The indigenous Kalash community has thrived for centuries in the valleys of Pakistan’s northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, drawing the world’s attention with its colourful festivals and polytheist traditions.

Numbering 3,000 to 5,000 people living in Chitral district, the Kalash are reeling from the impacts of climate change. Those impacts have accelerated here during the past decade, many of them exacerbated by excessive deforestation in these very valleys.

Hit by floods and accelerated warming

Noor Shahidin, a 60-year-old former landowner who now works at a guest house, hails from the indigenous Kalash community. One of many Kalasha who have lost their lands, he recalls the string of floods in the Bumburet valley since 2010.

Chitral was hit by flash floods in 201020112013 201520202022 and 2023. The successive disasters hit Kalash livelihoods hard: for centuries, the majority has relied on farming, tending to orchards, and herding as the primary sources of income.

Shahidin lost his two acres of fertile land in Bumburet – including 40 walnut trees – to the 2015 floods. “We used to have enough dry fruit, wheat and corn for the whole year. Now, I buy all these things,” he tells The Third Pole.

Once a serene village with a tranquil stream winding through lush green fields, Bumburet is now marred by heaps of rubble and colossal boulders. They serve as a haunting reminder of the natural disaster that reshaped this landscape.

“People who lost their lands are forced to buy food,” says Saifullah Jan Kalash, an environmental activist residing in Rumbur valley. “Those who lost their herd have to buy milk, and those who lost their orchards are now going to cities in search of employment to pay for these necessities.”

According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department, the annual mean temperature in Chitral rose by 0.9C between 1991 and 2022.

Afsar Khan is the deputy director of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province’s Environmental Protection Agency. Khan tells The Third Pole that such a rise in temperatures has “unsettling impacts” on the community.

“The early melting of snow in these areas poses challenges for farmers,” says Khan. Raising concerns about the timing of crop cultivation, he wonders whether crops traditionally sown and grown in March could adapt to being sown a month earlier and still yield the expected output.

Khan highlights the emergence of new challenges associated with warmer temperatures. For example, the proliferation of different insects such as grasshoppers that prey on ripening grain could pose a threat to crops.

With governmental help seemingly lacking, the Kalasha are proactive in protecting themselves from disasters. Relying on their centuries-old worship of nature, self-governed Kalash committees patrol forests and report logging activities to the police, forest department and district administration.

A 2020 study on how the Kalash employ indigenous methods to mitigate disasters details how the community strives to limit natural resource exploitation. For example, Kalash dwellings are intentionally built at a distance from streams. “We never build homes or hotels on the bank of the river,” says Goshmir.

Read the full article about Indigenous communities in Pakistan by Fawad Ali at Eco-Business.