Floods, Faith and Adaptation in PashtunGarhi

*(names have been changed to protect privacy)

‘You know, when the floods came in 2010 we lost everything. Can you see the marks on the roof? The water was up to there’ (indicating a mark on the considerably high ceiling). ‘When we finally came back home, after more than 40 days, the house was covered in mud. It took my sons days to wash all the beds and find anything salvageable. But do you know what I miss the most? I miss our family cow’ says Zara bibi, an elderly resident of Pashtungarhi village in Nowshera. ‘Our cow, like most of our neighbours, just simply disappeared after the flood hit. I still wonder what happened to her.’

Zara bibi’s daughter and granddaughter laugh. ‘Its true. She didn’t cry throughout the time of the flooding. Only when she came home and couldn’t find her cow, she broke down. We all kept telling her to forget about the cow- but she still remembers it, six years on.’

Zara bibi and her family hail from the village of Pashtungarhi in Nowshera, KP. Like many others in Nowshera, the village is situated very close to the Kabul River, which makes it vulnerable to flooding and water logging. In the case of the 2010 floods, Nowshera was one of the most adversely impacted districts in KP, with 51 000 houses completely destroyed throughout the district, and almost 20,000 houses damaged. In Pashtungarhi, the flood waters completely inundated almost the entire village.

‘The water came so quickly, no one had any time to react’ says Zara bibi. ‘My son had recently got married, and his wife was washing clothes in the machine she had brought as a part of her dowry. We left in such a hurry that the clothes were left in the machine, which floated away. A few months later it was returned to us by some kind neighbours- and we found the clothes still inside!’ relates Zara bibi.

Community members were not the only ones unprepared for such a large scale disaster. The intense monsoon rainfall substantially increased the flow of the Kabul river, causing the water to surge suddenly, leaving little or no time for warnings, or early response. Zara bibis neighbors relate how the warnings from the mosque started when the water was already almost knee deep. The menfolk first evacuated the women, putting them on any public transport, tonga, or truck they could find, sometimes staying back themselves. Many of these families migrated to neighboring villages to stay with relatives- but were soon forced to leave due to the inability of the families to feed them. Zara bibi and her family were eventually given shelter in a Madrassah near their home, where she and her family lived off provisions by various NGOs and the army.

‘It was one of the worst things that I have ever experienced ‘ said Tahira, Zara bibis daughter. ‘What made it worse was that we had nothing-no food, no clothes, no money. We just had not seen it coming.’

The torrential rainfall in the monsoon has become almost a recurring annual event following 2010. Pakistans climate change policy, its associated Action Plans and the DRR policy of Pakistan suggest that due to the adverse impacts of climate change, Pakistan will continue to be hit by a multitude of natural disasters. And while INGOs and the Government have scrambled to develop policies, frameworks and response plans to better respond to these disasters, the global discourse on climate change is currently not very reassuring. The Paris Agreement of 2015 agreed to limit the future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, as compared to the earlier 2 degrees, above pre industrial levels, a major victory for vulnerable countries such as Pakistan. However, it may already be too late to ensure this, as with the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the world is already committed to warming of almost 1 degree Celsius. Additionally, for topographically diverse countries such as Pakistan, with glaciers, snow, sea, and everything in between, it is alarming to note that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change accedes that 1.5 degree warming would still mean an increased risk of extreme events.

This is reflected in the community’s response to rainfall. Whilst previously, in dry Pakistan, rainfall is almost always perceived as a blessing, Zara bibi says ‘every time the monsoon rains start, we are terrified and over the past few years, some of us have evacuated out of fear’. It is suggested that Pashtungarhi and other neighboring villages are at risk of flooding because they are living in the flood plain: as the water in the Kabul river is a mere trickle throughout the year, villages have sprung up on the dry banks. However, when the Hindu Kush snow begins to melt in the Summer, it swells, and with the monsoon rain there is inevitable flooding.

The long term impacts of the flood are also clear in the community, which suffers from water logging and severe water contamination. Zara bibis grandson has a skin condition that has been caused by the contaminated water. The villagers no longer rely on the handpumps for their water. They now usually visit the mosque, which has one of the few filtration plants installed in the village, for their drinking water. Hepatitis is prevalent in the village, and communities realize it is due to the dirty water they are drinking.

Five years on, and with the threat of floods every monsoon season, how better equipped are communities to respond to the floods? It is reassuring to note that the government has recently approved the construction of flood embankments along the Kabul River in Nowshera, a move that has been welcomed by the villagers living nearby. Community members are also more aware of the threat of the disaster, and regularly share information with each other through their mobile phones, and announcements in the village mosque.

There are household level changes too. Rakhshanda Khatoon, a neighbor of Zara bibis, tells me how most of the houses in the area were ‘kacha’ mud houses before the 2010 floods. ‘But now, most people who could afford it have cemented the walls of their houses, making them less likely to crumble in the floods like last time’. One of Rakhshanda Khatoons daughters relates how she saw a TV program in the aftermath of the flooding, teaching them how to purify water using the solar method of leaving water in the sun in clear bottles. She tried it out for a few months, as well as other women boiling water before use and using purification tablets. However, most of them have stopped doing this due to time and resource constraints.

It is also pertinent to note that these are only temporary solutions to a greater problem. The waterlogging and contamination of water in these villages is serious, and longer term solutions are necessary. A changing climate means that floods and other short and long term disasters will continue to test the resilience of these villages. But where the biggest shift is required, is in the attitude of the community members. ‘I keep telling my son to buy a room or a house in the city (Pabbi) so if something like the flood happens again at least we will have a place to go, and not be beggars on the street’, says Zara Bibi, ‘but then he says, ‘Mor (Mother), we survived last time because Allah found us a way, he will also find us a way the next time’.

The author, a climate change practitioner, can be found at anam.zeb@gmail.com



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