Climate disasters trigger mental health crisis in mountains of Pakistan | News | Eco-Business


Even after three years, the villagers are heartbroken, ”said Hajida Parveen, referring to a flood that swept away more than half of the village of Badswat in the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region of northern Pakistan.

Parveen is a social mobilizer with the NGO Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP). Since the 2018 ice flood, “nothing seems to be happy [the villagers] more, ”she said. “A common refrain is ‘give us back our land’.”

The flood caused the formation of a huge lake. He blocked the road to 10 villages in the rest of the Immit Valley, in the GB district of Ghizer. Thirty houses, a school and over 65 acres of productive land were submerged. No lives were lost, but around 1,000 people had to be evacuated. Most have now returned to the village but are still living in temporary shelters as their old houses have been destroyed by the flood waters.

Across the Hindu Kush Himalayas, communities have suffered the impacts of climate change, especially over the past two decades. In Ghizer alone, thousands of residents have suffered flash floods and landslides that destroy roads, farms, homes and other buildings. This leads to mental health issues, a topic residents don’t talk about in public for fear of social stigma.

A 2021 study in the mountains of northern Pakistan found that communities in the region have “no or no alternatives to cope with and reduce the negative impacts posed by natural stresses.” The study looked at 10 districts in the UK with a long history of climate-induced risks. He placed Ghizer among the three most vulnerable.

Furrukh Bashir, regional head of Pakistan’s meteorological department in Britain, said the calamities were just a prelude. “Even the slightest change in temperature can wreak havoc on the fragile mountain ecology,” he told The Third Pole, speaking by phone from Gilgit.

Living in fear of disasters

“Imagine living with the looming fear that you will find yourself stranded and without healthcare, food and electricity,” said Javed Iqbal, who has worked with an NGO for more than a decade on maternal and mental health for residents of Ghizer.

Iqbal sees a link between climate change and mental health issues, and has observed many people with anxiety and depression.

A six-hour jeep ride on a dirt road from Badswat brings you to the village of Darkut. Nusrat Ali Khan, a 45-year-old paramedic at Darkut’s only government clinic, confirms that mental distress in the village of about 1,000 is widespread. With flooding being a “regular feature” since 2010, he said the community lives with constant fear of when the next flood hits.

Khan spoke of seeing “signs of depression” among the villagers. “They complain about insomnia and only talk about their living conditions, their livestock and the lost land.

“I advise them, tell them to go see a psychologist in Gilgit [53km away], but they never do, ”he added. “I don’t blame them; it is expensive and time consuming. In the absence of anything else, he ends up giving them sleeping pills or relaxants.

Wary of labeling anyone but having witnessed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Iqbal pointed out that it can develop in people who have gone through dangerous events that have turned their lives upside down. Months and years after the disaster, he sees people sitting “idle by the lake, looking into the water.”

Like Parveen of the AKRSP, Iqbal believes the residents should leave. “All they think and talk about is the calamity that has struck them; they must be taken away from the place of devastation, ”he suggested.

“They lost their homes, their land and all their belongings. Their current living conditions are harsher without wood or electricity, ”Iqbal said, adding that several micro-hydropower plants destroyed in the floods are still being repaired.

Parveen said: “Compared to the vast land they once owned, for three years they have lived in small one-room shelters where they sleep, cook and store their belongings, a short distance from their flooded home. ”

Climatologist Bashir witnessed a similar trauma during the 2010 Lake Attabad disaster in the Gojal region of the Hunza Valley in Britain. Living there for two months to set up a weather station on the Passu Glacier, he saw the “pain and stress” on the faces of the peoples whose homes, lands and orchards were submerged “before their eyes” .

Bashir pointed out that offshoring comes at a huge social cost, as it means giving up “long-standing affiliations and associations”.

Rising suicide rate

Among the effects of trauma, the increase in suicides, especially among young women, is of particular concern.

Local journalist Durdana Sher has documented this situation since 2005. “There are more cases of suicide reported in this neighborhood. [of Ghizer] compared to any other part of GB, ”he said. Between 2006 and 2017, he reported 203 suicides in Ghizer. There are no publicly available records from a previous period, but local doctors say the numbers were much lower.

While there are many reasons for suicide, Sher acknowledged the potentially serious impact of climate-induced devastation “where entire villages are hit by calamity and you lose your family, your home and you are relocated.”

Sher stopped reporting on suicides in 2017, after community elders said it “gave our area a bad reputation.”

Iqbal and his team have conducted extensive research on suicides in Ghizer and developed a ‘life skills’ manual to train young people to cope with difficult times. No suicides have been reported in the district since 2019, Iqbal added.

He said there was an urgent need for the government to recognize that the impacts of climate change have serious consequences for mental health and to work to reduce trauma.

The climate impacts are already here

The government should have seen it coming. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warned in a 2012 report that global warming is making flooding more frequent and intense. Most of the residents of Ghizer are unaware of this connection, but they see the other major reason – the felling of trees.

“Cutting down trees to meet the needs of a growing population has made the soil loose and vulnerable,” Bashir said. He added that soil erosion is made worse by the water channels people dig to irrigate their farms.

Iqbal can recall more climate impacts. “When I was young, we stored grain and meat for two months because there would be snow in our homes. Not anymore because it is not snowing as much or as heavily. Living without a refrigerator, the very low temperatures make it easier to store food. Heavy snow is also important because it waters spring crops as it melts.

Durdana Sher recalled that rainfall was once slow and widespread. “Now it’s full of fury, the kind you see in cities.”

The change in rainfall pattern was confirmed by Bashir. “The behavior of the Karakoram and Himalayan glaciers is divergent, with some retreating and others increasing.” Glacial surges and glacial lake floods have been the most dominant dangers in recent years, he added, giving examples of surges from the Khurdopin Glacier in the Shimshal Valley and the Shishper Glacier in Hassanabad, Hunza. These glaciers have slid for miles over unusually short periods of time, blocking valleys and creating lakes. Glaciers arise when the meltwater at their base lubricates the ice sheet above.

Health workers need special training

Filmmaker Haya Fatima Iqbal recently directed Heaven is Far, Earth is Hard for the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat on the same subject. While filming the film, she spent three weeks with the affected communities and got to see how mental issues were eating away at them.

“As climate disasters will increase in frequency in the future, we need to train health workers to identify and manage mental health issues that affect these communities,” Fatima Iqbal said, adding that the evaluation of mental health should be part of the disaster response.

Khan, Darkut’s paramedic, said it would be best to train locals to recognize and manage symptoms of mental illness because referrals were not working. When designing mental health care plans, it was imperative to seek the advice of communities, he stressed. “Come visit us, talk to us, see how we live, study our situation, then make plans for us. “

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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