snow season also changed from November-to-the-mid-of-January to-end-of-February. The permanent snowline and the regular snowfall amount changed as well. Glacier melting trends became rapid and permafrost areas are now used for human habitation or cultivation. Wildlife shifted to the top of the highest parts of the mountains. Rock and land became more destabilized.

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Juniper and oak used to be freely available to people. They are evergreen trees with strong underground roots that are said to be a natural protection to unstable rock from falling and also against flash flooding. Because they are very popular for both cooking and heating, now they are hardly available on the mountain rocks due to deforestation. Population growth and increased demand for housing has brought roads, channels, and cultivation closer to streams and landslide-prone areas. A misuse of natural resources including cutting trees for construction and fuel has highly disturbed the natural ecological systems, consequently and constantly increasing the vulnerability of people and the threats of future disasters.

Likewise, paints (a natural wild shrub/grass) at the snow cap and permafrost/glacier area are a natural protection to stabilize the soil and loose rocks, and reduce the consequences of the dynamic natural process. This shrub, said to be a sinking store of carbon in the natural process of ice and snow, is now unfortunately being used for cooking and heating by the local communities. Such usage is not only accelerating land degradation, erosion, and rock fall but is ultimately affecting land movement and GHG emissions. Crops and fruit ripening time lines have shortened. Single cropping lands are now producing double crops and no cropping lands produce single crops (positive impact), but the difference in test and energy is quite evident. Insect hibernation periods have changed, and the productivity and health fitness of livestock have changed too. The traditional pasture management systems have been abolished and replaced with environmentally unfriendly livelihood practices of uncontrolled grazing over pastures.

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The indigenous knowledge is lost and replaced with the imported knowledge of false safety and security measures by western-funded organizations. The biological, chemical, and physical wearing of the region is rapidly changing the ecosystem. The pace of development is nature-unfriendly and very slow in comparison to the rapid changes in the overall ecosystem. The abiotic components have also affected living organisms and the functioning of the ecosystem. The biotic factors have also changed the behavior, culture, and values of the people as well as the living organisms.

Thousands of people like me believed on the prediction and forecasting about the weather narrated by our ancestors regarding how to go ahead with emerging threats during specific months or years, and how to use and disseminate alerts to the communities at least one week in advance. People would show up at our doorstep with small and big tokens of appreciation and gratitude for my grandfather and father for saving their lives from miseries and catastrophes. All I have heard them saying in response was “See, we tell you ignorance and illiteracy are the acts of men God doesn't like. So acquire knowledge, act wisely upon it. Simply with this, God will be happy, so there will be no disasters.” The changing pattern of climate is challenging the indigenous knowledge because it is not updated to reflect the changing parameters of the weather.

The imported knowledge based on training and capacity building programs by western donors is not friendly to the existing geophysical, ecological and ecosystem. Today, after having been practicing DRR and learning about Climate Change for over 20 years, I wish to acknowledge the wisdom and the knowledge of our ancestors about DRR and the climate and the indigenous ways to manage disasters.

syed harir 1When I recall my 45 years of memories of my CLIMATE JOURNEY, I am observing big changes, big challenges for adaption, mitigation and implementation for the multidisciplinary and multi-sectoral experts and the scientists. The climate journey of 45 years from 1970 to 2015 has taken us to the universal understanding of the reality, impacts, and devastation of Climate Change, but also to the vast accumulated knowledge we possess to protect, prevent and mitigate the negative impact of climate change in the atmosphere and on the planet.

This long climate journey from the beautiful Hindukush mountain of Chitral in Pakistan to the beautiful city of Paris calls for urgent action at the global level to protect the habitation and the ecology on the planet by reducing socioeconomic inequality and injustice to the underprivileged. Inequalities, both within and among nations, block agreements and pathways that could lead to sustainability. The required Paris Action 2015 may break the vicious cycle of climate change and socioeconomic inequalities in the region.

As we engage in mitigation, adaptation, and the transition to a low-carbon economy, we must ensure that inequalities are substantially reduced. An urgent adaptation, mitigation and implementation strategy (that is friendly to mountain region) based on research and knowledge will save the lives and livelihoods of the mountain people from a major catastrophe.

Syed Harir Shah works for the Centre for Disaster Risk and Climate Change (CDRC), a Project of JAD Foundation Pakistan (GNDR member).

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