The frontline of the climate crisis is experienced most acutely by those who live on the margins – geographically, socially, and economically. In Pakistan, rural communities in the mountainous north are often the hardest hit and the least reported on. As Commonwealth Scholar Sonia Alam explains, the challenge of countering climate change in these regions is entwined with longstanding inequalities and barriers to research that hinder the implementation of a wide-ranging and effective development strategy.   

Before embarking on my PhD journey, I was involved in a project with the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of United Nations in Pakistan, working directly with farmers to understand the issues they faced and, through guided discovery and learning, helping them to gain practical skills to overcome these challenges. The aim was to support resilience-building in rural communities and preparedness for the natural disasters which hinder the agriculture sector by looking for solutions to ensure food security and zero hunger (Sustainable Development Goal 2).

With this experience, and as someone from a similarly deprived region of Pakistan, where educational facilities and opportunities are limited, I am passionate about development initiatives that help rural agricultural communities overcome the dire consequences of a changing climate and empower people to enact change in their lives.

It has always been one of my academic dreams to pursue my postgraduate degree in the UK. The learning opportunities and research skills I have gained during my scholarship so far have propelled me towards achieving my sustainable development ambitions in Pakistan. By attending development training workshops organised by the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (CSC) and my university I have been able to flourish, both personally and professionally, and have gained the confidence to take my research forward.

The impact of climate change on rural communities

Although climate change is a global problem, the distribution of climate risks is grossly unequal. Low- and middle-income countries such as Pakistan often bear the most adverse effects of a changing climate in terms of weather extremes such as heatwaves, floods, droughts and snowstorms when compared to high-income countries. Despite lower middle-income countries being responsible for less than 15% of global carbon emissions, the Global Climate Risk Index 2021 assesses that Pakistan, along with Haiti and the Philippines, is one of the countries most affected by climate change in its long-term index (i.e., 1999-2018) and ranked 5th in terms of its vulnerability to climate risks.

In Pakistan, the impact of climate change is also highly dependent on topographical characteristics. Mountainous northern regions, such as Gilgit-Baltistan, are often drastically affected by unusual variations in climatic condition, partly owing to the precarity of their native communities which are dependent upon agriculture and natural resources for their livelihoods. Farming is one of the biggest economic activities amongst the rural population in Pakistan, providing employment for more than 70 percent of people. Yet, there is little economic protection for farmers, particularly in northern Pakistan where poverty and food insecurity are not uncommon. As such, any anomaly in local climate can further jeopardise their existence by pushing farmers into a poverty trap where they face malnourishment. Unfortunately, local conditions in Gilgit-Baltistan, such as varying constitutional rights for individuals and the lack of basic facilities in health, education, and infrastructure present additional challenges for rural communities in the region.

The problem for researchers

Given their economic reliance on agriculture and the availability of natural resources, climate change can create significant challenges for the social and economic wellbeing of people in Gilgit-Baltistan. The current literature on this area of climate research reveals that vulnerability to variations in weather over time relies on three main components: 1) exposure to the physical effects of climate change; 2) the sensitivity of the ecosystem to these effects and/or reliance on economic and social earnings from that system; and 3) the degree to which adaptive strategies are adopted to offset the potential impacts of climate variability.

In order to respond to climate-related threats effectively, we need an appropriate framework for measuring climate vulnerability based on exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity metrics. Access to accurate data from different sectors of the economy is essential for this analysis; however, for various reasons, this data is not always available to researchers which presents a significant challenge in terms of reporting and advocacy. In addition, the variation in local infrastructure and social security provision, as outlined above, creates difficulties for researchers attempting to measure climate vulnerability across different sectors and regions.

While clearly there are a lack of development initiatives in Gilgit-Baltistan’s rural and farming sector when compared to other regions in the country, the limited engagement with these communities by monitoring organisations further compounds the problem by failing to address the data scarcity and inhibiting the work of researchers examining the impacts of climate change. Despite this, we know that rural communities struggle with inadequate livelihood choices, low adaptive capacity due to poor information, and meagre access to productive assets and services. As such, climate catastrophes and extreme weather will only add further challenges to the survival and wellbeing of these communities.

Bridging the gap

Given the prominence of agricultural work in all aspects of people’s lives in rural Gilgit-Baltistan, it’s important to present a nuanced picture of climate change impact on the region that considers social, economic, and welfare factors. Looking at this through the wellbeing lens, for example, could provide useful insights into the underlying impacts of abrupt fluctuations in weather over time on the rural populations’ mental and physical capacity to sustain existing socio-economic behaviours.

Although climate change is clearly discernible in its effects, what is less clear is how local people are perceiving climate hazards and the impact these hazards have on their lives and livelihoods. Again though, the challenge of limited data on climate change and the agriculture sector makes it difficult to formulate a climate policy to address the drastic adverse effects on rural populations in mountainous areas of Pakistan.

In Pakistan, the frontline of confrontation and contribution are always the poor, rural communities, so there is an urgent need to explore the perceptions of farming communities about the impact of climate change on their social and economic life, and to investigate the coping patterns of farming groups to mitigate these effects. My research aims to bridge this gap by collecting and analysing data from the community level to help support policy and interventions that can alleviate the profound challenges faced by rural communities in Pakistan.

Sonia Alam is a 2019 Commonwealth PhD Scholar from Pakistan studying for a PhD in Economics on the topic ‘Impact analysis of climate change adoption strategies on food security and rural poverty in Northern Areas-Pakistan’.