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Managing disaster risks in Chitral

Azal Zahir

I have never seen it rain like this, at this time of year,” Masoodul Mulk, one of the descendants of the last Mehtar (prince) of Chitral and development practitioner now heading the Sarhad Rural Support Programme (SRSP), had told me in September. It had rained consistently on the first two days of September in Chitral. The area receives an average monthly rainfall of 13.1mm, according to the Pakistan Meteorological (Met) Department. This year, however, September saw 31.5 mm of rainfall — a staggering 140% increase for that month alone.

Chitral is an enigma on its own. Steeped in history and stories of Alexander, the elusive Kalasha tribe, the lineage of the Mehtars, colonial British intrigues and skirmishes and, of course, home to magnificent (almost mythical) beasts like the markhor and the snow leopard. My last visit in August 2018 had left me itching to return. I found that opportunity once more at the end of August this year.

To my dismay, the Ayun Valley River, usually blue, was muddied, as if with the blood of the valleys. Massive sedimentation, due to heavy flooding in Upper Chitral, had a visible impact in the devastation in the lower valleys. This was in stark contrast to my last visit, when locals had claimed it had not snowed at all that year. Climate change is making itself very apparent.

As record-breaking rainfall made its way across the country in this year’s monsoon season, flash floods wreaked havoc in Swat, Dir and Chitral districts.

Monsoon data from the Met department indicates a huge spike in average rainfall countrywide, August onwards. According to the Met department, the Area Weighted Rainfall increase for Pakistan in 2015, 2016 and 2020 is 26%, 25% and 43% respectively, which makes the 2020 rainfall almost double that of five years ago. With climate change, we can only expect this number to keep rising.

This begs the questions, is the ‘irreversible climate change’ that climatologists have predicted, already here? If so, what efforts were undertaken to meet these challenges when they began to affect our environment?

There was little evidence of disaster risk management in northern Pakistan. In fact, any humanitarian efforts to avoid natural calamities appeared to be limited to inscriptions and plaques, such as those posted by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID)’s “Program for Natural Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery in Pakistan” in the Chitral valleys. These too have a cryptic start date of 20/09/2019 and end date of 20/10/2019. Such signs dot many different areas of the district but, to an onlooker, it seems as if organisations had visited merely to hammer up the signs.

Boulders, some at least five feet in width and height, lay strewn across Bumburet — the residue of the 2015 floods. All that was left of the International Guesthouse were some of the foundations and a room that might have been a toilet. The air seemed full of suspense, awaiting the onslaught of another similar flood any time, as unprecedented rainfall continued.

Rumbur, a Kalasha village, lost a section of its road during the monsoon. This reduced the already dwindling number of tourists — an industry the locals rely on heavily for their livelihoods. The current floods destroyed other parts of their village with heavy landslides. They were without electricity for days — charging their phones on small-scale solar panels that had been installed in the village.

I ask a Kalasha girl, named Saniya, how soon after rain does a flash flood hit. She shrugs and replies, “Maybe 20 minutes. The flood of 2016 reached up to that house,” she says, pointing to a house at least 20 feet above us, where the river currently meanders through. Enough to make one’s skin tingle with fright, as more rain-laden clouds puffed above.

Is there any alarm system in place to alert the village of the approaching calamity? “Only if a local lets another local know,” says Ashfaq, a taxi driver from Ayun. This means valleys downstream might have only a matter of minutes.

Many villages, such as that of Booni, Golen and Reshun, lost their bridges in this year’s floods, completely cutting them off from the rest of Pakistan. “I’m wearing my friend’s shoes as I lost mine to the river while trying to cross it to get to Chitral,” says Asif, a local at Booni. “I had to risk the crossing. I am going to Islamabad to complete a course I am taking online. We haven’t had Wi-Fi for days here.” No power, no way to procure supplies and very few to bat an eyelid at their circumstances.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Chief Minister Mahmood Khan visited the areas to assess damages and claimed comprehensive plans had been put in place for rehabilitation. But the disillusioned population needs something more solid than words. That is more than what the federal government can offer. An incomplete bridge to enter Ayun alludes to the complete lack of interest in developing the Northern Areas.

The poverty-stricken Northern Areas are the most susceptible to flash floods, with the onset of global warming and climate change. Research suggests a strong correlation between disasters and poverty. Masoodul Mulk, CEO of the SRSP that aims to alleviate poverty, says, “Pakistan’s border region faces a dilemma. It is geographically large with a small population. Resources of the government are distributed on the basis of population, so their infrastructure and other needs will remain unaddressed.” Recently, he has developed a hydro-power station, along with community members, in order to provide electricity to Ayun valley.

Time and again, it has been proven that countries frequented with natural disasters face stagnated or even negative rates of (both national and international) development and growth. It is clear that sizable portions of Pakistan’s GDP and labour force need to be diverted towards relief efforts, reconstruction and management of disaster consequences.

This, too, diverts money away from social programmes, debt repayment and development projects. In areas such as Reshun, Golen and Sore Rech, vital infrastructure lies damaged. The Reshun bridge was reconstructed after the 2015 floods, merely 10 months ago, at a cost of 35 million rupees, only to find its watery grave in August.

What of schools, hospitals and sewerage lines? When the small bazaars are destroyed, what of the rates of unemployment? Desperation and poverty can lead to an upsurge of crime and insecurity.

Year after year, with rising temperatures, and sea level rises, flash floods are a constant looming threat. Yet, no emergency preparedness seems to be in place. According to Mulk, “Disasters in a geographically fragile region would be frequent. Some of these could be addressed through risk mitigation measures. The problem is compounded by the fact that rapid population expansion has moved populations into previously unoccupied pockets. So the mitigating measures also have to be contextually driven and innovative. Mitigation in the mountains needs to be looked at differently.”

Disaster risk management entails creating disaster reduction? ?policies and strategies in order to avoid future threats. Mitigation, preparedness, response, communications and recovery must be the cornerstones of such management.

One research suggests that community-based disaster management can be a strategy to tackle the difficult circumstances of the northern regions. Such strategies, designed by and for the people, are already being implemented by various organisations in Nepal and Bangladesh. In the period that mitigation development is taking place, the aim should be at recovery following a disaster, suggests Mulk. The population should be armed with the skills they need in order to mobilise, and to clear roads, restore water supplies and build bridges.

Both structural (altering the physical environment) and non-structural (altering human behaviour) mitigation efforts are required. The government needs to identify the areas at high risk of floods, using flood hydrographs that can predict how areas respond to a period of rainfall. All buildings would then have to be developed as flood-resistant.

As the azure water from Bumburet valley merges with the silted water of Rumbur, it mirrors the real world. Wherever there is filth, it will pollute the river to the end of its journey. We lose the pure and natural to the wasteland that resides forth. Consumerism, greed, false morality and extremism take precedence over taking care of our natural world and those who reside within it.

The writer is a graduate from New York University with a Master’s in Environmental Conservation.



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