An Island of Hope
In the midst of the wilderness of mangroves and mudflats in Pakistan, a small island swarmed with over ten thousand Jat pilgrims. They arrived there by hundreds of boats with colourful decoration and flags to celebrate their annual mela or festival of Sanwlo Faqeer, a sufi saint from 17th century. The boats were anchored all around the island. The pilgrim families pitched their small, straw huts and tents. Beautiful girls in ethnic Jat embroidery and jewelry walked here and there without the typical male-female divide which is common in Pakistan.
The Jat community are devout followers of the saint Sanwlo Faqeer. Traditionally, sufis worship at the shrines of their saints, but the border and tensions between Pakistan and India has led them to establish a takya (a shrine in absentia) on an island near Warri creek – one of the seventeen creeks which make the Indus Delta.
While the festival was beautiful to behold, the real intrigue lies with the resilience I observed from the Jat community. The Jat are an indigenous camel herding community of Pakistan. Among the worst affected by the impacts of climate change in the country, their island sanctuary is itself an example of climate change impacts: it has been subject to sea intrusion and soil erosion and has no sources of drinking water. And yet, still they return – year after year – and still, their hope is not dead.
Jat communities have survived four decades of cyclones, drought, and man-made disasters, and have adopted several means of livelihood to cope with the changing climate. They have adapted their livelihoods to use agriculture, as well as fishing businesses. They have preserved heritage seeds and started cultivating crops that are heat and drought resistant using their own knowledge and understanding about the climate and agriculture. They have even tried to save the festival island from climate impacts by using small dykes to fight rising sea levels. Most of the people I met at the festival have spent all their lives in these creeks and the surrounding sea. Warri creek and this island are of great importance for the local communities not only because of its economic value for their livelihoods, but also because of their spiritual connection with the sea.
Despite their long agony of poverty, scarcity of drinking water, poor sanitation, and food security issues, these communities of the Indus Delta are still optimistic. During my stay on the island, all I observed was happiness, positive energy, and hope in the form of sufi music, cultural dance, and connection with their sacred land on the water. With the feelings of the festivity and a firm belief that good days will come, the Jat community is adamant to overcome the hardships of climate change. “Hope never dies,” said a local indigenous poet Abdullah Jat. “Hope is stronger than death!”
Sajida Sultana wrote this article. Sajida is a researcher and PhD Candidate at the University of Waterloo. Her PhD research focuses on issues of food security, water scarcity in the agricultural sector, and Climate Smart Agriculture in Sindh, Pakistan.