Pakistan's coastal villagers retreat as seas gobble land
The people of the fan-shaped Indus Delta, where the Indus River meets the Arabian Sea, are among the poorest of the poor, mostly illiterate and living in wooden shacks on the mud flats.
As seawater has washed into the delta, destroying thousands of hectares of fertile land and contaminating underground water channels, they survive by fishing in the saltwater creeks where dolphins are a common sight.
Dablo’s family and 41 other households migrated three years ago to Phirt village in Keti Bunder Union Council, some 2 km from their old village on a mud flat at the delta’s mouth.
“Here we are on higher land and located further inland so the waves and the winds are not as strong – we had no choice but to move as our homes were being submerged,” Dablo explained.
The move was not easy, as households had to spend 15,000 rupees ($149) each to build new huts for themselves, he added.
The story of Phirt village is not an isolated case. According to Dablo, many other communities in the delta are also shifting as their land disappears.
The latest scientific report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out that at the same time as sea levels are rising, most Asian deltas are sinking due to groundwater extraction, floodplain engineering and the trapping of sediment by dams.
The Indus Delta has seen an 80 percent reduction in sediment since the early 20th century, according to a 2009 paper published in Nature Geoscience. Around 20 dams and a large number of canals divert the waters of the Indus River, depriving the delta of fresh water.
Some inhabitants have moved to inland mud flats, where they do not have to buy the land they occupy. Others are decamping to Karachi’s coastal villages where relatives have settled.
CLIMATE CHANGE IMPACTS
Of Keti Bunder Union Council’s 42 settlements, 28 have already been engulfed by the intruding sea.
Climate change is clearly increasing vulnerabilities in the delta area. Sea-level rise is contributing to higher storm surges, erosion, flooding and salinity, according to WWF-Pakistan.
A 2012 study from the environmental group, which has worked with delta communities for over a decade, analysed land loss and gain by comparing satellite images from 1962 and 2011.
“The results revealed an erosion of approximately 9,065 ha of land in Keti Bunder and Kharo Chann, whereas only 1,347 ha of land have been accreted along the shoreline,” it concluded.
Coastal areas are also being hit hard by powerful storms. In 2014, for example, Cyclone Nanuk caused major property damage as homes in the Indus Delta were submerged for days.
The delta area is ranked among the world’s 40 most biologically-rich eco-regions. Since 2011, WWF-Pakistan has promoted rehabilitation of its degraded mangrove forests, aiming to minimise sea encroachment.
Pakistan was once considered one of the world’s most important mangrove countries. But the forests deteriorated under pressure from seawater intrusion, lack of fresh water in the Indus Delta, cutting of trees for fuel and camel grazing.
WWF-Pakistan has provided mangrove seeds and saplings to local communities to plant. Satellite images show mangrove forest cover is now increasing thanks to this activity.
In the last 10 years, awareness of the problem has grown immensely, according to WWF-Pakistan.
One of the first things Dablo did after building his new home was to plant mangroves around it to “stop the soil erosion and protect the shore”.
Besides providing a buffer against floods and coastal erosion, mangroves offer a habitat for fish, oysters, shrimps and crabs. The villagers can benefit by selling the crustaceans in the mega-city of Karachi, some three hours’ drive away.
WWF-Pakistan’s project to help coastal communities adapt to climate change impacts has also introduced platforms for raised homes that better protect villagers from storm surges and tidal flooding.
“Now when the water rises, we can save all our bedding and clothes and utensils, and bring our children up here,” said Sakina, showing off her new elevated house in Siddique Dablo village in Hajamro Creek.
“Everyone in the village wants one of these… but of course they are expensive to make because of all the wood that is used.” The wood must be purchased from markets in nearby towns.
The WWF project has built 20 housing platforms in the delta area. But despite such interventions, people are still likely to be displaced given the relentless sea intrusion.
“More water is invading our houses than in the past – high tides are coming in with more intensity,” said Sakina’s brother Ismaeel.
Saleem Dablo, a resident of Meero Dablo village, located further inland next to Keti Bunder town, said his family had moved three times. Their last village, near the mouth of the Indus Delta, was destroyed by a cyclone.
“We were lucky to find a place inland in 1997 as now the land mafia has moved here and it is impossible to find land unless you are willing to pay large amounts of money,” he said. “We think we are safe here from the seawater for now.”