As winter tightens its grip over Pakistan’s Kalash valleys, home to the ancient Kalash tribe, many parts of the mountain region are still struggling to repair the damage wrought by the floods this monsoon

“You won’t recognize Bumburet Valley when we get there,” my driver informed me as we navigated through streams and attempted to cross broken roads that were washed away by the devastating floods that hit Chitral District in July and August of this year. One now needs a four-wheel drive to reach the Kalash Valleys – a harrowing 2 hour drive from Chitral town, which sits along the border with the Afghan province of Nuristan.

A bridge destroyed by recent flood waters (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan) Flood waters destroyed bridges and access to the valleys (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

A bridge destroyed by recent floodwaters (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

The three Kalash valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur and Birir are encircled by high mountains, a natural barrier from Nuristan whose people were converted to Islam in the 19th century by an Afghan king. The Kalasha are an ancient tribe, the last survivors of Kafiristan (of which Nuristan was once a part), and their pre-Islamic religion is focused on their environment: although they worship a creator called “Desau”, they also believe that trees, stones and streams all have souls.

A narrow road used to lead into Bumburet, the largest of the three valleys. Only recently re-opened, it’s now strewn with large boulders brought down by the floodwaters. Vehicles must cut through agricultural fields and crisscross the main nullah – or riverbed – just to get to its villages. Near the valley’s entrance, we passed a badly damaged government primary school. Here children must study in tents along the side of the road.

The nearby Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation Motel is also in ruins. A gushing stream that used the surround the property turned into a surging river as floodwaters came rushing down the mountains and into the Bumburet valley, destroying its wooden chalets and large garden.

The rest of the valley’s main town was also badly hit. Once a popular tourist destination, the big hotels all suffered major damage, as did countless shops, around two dozen houses, many orchards, fields and of course the main road itself.

Children studying outside the government primary school that was damaged by the floods (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

Children studying outside the government primary school that was damaged by the floods (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

“I would say the floods were a result of all the deforestation that has taken place in these valleys in recent years, just look at the bare mountain sides – and of course climate change was also responsible. It is almost the end of September now and it is still warm; in earlier years the summer would end in August when we would celebrate our autumn festival,” explains Akram Hussain, a Kalash man who is in charge of the Kalasha Cultural Centre built by the Greek government in 2004, which is thankfully still intact.

The Centre houses an impressive museum, community center and educational facilities for the Kalash people. In the museum, one can find a large collection of Kalasha antiques like old jewelry, cooking utensils, sculptures of horses, rugs and costumes. The Kalasha women still wear their traditional dress, an embroidered black frock tied at the waist by a belt or sash.

Strong stone walls built around the Centre by Greek volunteers ultimately saved it from the forceful impact of the floods. “The high walls withstood the floodwaters, which came rushing down from the mountains at one end of the valley and went around the building,” says Hussain. Sadly, it’s likely to be the last bit of sizeable aid the Kalasha will receive from the Greek government, which continues to pay for teachers and school supplies at the Cultural Centre, but is now facing severe economic problems at home.

The Greeks believe that the Kalasha are descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, which marched through the Hindu Kush Mountains centuries ago. Indeed, last year a team of geneticists led by Oxford University sampled genomes from around the world and found that the Kalash people of Pakistan have chunks of DNA from an ancient European population.

The Kalash are are most likely the descendants of the ancient Greek-Macedonian armies who set up outposts in this region 2,300 years ago (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

The Kalash are are most likely the descendants of the ancient Greek-Macedonian armies who set up outposts in this region 2,300 years ago (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

Today, only 4,114 Kalasha remain according to a census conducted in July 2014, but there have been many conversions to Islam as more outsiders settle into the Kalash Valleys, often building homes near the main road. Around 1,800 Kalasha live in Bumburet, but higher up along the sides of the valley.

