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This Ancient Tribe Is Being Flooded Out of Its Pakistani Valley Thanks to Climate Change

The 3,000-strong Kalash tribe is thought to be descended from a rogue division of Alexander the Great's army. Now they're under intense threat from flooding that is destroying valleys in the Hindu Kush.
Photo by Oscar Rickett

High up in the Hindu Kush mountain range of Pakistan, homes, crops, roads, and bridges are being washed away by flooding caused by climate change.

Up to 40 people have died since torrential rain hit the district of Chitral — which sits along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan — on July 16. In three valleys that run down from the Afghan province of Nuristan, parts of which are controlled by the Taliban, a 3,000-strong group of people called the Kalash are struggling to survive as their world is washed away.


Struggling to survive and preserve their way of life is nothing new for the Kalash. They are animists in an Islamic state. There is a myth — which is now thought to have some truth to it — that they are descended from a rogue division of Alexander the Great's army. They are poor and in their remote valleys are largely cut off from the outside world.

Their religion is focused on their environment: God is in the rocks, the trees, the rivers, and the mountains. They drink and they hold festivals known for their wild abandon. Kalash women wear brightly coloured clothing and don't cover their faces.

A Kalash girl. Photo by Oscar Rickett

They are thought of as exotic and for decades tourists have come from other parts of Pakistan to witness, and in some cases gawp at, an ancient way of life. Every year, a handful of Kalash people convert to Islam — usually women, who marry Muslim men.

When I went to write about the Kalash valleys in 2011 — shortly after the Taliban had raided the valleys, killing a Kalash boy, and kidnapping a Greek charity worker — I was told time and again that Kalash culture was in danger of dying.

Last week, Taj Khan, a Kalash activist who is organizing disaster relief for the valleys, told VICE News that "the Kalash have an ecosystem they have been living in for thousands of years and there has been no policy work on how that ecosystem can be preserved." The house Khan was born in has been washed away in the floods.


These floods are unprecedented in the mountains, so why have they happened? As reported by Chitral News, a local religious leader offered four possible reasons: "1. Someone selling alcohol during Ramadan. 2. Some person committing adultery during Ramadan. 3. Women going out for shopping in the markets. 4. Young students carrying mobile phones."

Beyond religious speculation concerning the peddling of moonshine, climate scientists and the Kalash themselves point to climate change as the reason behind the floods. Monsoon conditions, which never existed in the mountains, have moved up to the Hindu Kush because of increased temperatures, leading to a volume of rainfall the land cannot cope with. The Kalash say they are not used to having excessive rainfall at this time of year.

Last year, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a 2,600-page report that detailed the affects climate change was having in real time. Heavy rains of the kind seen in the north of Pakistan are a major bi-product of climate change and — as with so many things — it is the world's poorest communities that are hit hardest. As the geographer Maggie Opondo, one of the report's authors, put it: "This would really be a severe challenge for some of the poorest communities and poorest countries in the world."

But while climate experts agree that the arrival of monsoon conditions has caused the flooding, they disagree on exactly how this has happened.


Ghulam Rasul, director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) in Islamabad, told VICE News that: "the flooding was not due to heavy rain. If you look at the figures, they don't suggest that there would be that much flooding and it didn't happen when the rain was falling, it happened after."

Rasul believes the rainfall has been caused by what are known as "Glacial Lake Outburst Floods," or GLOFs. These are caused by increased summer temperatures, which result in valley glaciers melting and forming lakes — often hidden — which then burst out of the ice and moraine (soil and rock) that dams them into the valleys to wreak havoc. Rasul says that the higher temperature of the rainfall has melted the ice quicker, leading to GLOFs.

Beside the track that leads to Chitral. Photo by Oscar Rickett

Syed Harir is from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province that Chitral and the Kalash valleys are a part of. He has worked on climate change in the region for the past 20 years, including for the German Red Cross, and has just published a detailed report on the flooding. He vehemently disagrees with the government line.

"My point is very clear," he told VICE News, "the flood is caused by erratic torrential rains with thunderstorms, which have continued for three long weeks… There is no glacial flooding at all. What nonsense. There has been no glacial outburst. The mountains here are dry."

