Five years on: Recalling the horror of 2010 Swat floods

25 Jul 2015

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A man collects items from the remains of a hotel that was washed by heavy flooding in Kalam, in Swat Valley. The floods took 2,000 lives. —AP
A man collects items from the remains of a hotel that was washed by heavy flooding in Kalam, in Swat Valley. The floods took 2,000 lives. —AP
Children play amongst the rubble of a hotel. —AP
Children play amongst the rubble of a hotel. —AP

The ongoing flooding in Pakistan's rivers took me back five years, when, in the last week of July 2010, Swat was hit by floods of the worst nature since the first century AD.

Forest experts say that where the deodar (Cedrus deodara) grows, the monsoon doesn't usually go, but if it gets there, it brings nothing but devastation.

The Swat Valley has three natural landscapes namely Lower Swat, Upper Swat and Swat-Kohistan.

Indigenous experts say that the monsoon doesn't occur in the Lower Swat and Swat-Kohistan. Lower Swat is the part from Landakey – where the district boundary meets with the Malakand Agency – to Charbagh, including Mingora city and the district headquarters, Saidu Sharif.

Upper Swat is beyond Charbagh up to the town of Fatehpur, whereas the Swat-Kohistan is the narrow valley beyond Fatehpur, and includes the valleys of the tourist destinations: Madyan, Miandam, Bahrain and Kalam.

Indigenous knowledge also tells us that when the summer rain in Swat falls in pockets, there will be no imminent floods except a few cases of flash floods in the gorges which get more of the deluge. I can say from experience that that is true, and rain in Swat usually does fall only in pockets – in some areas, it is intense, while others remain dry.

However, exactly five years back – on July 27, 28 and 29 in the year of 2010 – it wasn't so.

At that time, the entire valley experienced an almost uniform deluge with the same intensity from Landakey to the hills of Kalam and Utror.

Read on: Torrential rain sets alarm bells ringing in KP low lying areas

It was a very wet evening of July 27, 2010. I was at the home of a close friend in Bahrain, Swat. Cellular signals were still functioning, and so was the power transmission, because of the grid station near Madyan. By that evening, it had been raining for a total of 15 hours, and the tributaries of the Swat River were already swelling. The bridges over these streams were still intact, but had begun to be shaken up by the powerful outflow beneath them.

It was by late evening when I started getting frantic calls, screaming, “Kalam has drowned”. That the Swat-River beyond Kalam had flooded was an obvious sign that the torrent would soon engulf all and everything downstream; villages, bridges, roads, land and bazaars.

There was no forewarning of the floods in Swat, as the disaster management mechanism was virtually defunct then. It was so after the ‘rehabilitation’ of the damage done by the 2005 earthquake which had ravaged AJK, Islamabad and larger areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Desperately, I tried to text and call friends in Islamabad and other cities. By then, the electrical infrastructure in the flood-hit areas too had gone down. My good friends in Islamabad then connected me to the US-based Urdu radio, which was perhaps the greatest source of both information and entertainment during the entertainment-starved years prior to the floods, during the high days of the Taliban in Swat.

The live conversation on the radio helped inform many locals in Swat-Kohistan about the havoc the floods were playing with us all.

The torrent grew more ferocious with the gushing of tributaries Mankiyal, Kamal, Gurnaal, Daral and Ulaal. It washed away the villages of Mankiyal, Kedam, Bahrain, Madyan, Damana, Qandeel and Piya in Swat-Kohistan; along with damaging the road from Fatepur to Utror – a 70 kilometre long road.

Hundreds of suspension and other bridges were left completely dismembered. Only a single bridge near the Ayeen Village miraculously survived; it was the main means of crossing the Swat River in the entire region.

For two months, I was stranded at a friend’s house, because my own house was on the other side of the river.

Those were agonising days for the people of Swat. Other similar torrents in the Panjkora River, Chitral River, Kandhiya River et al went downstream, disrupting the plains of Charsadda, Nowshera right down to Punjab and Sindh.

Villagers cross the Swat River on a makeshift bridge in Kalam, in Nov 2010. —AP
Villagers cross the Swat River on a makeshift bridge in Kalam, in Nov 2010. —AP

This year, a similar torrent is building up in the Chitral River, but one hopes that the other rivers, tributaries of Kabul and Indus River, will not follow suit.

To hear about ‘dagger floods’ – floods in hilly areas come like a ‘dagger’ cutting lands, hills and whatever comes in its way – is one thing, but to actually experience it is distressing beyond words. I saw how multi-storey structures fell. I witnessed how the beautiful mosque in Bahrain known as the Rock Mosque fell. I saw how gushing rivers wrestled at confluences.

Also see: Chenab, Kabul, Swat rivers in low to medium flood

It is now exactly five years since the severe deluge in Swat.

Many parts of Swat and especially the beautiful Swat-Kohistan section have still not been fully restored. Had the Pakistan Army not been present in Swat at the time, we would still have been walking miles in search of food supplies.

In a period of four months, the army was able to make a jeep track from Fatepur to Kalam, in addition to the transport of food with the help of choppers. The US government also paid special attention to the rescue and relief work for the people of Swat.

Pakistan Army soldiers set up explosives to make an alternate road in Kalam, Nov 2010. —AP
Pakistan Army soldiers set up explosives to make an alternate road in Kalam, Nov 2010. —AP

A 24 kilometre-long portion of this road could only be reconstructed last year with the assistance of the Asian Development Bank, whereas the larger portion – from Bahrain to Kalam – is all still lying in rubble.

A total of 13 damaged schools were rebuilt just this year, with the support of the Swiss Development Cooperation. Similarly, a number of bridges were erected with the support of the UK department of international development (DFID).

Adhering to the common Pakistani practice of regarding the locals as ‘half citizens’, the Bahrain-Kalam road is repaired with mud prior to the summer onrush of tourists in the area, but afterwards, the locals are left in the lurch for the long and harsh winters. If the army didn't prevent the road from being blocked by avalanches in the winters, it would stay blocked for months on end. It is also the army which repairs the road in the summer.

Drivers are backed up on a damaged road to reach Mingora, Pakistan, from Kalam, in Pakistan's Swat Valley. —AP
Drivers are backed up on a damaged road to reach Mingora, Pakistan, from Kalam, in Pakistan's Swat Valley. —AP

Given the fabulous tourism potential of the valleys of Kalam and Bahrain, there must have been two roads to the area on both sides of the Swat River beyond the town of Madyan. But given the cruel urban-centred ‘development’ and the myriad callousness of the public offices, the prospects of such a project are bleak; and to demand that is living in a fool’s paradise even though Swat is a real ‘paradise’ to fools like me.