“Our culture was already under threat, and now these floods have destroyed our crops and orchards. We will have to buy food from the bazaar and store it if we are to survive this winter. Luckily, there was no loss of lives in Bumburet because we got a call from the border police which jointly patrols the border with the army. They called us over our mobile phones to warn us that the flood was coming,” says Hussain. “I called people living near the Bumburet nullah (the mountain stream that runs through the valley floor) and told them to get out.”

Hussain tells us there were two major floods in Bumburet in July and a smaller one in August. “The second flood in July that lasted for two days caused the most damage. We have never seen floods like this in the Kalash valleys before. I would say that at least half of Bumburet Valley was destroyed or damaged by these floods.”

Despite the widespread destruction, only four of the 22 houses swept away belonged to Kalash families. “Our houses are mostly built higher up and all the people living below ran up to our homes,” explains Shaheen Gul, a young Kalash woman living in Krakal Village in Bumburet. “But our fields with corn and beans that were ready for harvest and fruit trees like walnuts and apricots are gone as they were near the nullah.”

Krakal Village is one of the oldest settlements in Bumburet, built high above the main road. While the Kalasha’s traditional wooden homes are well-built and extremely tough, Gul says it was a terrifying night for all involved. “We could hear the flood before it arrived – we were so scared by the roaring sound in the middle of the night. Then the earth started shaking as if there was an earthquake. It was raining very hard that night,” she recalls. “Later when we came down we saw all the destruction – these floods were definitely much worse than the 2010 floods.”

Shaheen Gul stands with a friend in front of her home that was saved from the floods because it was built higher up on the mountain (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

Shaheen Gul stands with a friend in front of her home that was saved from the floods because it was built higher up on the mountain (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

The soldiers patrolling the border with Afghanistan say that melting glaciers also played a role in the recent floods. “There are around four glaciers high up above in these mountains overlooking Bumburet,” explains Shair Shah, a member of the Chitral Levies border force. “Glacial floods came down along with the rain water, that is why there were so many large boulders and we even saw large chunks of black ice.”

Syed Harir Shah, a disaster risk reduction expert from Chitral, feels that torrential rainfall was the main cause of the flooding, “The shifting of the monsoon further west to Chitral is a highly unusual event,” he says. “It needs to be researched. How did it shift? Why was no proper warning given to the people of Chitral?”

National climate change expert Dr. Qamar-uz-Zaman Chaudhry blames the erratic monsoon weather this year on El Niño, a periodic warming of the ocean along the equatorial Pacific that impacts weather patterns. “[El Niño] contributed to the abruptness of the monsoon this summer. Some monsoon currents penetrated into the Hindu Kush mountain range, an area which generally lies outside the monsoon belt,” says the former head of Pakistan’s Meteorological Department. “The persistent rainfall accelerated snow melting and triggered both floods and the outbursts of glacial lakes.”

His explanation reflects what eyewitnesses in Rumbur Valley – the second area to be badly affected by the flooding – have reported. The third Kalash valley of Birir was not damaged by the floodwaters.

“The floods started on the 13th of July and we had almost continuous flooding until the 5th of August. We had rainfall almost every day. There were two types of floods – one was a glacier flood in the Rumbur Nullah and the other was flash floods coming down one of the mountain sides,” says Mohammed Iqbal, a Kalash social worker with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society. “The water flooded into the Jestak temple (dedicated to the deity that protects family) in Balanguru village, but luckily it was not badly damaged.”

According to Iqbal, a survey of the valley found that around 34 houses in Rumbur were damaged or destroyed by the floods, but an early mobile alert from shepherds high up in the mountains prevented any loss of life in the valley. “The shepherds told us that they saw cloudbursts over the Gangalurat glacier on the boundary with Nuristan which then burst,” he says.

Damaged homes near the river (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

Damaged homes near the river (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

The floods brought down boulders, trees and whatever else was in their way, destroying orchards, fields, water channels and roads. Today the road to Rumbur Valley – an hour’s drive from the larger Bumburet Valley – is barely open. At a certain point, one must travel by foot to the villages beyond a bridge that has miraculously survived.

