Pakistan is amongst the world’s most climate-change-vulnerable countries. Its geographical placement at the mountain crest of the Arabian sea and between the arid hearts of Afghanistan and India, make Pakistan vulnerable to extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts and floods. It is predicated that Pakistan will face some of the highest temperature changes in the world, with a 2.5C change predicted by 2050.
Urban centres like Lahore and Karachi which house the country’s growing semi-industrial economy are the biggest contributors to air pollution while Pakistan’s primary reliance on coal and non-renewables in the energy sector is a testament to the slow pace of adaption to climate change measures.
A report assessing the health of the Hindu Kush and Himalayan (HKH) glaciers predicts the landmass stretching from Myanmar to Pakistan will lose two-thirds of its ice-fields by 2100 if global greenhouse emissions are not drastically curbed. This translates to a critical environmental hazard to the 240 million people living in the mountain belt and its foothills.
The Hindu Kush and Himalayan ice caps are the foundational water source for 10 major river basins including the Indus and the Ganges. With imminent melting of snow and ice caps, the region can predict food shortages, floods and famines taking a hit on the majority agricultural economy.
With this dire environmental situation it is necessary for Pakistan to introduce measures which reduce carbon emissions and greenhouse gases. While measures in urban centres can take the form of technology shifts such as solar panels and water preservation methods, in rural areas tailored climate adaptation strategies are necessary for Pakistan’s northern areas to become climate adaptive regions.
Addressing the serious environmental concerns Pakistan faces, an organisation working with communities to develop climate adaptation strategies is working to address the gaps in policy that impact climate change on heritage sites and communities. Founded in 2007 by Zahra Hussain as an undergrad at NCA, Laajverd arose from the desire to create a more sustainable future. Hussain, who has now completed her PhD in Cultural Geography at Durham University is passionate about creating change in the creative industries and sustainable development atmosphere in Pakistan. Her previous projects included the Laajverd Visiting School (LVS) which took scholars from across Pakistan to post-disaster communities like Laspur Valley in Upper Chitral and Attabad Lake to assess sites where action led research could take place with community involvement rather than top-down approaches usually adopted by government initiatives. They created the Indigenous Practices and Patterns Catalog (IPCC) which documents the cultural heritage in the visited areas and aims to collate the information as a guide for development practices.
The GB and KP regions face numerous challenges due to climate change and rising tourism, which are affecting their living practices including traditional festivals that are dying out. The mountain architecture and town planning in these valleys is not suited to such growing changes. Over the past year Laajverd produced the Mountain Architecture Guidelines document which guides construction in line with the local heritage of the valleys
This focus on community involvement in regions which are vulnerable to climate change led Zahra to form the Fragile Heritage Framework in the Hindu Kush – Himalaya mountain regions in her most recent project. The region also happens to be one of the most climate vulnerable regions outside of the polar ice caps. The risk of gradual melting of the 7000 plus glaciers in the Hindu Kush – Himalaya region is likely to create lakes of meltwater dammed behind glacier deposits leading to glacial lake outburst floods which pose a threat to mountain communities and beyond.
The focus on heritage preservation is necessary in communities and landscapes which are vulnerable to change both natural or through urbanisation. In the Hindu Kush – Himalaya communities the relationship with their material and immaterial heritage has always been changing and dynamic. Due to environmental changes as well as historical events and cultural changes, the region is thought to be unstable in both its landscape and built environments and its inherited practices, beliefs and folklore.
These heritages need to be protected as much as possible and the Fragile Heritage Framework (FHF) created by Laajverd aims to explore interdisciplinary and creative methodologies to allow fragile heritages to be assessed and redesigned taking into account their vulnerability to climate change.
Community participants at the FHF workshop in Gilgit
The FHF is a participatory and inclusive project where local communities co-lead the process of understanding risk and loss and documenting the practice-based and oral heritages and the language and architecture patterns in their landscape. By doing this, the FHF addresses the gaps in assessing risks to traditional ways of life and their heritages due to climate change.
