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As Floodwaters Recede In Pakistan, Swat Valley Residents Come To Grips With Climate Change 

Flood-damaged buildings along the Swat River in Pakistan.
Flood-damaged buildings along the Swat River in Pakistan.

Ever since Khayal Muhammad's great grandfather built the first home in Chel Deepu along the Bishigram River some 130 years ago, residents in the village in northern Pakistan's Swat Valley considered the river to be an old friend.

Now, after seeing their lives washed away by torrential monsoon rains and epic flooding, they see it as a new enemy.

The floodwaters have receded in this remote part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, but locals are angry and bewildered as they try to come to grips with what for many of them is a foreign concept -- climate change.

Record rainfall has pounded the country with more than six times the 30-year average since mid-July.

And while 38-year-old Muhammad lived through the infamous floods of 2010, he has never experienced anything like this year's historic deluge, which led to flooding that has killed more than 1,600 people and affected 33 million others.

Describing the Bishigram River as a "snake" that battered its banks for three days, Muhammad said that on August 26 that it "bit us very badly" and "totally washed away" the new home in which he had invested his life's savings.

Muhammad, who watched the scene unfold from the roof of his home, managed to run with his wife and five children to safety. But he said he didn't have a minute to spare and was unable to retrieve any possessions. "We have nothing left behind," he told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal.

The raging waters of the Bishigram River amid torrential monsoon rains this year.
The raging waters of the Bishigram River amid torrential monsoon rains this year.

For Muhammad's father, Dilawar Khan, the losses were too much to bear.

While returning to the village by bus after traveling to collect his retirement check last month, the 75-year-old family patriarch learned that his home and neighboring farmland had been destroyed, and he died in his seat.

"The bus driver told me that he took a phone call, started crying, and suddenly fainted and died," Muhammad said.

Khan had constructed his dream home along the riverbank in 1996 after working for 35 years as a laborer, but the concrete home was no match for this year's raging flood. And the majestic home built from Himalayan cedar by Muhammad's great-grandfather, which had stood for well over a century, is now a memory.

The extended family of Dilawar Khan, a 75-year-old resident of the village of Chel Deepu who died upon hearing that his home and farmland had been destroyed by flooding along the Bishigram River in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province's Swat Valley.
The extended family of Dilawar Khan, a 75-year-old resident of the village of Chel Deepu who died upon hearing that his home and farmland had been destroyed by flooding along the Bishigram River in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province's Swat Valley.

A Nation Under Water

Pakistanis are accustomed to flooding brought on by the summer rainy season. Much of the country was still recovering from disastrous flooding in 2010 that killed more than 1,700 people and affected 20 million.

But while the southern provinces of Sindh and Balochistan usually take the brunt as rainwater drains into the Arabian Sea, this year's floods left a much greater footprint.

While the country's south was again the hardest-hit, with satellite imagery showing the formation of a 100-kilometer-wide inland lake in Sindh Province, this monsoon season in July and August affected about one-third of the country.

The swath of destruction extends to the far north of the country, covering areas that were relatively unaffected in 2010, and in addition to human costs has resulted in a massive loss of livestock and infrastructure and temporarily displaced some 7 million people.

Homes damaged along the banks of the Bishigram River in Chel Deepu.
Homes damaged along the banks of the Bishigram River in Chel Deepu.

Experts now warn of a second catastrophe brought on by waterborne disease and malnutrition, and UNICEF has estimated that 3.4 million children need assistance.

During a visit this month to the Sind and Balochistan provinces, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for massive amounts of international humanitarian and financial aid, citing estimates that Pakistan will need $30 billion to recover.

Guterres pinned the blame for the disaster squarely on climate change for which other countries were largely responsible, noting that Pakistan accounts for less than 1 percent of greenhouse gasses.

"Humanity has been waging war on nature and nature strikes back," Guterres said.

State Of Disbelief

Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority has said that waters have returned to normal in all rivers, lakes, and reservoirs, but the country now faces a massive rebuild amid an already dire economic crisis.

Residents of Chel Deepu, a village of about 7,000 people, say that they have yet to receive much help from the government in Islamabad, leaving them to face the realities of climate change on their own.

Residents and urbanites who built weekend retreats in the picturesque region say much of the area's beauty has been washed away.

Shah Faisal is a court attorney in the city of Mingora, a 2 1/2-hour drive to the southwest of Chel Deepu. He fondly recalls growing up playing with friends along the Bishigram River, and misses taking in the daily serenity of elders sitting along its banks and children chasing chickens.

"I walked down every evening to the nearby windmill, sat on a big round stone in the middle of the river, and enjoyed the sound of the river waves and the view of a faraway wooden bridge that connected our village to the nearby valley," Faisal said, lamenting that the bridge is now gone. "I know that the biggest losses are the homes that were washed away, I feel that it is my loss, too."

He said that the region, whose apricot orchards, fishing, and trout hatcheries made it a tourist destination, has suffered immensely.

Across Swat Valley, damaged hotels have been shuttered, bridges have been reduced to rubble, and the shells of buildings litter the shores of lakes and rivers. Historic sites, including Buddhist monasteries and ancient mosques, have been damaged and need to be repaired. The effect on the local tourism industry, business owners say, has been devastating and UN agencies say the impact is expected to last for years.

"None of our elders have any memories of such destruction from the river," Faisal said. "We never thought that the river that we enjoyed since our childhood would turn on us and become our enemy."

Desperate For Help

Muhammad is among the those in the village who now find themselves homeless. He said that, in addition to his house, 14 others on his street were swept away, leaving their occupants dependent on locals who live on higher ground.

"Before, we all had separate homes," he said of his extended family. "Now 15 members of our family are living in tents. My mother, sisters, brothers, my kids, and I are living on food provided by our fellow villagers," he said. "I am very worried about how long we will have to live on donated food and without a roof over our heads."

Local authorities say they are still assessing the damage in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where authorities have reported four deaths and damage to 140 homes. They say they are anxiously awaiting help from the government.

The province's director of disaster management, Sharif Hussain, told Radio Mashaal on September 22 that his department has requested basic necessities and tents from the national authorities.

"But we are still waiting for their approval," Hussain said. "Their main focus is on Sindh and Balochistan."

Shahid Ali, who heads Swat's Bahrain District, where Chel Deepu is located, said last week that the damage there is "so high that we don't know exactly what has been destroyed."

Ali has visited Chel Deepu multiple times to deal with the crisis and said that only a handful of families in the village have been given tents, forcing most to live with neighbors for shelter and even food and basic necessities.

"The government is saying that they will provide compensation, and we are trying to prevent people from going back to their flooded homes because if they start living in them they might collapse," he said.

Shah Faisal (wearing the aquamarine shirt) is sheltering four families from Chel Deepu.
Shah Faisal (wearing the aquamarine shirt) is sheltering four families from Chel Deepu.

Faisal is helping with the relief effort and is housing three local families at his residence, which was spared by the floods. He said most of those left homeless are farmers and laborers, and their biggest challenge is rebuilding their homes. The effort has been aided by an outpouring of support from individuals across the country who have provided basic necessities in lieu of government support.

"On one hand the flood has destroyed our poor village, but on the other it has brought us together," he said.

The bewilderment and anger at the outside world may be harder to heal.

Shahab Shaheen, a 23-year-old university student from Chel Deepu, expressed the sentiment of many locals in comments to RFE/RL.

"We didn't do anything wrong to the climate, so why are we getting slapped back?" he said by telephone. "Whoever is responsible should pay for it, not us. It's up to them."

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