“I think there were around 40 to 50 floods here this summer – in 2010 (a year of widespread flooding throughout Pakistan) there was just one big flood,” explains Iqbal as we walk a path to the valley that eventually disappears, having been swept away by the flood in the nullah.

The Kalash people living higher up in the Rumbur Valley have to literally cling to the cliff wall above the nullah. Precarious wooden planks wedged into the mountainside provide a rickety path to the main village where shops are located. There are no big hotels here, just a few guesthouses where tourists can stay overnight. Locals say the re-opening of the road to the valley in late September brought an end to a worsening food crisis, at least for now.

“We were confined to the houses located further up on the mountain sides and we ran out of food,” recalls Iqbal. “We had to rely on the army helicopters who dropped wheat and other rations during the floods.” Luckily, their mobile phones were still working so they could alert the outside world.

Traditional Kalash homes are built high up on the sides of the mountain (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

Traditional Kalash homes are built high up on the sides of the mountain (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

“The noise of the floods was deafening. The children are still so traumatized. Every time it rains now they start crying and saying ‘a flood is coming,’” says Naseem, a Kalash woman who lives in Grum Village at the entrance to the Rumbur Valley. She says with winter approaching they will be facing some hard times.

“All our crops with potatoes, beans and sorghum near the nullah are gone along with so many fruit trees,” she says. “The drinking water supply has not been restored and the women have to go down to the nullah daily to fetch water and carry it up in large vessels. The children and elderly are starting to get waterborne diseases and falling sick. The electricity has not been restored either.” A micro-hydro plant used to provide electricity to Rumbur Valley, but was damaged by the floods. The community plans to fix it before winter. The main water pipeline was also damaged and the local people are urging the government to restore it.

“For now the people who lost their homes are living with relatives, but that will put a strain on everyone over the long winter months when the valley is cut off by snow and we can’t buy supplies from the outside. In November, the snow starts to fall and roads are closed for almost four months,” says Quaid-e-Azam, a Kalash man who works for a hotel in Chitral town. “However, I have heard that the World Food Programme is planning to give food to the Kalash Valleys for the four winter months.”

Despite the obvious hardships, the Kalasha people remain quite resilient. They even celebrated their annual Uchaw Festival in late August. “Uchaw commemorates the harvest,” explains Azam, “and we celebrated it…despite all the destruction. This is a religious festival and we have to continue with our culture and rituals.”

But he worries about the future. “The floods are becoming worse each year…we have to plan now for future floods. Today because of the growing population in the Kalash valleys people have no choice but to build near the nullah, but they are risking their lives. They only got saved this time because of the mobile phone warning. They were extremely lucky.”

An elderly Kalash woman said she had never seen such floods in her lifetime (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

An elderly Kalash woman said she had never seen such floods in her lifetime (Credit: Rina Saeed Khan)

Some Kalash villagers fear their deities are angry with them for the widespread environmental damage that has taken place in their ancestral homeland. “We feel the floods are coming as they are cursing us people for all this deforestation and destruction of their habitat,” says Zarin Khan, a Kalash man who works for the government’s Tourism Corporation in Chitral town. “Trees and entire forests have been cut down for both construction and firewood purposes, the animals living up in the mountains have no pine nuts to eat and even the birds go hungry.”

During the Uchaw festival, Kalash elders prayed to the creator Desau to save the people from future floods. But according to Azam, the torrential rainfall was so severe that the flooding even affected parts of Chitral where little deforestation is taking place. “The floods occurred in places like Reshun and Brepp were there are historically no forests. No one is safe now with all this climate change,” he says from behind the reception desk at the hotel he works at in Chitral town. “I’m very worried, the next few years are going to be very hard for us. We can only hope to survive with better planning.”