Building equality on the roof of the world

UN Development Programme
Apr 2 · 4 min read

The village of Siksa, nestled high in the Karakoram mountains of Pakistan, is often referred to as the roof of the world. At an altitude of 8,000 feet, the climate is cold, and maintaining a livelihood is difficult. The effects of climate change are exacerbating the hardships — and inequalities — that villagers face.

“Over time, things have become more difficult, especially for the poorer segments, including women and children,” says Nasreen, a resident.

There are 500 families in Siksa, and most are farmers, producing crops and breeding livestock and selling their products. Winters are harsh, and locals only get one growing season. An unreliable irrigation system has added to the vulnerabilities they face.

“Glaciers have started to melt rapidly due to climate change which means we’re always uncertain about whether we will have enough water. Sometimes we do have enough water, there are other instances when we don’t have any water at all. Temperatures are changing, we now get unusually hot summer days and extraordinarily cold winter nights,” Nasreen says.

With agriculture dependent upon the vagaries of snow-melt from the mountains, water flow patterns has a direct impact on how much food the villagers can grow. The nearest fresh water is distant, so building water channels to bring the water to their village is too expensive.

“The community has vast tracts of land holdings but they were of no use to us as we did not have enough water to bring it under productive use,” says Hassan Khan, the village headman. “The climate has changed in recent years. We are not getting enough snowmelt to irrigate even small fields that barely yield enough to feed a family. The question of bringing arid land under cultivation seemed like an impossible dream.”

Insufficient water affects the lives of women in profound ways. Water for drinking, washing and even irrigation was all collected on foot by them. Every morning they rose early and left home to fetch water. Every afternoon and night they waited their turn to irrigate the fields as the meagre water supply was rationed.

“I was exhausted at the end of the day,” says Amina Bibi, a local resident. “I just could not go on coping with a routine that did not allow for any rest or respite.”

Beyond fatigue and the time lost, was something even more important — water was keeping women from taking part in the cultural life of the village.

“Our lives revolve around water,” Amina says. “We cannot be part of any event, be it mourning or celebration. The men observe rituals and cultural traditions while we spend our time fetching water.”

Like many of her neighbours, Amina Bibi took her two daughters out of school to help fetch water and to take turns irrigating fields at night.

Girls were particularly prone to drop out. Like Amina Bibi’s daughters, many young girls spent their days helping their mothers on their hours-long daily journey to collect water and to irrigate the fields.

Yet despite the extraordinary hardships they face, Siksa village has managed to sustain an 80 percent literacy rate. They’ve always placed great importance on educating their children, and the schools has an almost 95 percent enrollment rate. Yet not having safe and reliable drinking water meant many children got sick with gastrointestinal infections and had to miss school.

UNDP worked with Coca Cola and the Mountain and Glacier Protection Organization, to change life in Siksa for the better by bringing reliable water to the village.

There is now enough water to irrigate the fields and to fill a storage tank that can deliver water to previously uncultivated land.

There is now enough water to irrigate the fields and to fill a storage tank that can deliver water to previously uncultivated land. Each household now has a larger area of cultivable land and, after fulfilling its own needs, can sell produce on the market. Women and girls don’t have to walk for miles to collect water, and children can go back to school with fresh, clean water provided at their doorstep.

Story: UNDP Pakistan; Photo editing by Rico Cruz, photography intern at UNDP New York.

UN Development Programme

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