Siraj-ul-Mulk, a former pilot who now runs a hotel in the Chitral region, agrees with Harir and told the Pakistani newspaper Dawnthat he doesn't believe the floods were caused by melting glaciers either. As a former pilot, Siraj can recognize monsoon clouds and he said that Pakistan International Airlines pilots who fly to Chitral told him that, "they had never seen this cloud formation at this time of year before."


Harir pointed out that the PMD "has no system in place in the district of Chitral. So on what basis are they determining that these are GLOFs? They are sitting in Islamabad, presuming something without having evidence for it. We have been asking the PMD to put a radar system up here because of how seriously climate change is affecting us but they haven't done anything."

The PMD gets a lot of funding from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) to look into glacial flooding and a source close to the program told VICE News that because the Pakistani government hopes this funding will be extended for a few more years, the onus is on the PMD to attribute flooding to glaciers, not excessive rainfall.

There is something else going on apart from climate change, though. For years, gangsters and loggers subsidized by the government have made big profits from cutting down trees on Kalash land. The Kalash get a small cut of the official logging revenues but, as Khan says, they are "not really in control of their destiny."

Photo by Muhammad Kashif Ali

Logging is big business and in the 1990s there were outbreaks of gun and grenade attacks as different factions fought for control of the timber. The market-driven irresponsibility of the loggers is in marked contrast to the Kalash outlook, which sees the landscape not only as an economic resource but also, in the words of Kalash expert Tom Crowley, "as a sacred place… It is a bit like living your life in a massive cathedral. Not everything that happens in them is sacred, but there is an overriding greater purpose to the space."


Logging has had an impact on the flooding because in the Kalash Valleys, trees, especially Himalayan Cedar, tend to grow high up on the valley sides. When it rains, a significant proportion of the rain is absorbed by the root systems of the trees, which also serve to hold the soil together. High school Geography dictates that if you remove the trees then more water runs down the valleys sides into the river.

The kind of corruption surrounding the current flooding is nothing new to the Kalash, whose lack of access to the machinery of power is reflected in the fact that there is only one qualified Kalash lawyer. Nabaig Shahrakat has been practicing for only a few years. His email address includes the words "first Kalash lawyer." After the last floods in 2010, he told me that none of the international aid money sent to the region came to his people. "It goes in the pockets of the politicians and higher personalities," he said.

A relief helicopter in the valleys. Photo by Muhammad Kashif

The money is needed badly, though. Reports from local organizations estimate that these floods have destroyed 60 percent of standing crops, 30 percent of houses, 70 percent of the irrigation channels, and 40 percent of the fruit gardens. Vital suspension bridges have been washed away. The three Kalash valleys are connected to the outside world by a single road cut into the side of a mountain. This road — really more of a track, only navigable by Jeep — has now been destroyed as well.


Landslides blocking parts of the road have always been common — I had to walk down off the track and through a gorge on one occasion — but having taken years to build, the road has been a crucial link to the local town of Chitral ever since the early 1980s. Food comes from Chitral and it is also the site of the nearest hospital.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has handed over relief efforts to the Pakistan Army, which is now trying to restore the road links and bring in steel bridges, and an army helicopter recently crashed in Chitral. The flooding is now spreading south to the province of Sindh and the Kalash say they are at the bottom of the army's list of priorities.

Luke Rehmat, of the Kalash People's Development Network, a community organization based in the valleys, told VICE News: "I have tried my best to reach out to the government but, even though we have been terribly affected by the floods, there has been very little help so far." "People are dying," said Harir, "they are dying on the road… The government is protecting its own interests while we are dying."

With no clean drinking water available in one of the valleys, Khan is particularly worried about Typhoid. He told VICE News that he is raising money for emergency assistance with food supplies, shelter, and basic health services. With the situation worsening, I was reminded of something else Nabaig, the Kalash lawyer, told me in 2011: "I am worried about what is happening because we are isolated. We are in the minority. We are worried that our traditions won't survive."

Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter: @oscarrickettnow