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Flood-resilient streams protect mountain farms, villagers in north Pakistan

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 16 Dec 2013 08:45 AM
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Inayat Karim, a mountain farming expert with the Baltit Rural Support Organisation, stands beside a reinforced water channel in Karimabad village, northern Pakistan. TRF/Saleem Shaikh

HUNZA-NAGAR VALLEY, Pakistan (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Flood-prone streams that until recently threatened the lives, incomes and properties of mountain communities in Pakistan’s Hunza-Nagar valley are now much less dangerous, and are even helping boost harvests, after work enabling them to better withstand weather extremes.

The natural water channels have been reinforced and widened to allow more glacial melt water to pass through them in the summer season and more water from precipitation in the rainy season, without overflowing.

The improvements were carried out in 2011 by the Baltit Rural Support Organisation (BRSO), with technical and financial backing from the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), in four villages in this picturesque valley in northern Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan province, at a cost of 250,000 rupees ($2,315). Local people supported the project by contributing labour.

Inayat Karim, a mountain farming expert with the BRSO, said climate concerns had been integrated into the planning, so that the streams can withstand flooding and torrential rains in the summer and will not get blocked by snowfall in winter.

Sultan Khan, a farmer in Karimabad village, said the increased flow of glacial melt water in the streams has allowed famers to expand their cultivation of maize, vegetables and fruit on new land.

“Incidents of flooding in our fields have completely stopped since 2011, when the climate-proofing work on the streams was done,” he said.

Surrounded by much higher mountain peaks and glaciers, the 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. 

Webs of glacier-fed natural water channels in the valleys of the Upper Indus Basin are the backbone of the area’s mountain agriculture economy.

Making them less vulnerable to climate extremes is critical for the sustainability of mountain farming in order to prevent hunger, malnutrition and poverty, said Munir Sheikh, a climate and agriculture scientist at the state-backed Global Change Impact Study Centre in Islamabad.

LESS WATER LOST

The Hunza-Nagar valley has both gently and steeply sloping streams, several kilometres in length, that carry glacier-melt water used for irrigating terraced farm land, drinking, bathing and washing.

During heavy rains, the water flow can exceed the capacity of the channels, causing it to spill over and flood the valley bottom, plain and drainage areas. This has created problems for local people, inundating farmland and damaging standing crops.

Mountain farmer Shehla Hayat of Barashal village said the previously unlined, narrow water channels had posed a “serious risk to our lives, property and crops”.

“Being highly vulnerable to lashing rains and resulting flooding, these (streams) often used to get damaged and flood fields, houses and shops in the lowlands,” recalled the 35-year-old farmer.

But since they have been lined with stone pitching (where stones are concreted onto banks to prevent water seepage) and widened, flood losses no longer occur, Hayat added.

Almost all the farmers in this and adjoining villages echoed Hayat’s testimony about the benefits of the work to improve the streams.

Sherbaz Khan, 69, said he had brought seven extra acres under maize, potato and apple cultivation, as more irrigation water is available from the streams that now extend to the far end of the Hunza valley, with less leaking out into the ground.

“Besides there have been no flooding incidents in our fields since the streams were revamped,” he added.

In the eight years before 2011, the damage to the streams from frequent heavy rains had increased to the extent that farmers would spend sleepless nights during the torrential summer rains that have become common in the valley, Khan said.

FLOODED PATHS

The walkways that follow the streams were also vulnerable to damage from flooding. The paths run along the ancient water channels that snake through terraced mountain farmland.

When floods occurred, the walkways became impassable, cutting off mountain villages and causing problems for fuel wood gatherers and farmers trying to get their produce to local markets.

Children and elderly people had the most trouble moving from one place to another, especially at night, said apple farmer Zubaida Khan.  

“We used to remain stuck up in our homes, and our children would miss school when the torrential rains caused the streams to burst their banks and make the dirt paths slippery and unusable,” said the 46-year-old farmer.

But the flood-prevention work has now made it easier for villagers to carry on with their daily business when it rains hard, Khan said.

Amanullah Khan, chairman of the Local Support Organisation in the Hunza valley, a subsidiary of the AKRSP, noted that the streams are also a source of drinking water and sanitation, and flooding used to bring health risks. This threat has now been reduced thanks to the stream improvement project, he added.

But there are many streams in other villages in the valley that need a similar revamp, Khan said.

Some NGOs are carrying out similar pilot projects in other valleys in the province, but there is so far no comprehensive stream-improvement programme backed by the authorities, BRSO’s Karim noted.

“The government of Gilgit-Baltistan province needs to replicate similar models of climate-proof water management in other valleys,” said Musa Khan, who monitors the weather for the Pakistan Meteorological Department in Gupis valley in the same province.

“Such models can help reduce water wastage, maximise farm productivity and minimise climate-induced risks (for) mountain people,” Khan added.

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

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