Climate change lessons take to the stage in Badin

Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum uses theatre to educate villagers adapt to the effects of extreme weather and flooding

Reuters October 20, 2015
Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum uses theatre to educate villagers adapt to the effects of extreme weather and flooding. PHOTO: ONLINE

BADIN: Mir Muhammad's family had reason to celebrate: after the harvest of their rice crop, they were planning to throw a wedding.

But then flash floods hit their three-hectare farm, washing away the family's sole source of income and their dreams of the big day.

This was the scene played out on the makeshift stage of an open-air theatre in Badin district of Sindh province - a region, like many others in Pakistan, trying to find ways to better understand and deal with worsening climate change impacts.

The plight of poor Pakistani farmers

"Nature has destroyed all our plans," lamented Zuleikha Bibi, who played Muhammad's mother in the production. "We were preparing for the wedding of our eldest son, but the flood has turned all our happiness into mourning."

An audience of over a hundred men, women and children from Badin's fishing and farming communities watched as the actress wiped away her pretend tears. Then they listened, engrossed, as a singer in traditional Sindhi dress sang about the sufferings of poor people in the region.

The show is the brainchild of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), a non-governmental organisation based in Karachi that works for the social and economic welfare of vulnerable communities.

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Looking for a way to help villagers adapt to the effects of extreme weather and flooding, the forum hit on the idea of putting on plays.

"We are using theatre as an advocacy tool to educate people about the adverse impacts of climate change on their daily lives," said PFF project manager Maria Soomro.

Tapping local language and tradition

In a region where the majority of the rural population is illiterate, theatre is an effective way to communicate new ideas, Soomro said.

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Using local language, traditional songs and folklore, the performances aim to raise awareness about issues such as shortages of water for agriculture, erratic rainfall, frequent floods and droughts.

On the stage in Badin, young actors told the audience how extreme weather conditions in the province impacted on their studies.

"I was a student in seventh grade and I had to quit my school due to flash floods last year," said Farzana Bangash, 12. She urged the audience to find ways to mitigate the impact of flooding and erratic rainfall on their crops.

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The messages, which began taking to the stage last year, appear to be getting through.

Farmer Shagufta Bhel said that after watching a show in June last year, she and her family stopped sowing genetically modified seeds for their wheat and rice crops, saying they feared they would be less adaptable to increasingly extreme weather.

"We have been sowing local seeds instead, and getting good yield too," she said.

According to a recent report by the US-based World Resources Institute, floods in Pakistan affect 715,000 people each year, and by 2030 that number could increase to as many as 2.7 million.

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Annual losses as a result of river flooding amount to just short of 1 per cent of Pakistan's GDP - about $1.7 billion - the report added.

"We can't provide food to everybody affected by floods and droughts in the province but we can definitely sensitise them to the issues," said the PFF's Soomro.

The PFF put on its first open-air play in June 2014 in Karachi and has since held over 20 performances in rural areas of six districts of Sindh province. Each cast uses 15 volunteers, mostly local people, who get a week of acting training before they start, Soomro said.

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Using its own funding and working in collaboration with other NGOs, the forum plans to expand its theatre project to other districts of the province.

Experts agree that theatre is an effective tool for making a topic as complex as climate change more easily understandable and relevant to a wide audience.

"The beauty of open-air theatre is that it attracts a large audience for entertainment and helps convey a critical message in the local language of the people," said Sarwar Bari, national coordinator of the Pattan Development Organisation, an NGO in Islamabad.

Shafqat Aziz, a food security expert with Oxfam Novib, the Dutch affiliate of anti-poverty charity Oxfam, said the plays also help empower people, motivating some to ask government representatives for policies on issues such as food security and crop insurance.

"The awareness drives affected communities to a decision-making position and this is where they try to come up with effective solutions for tackling climate change," he said.

As the 30-minute play came to an end on the Badin stage, one of the characters, a farmer named Sikandar Sanam, turned to the audience to talk about seeds. One good adaptation strategy, he suggested, would be for communities to store the seeds of native crop varieties.

"Our local seed varieties of rice and wheat can tolerate floods and droughts," Sanam said. "So we should form a local seed bank to preserve our own seeds, shouldn't we?"

The audience shouted in agreement.

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