One of the areas where the FHF was implemented was in Yasin Valley in Gilgit Baltistan. Yasin valley exhibited a disconnect between ancient and modern history (Bhuddhist rock carvings were visible while forts were more recent historical sites). Historically, it was a strategic location serving as an ancient and important route between South and Central Asia connecting with the Wakhan-Pamir area in the North via Darkut pass and Baba Ghundi on the east via Chilingi pass. The heritage there includes a celebration of shamanism and spirit beings that reside in glaciers untainted by human presence and some megalithic stone circles along with domestic structures.
The methodology used to understand the changes in the environment include mapping of oral and recorded history (practices and folklore) through audio-visual stories and photos
Another site at Kharmang is located close to Skardu and the local architecture consists of unique structures found in the remnants of forts and palaces. Also found were practices and oral heritages that correspond with the natural environment and landscape. (can there be an example of this?)
Dr Zahra Hussain during the FHF workshop in Gilgit (November 2021)
Some of the methodologies used assess how climate change is modifying the heritage landscapes and practices and folklore through audio-visual stories and photos to produce deep-maps that give a varied sense of loss of heritage landscapes, patterns of resilience and their value to contribute during a climate crises.
The community focus within the FHF help locals discuss what the community identifies as risks to cultural heritage, and their anticipation and ideas for preparedness and adaptation in the event of change.
The FHF workshops and the case study areas trained 10 to 20 local people to carry out the FHF and document sites in their villages and communities. This helped the locals to understand the value of heritage in their local communities whether it was historical structures or the unique fauna and landscape. It also helped them understand and identify heritage in the material and immaterial sense in their regions in the midst of rise of tourism in the mountain areas. The locals were also able to identify how their heritage made them unique and could help in increasing tourism and conserve those sites in their local communities.
Laajverd is also installing signboards for 20 to 25 heritage sites in the Yasin Valley which will be installed before the next tourist season in 2022.
As a result of the FHF workshops, locals began looking at their heritage sites in a more wholistic way and were also leading the field work in the valley.
In November, Laajverd invited people from relevant government departments such as tourism, education and NGOs for a two-day workshop in Gilgit to discuss the threats to heritage preservation and environment due to climate change and fragile heritage. The participants were locals from the community who were trained in the framework and discussed how it could be further refined and replicated and carried out in other valleys across the Hindu Kush – Himalaya regions.
FHF members touring the Yasin Valley
The GB and KP regions face numerous challenges due to climate change and rising tourism, which are affecting their living practices including traditional festivals that are dying out. The mountain architecture and town planning in these valleys is not suited to such growing changes. Over the past year Laajverd produced the Mountain Architecture Guidelines document which guides construction in line with the local heritage of the valleys.
The methodology used to understand the changes in the environment include mapping of oral and recorded history (practices and folklore) through audio-visual stories and photo transcents to produce an understanding of the area which is not limited to topographical features but includes patterns of resilience and adaption in events of climate or developmental crises.
The FHF workshop helped understand risk and cultural heritage through focus groups to understand what the community identifies as risks to cultural heritage and recording their propositions for preparedness and cultural heritage adaptation. It also assesses the rhetoric and language used to understand changes in the environment for the locals and compares it with the language used by experts.
Through using a program like this the community has a say in not only the understanding of heritage and crises but also the methods of adaptation. Importantly, the program attempts to equal the imbalance in mountain conservation where nature is ‘valourised and people and communities devalued’ and invites locals to be stewards of their communities creating opportunities for greater ownership and heritage preservation in their dynamic mountain environments.
Fragile Heritage Framework participants consulting with community members
With programs like the Fragile Heritage Framework introduced by Laajverd, Pakistan has a unique opportunity to take action on climate change by working with the existing heritage framework in communities such as Yasin Valley and Ghizer where the FHF and Mountain Architecture Guidelines can be employed and carried out by locals to protect the environment, communities and prevent greater environmental losses.
Considering the increasing environmental degradation occurring in the mountain regions of Pakistan due to development and influx of tourists, it is important that initiatives such as the FHF which assess heritage and environment on a micro level and address gaps in existing policy frameworks are encouraged so that the communities most impacted by climate change can adapt.
Laajverd is one of those organisations which is doing its utmost to bring change in the understanding of living ecology for both locals and tourists and instilling an awareness of environmental degradation in the fragile mountain landscapes of Pakistan’s north.