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A Daunting Winter Ahead For Pakistan's Kalashas


Kalash people celebrate the arrival of Spring. Hopefully there will be something to celebrate come 2011.

Kalash people celebrate the arrival of Spring. Hopefully there will be something to celebrate come 2011.

Every year the Kalash Valley in Chitral district of North Western Pakistan is cut off and isolated from the rest of Pakistan for several months. In winter, heavy snowfalls and rain storms block the Lowari Pass (3,200 meters) to any and all traffic to Chitral.

Abdulkhaliq, a leader in the Kalash community, tells me that winter leaves his people with few options to pass the time. "In the night, elders of the family narrate stories of love and sacrifice, while duinrg the day we play traditional sports in the snow," he said.

But, this winter -- which is already affecting upper altitudes -- may bring some of the most significant challenges yet for the already encumbered Kalashas. This year's devastating floods destroyed most of the tribe's agricultural lands, orchards, and irrigation channels and seriously damaged health and educational infrastructure in nearby valleys.

Adding to frustration among the Kalashas is the seeming indifference of the central government to their situation. Ismail, a resident of Ayun, a village close to Kalash Valley, laments the indifferent attitude of the government regarding the reconstruction and rehabilitation of flood-affected areas.

"For a period of one month the only road leading to Kalash was closed, and we were at the mercy of nature as there was little or no help coming from the federal or provincial government. We are living away from the main urban centers and we have no voice. Why should the government care for us?" he asks.

Now, due to the absence of solid-waste-management facilities, water resources have been contaminated. Officials in Chitral district say that the floods also destroyed water-supply schemes throughout the area, leaving people with no option but to fetch water from canals and streams that sometimes carries health risks.

Shams Uddin, manager of the Chitral Association for Mountain Area Tourism (CAMAT), wrote last year about the impacts of climate change on the Kalash communities -- especially those in Rumbor, Bumborate, and Birir -- which have experienced long summers, short autumns, and winters with little snowfall. With warmer weather, the snow packs on the mountains are starting to melt earlier and earlier each year -- leaving Kalash farmers with less water later in the growing season.

Commercial interests have also taken a toll on the Kalash regions -- especially the logging and timber industry. Brazen deforestation quickens the melting of the early snowfall, leading to flooding in lower altitudes where people live. Populations of goats, the Kalasha's main livestock resource, are on the decline as well, as deforestation has claimed much of the goats' feeding ground.

Due lack of economic opportunities, the Kalashas have no real political and economic power in the region. In turn, they often fail to raise their collective voice for their rights. This encourages businessmen -- often in collusion with profiteering politicians -- from other parts of the country to buy Kalash property and exploit its natural resources with little or no consideration to socio-cultural and environmental issues affecting residents in the areas.

Big picture issues aside, the Kalashas face a very difficult winter this year. As Lakshan Bibi, a Kalash leader and chairman of the Kalash Indigenous Survival Program, summed up in a recent conversation: "The floods have almost wiped out the valleys, especially Rumboor. All the link bridges, roads, fields with once-a-year crops, livestock, and some houses were washed away. Winter in the valleys are always extremely harsh -- this one may be the harshest."

-- Shaheen Buneri, Radio Mashaal

read Saheen Buneri's previous post on Kalash culture:"Saving Pakistan's Last Pagan Tribe"
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