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Chitral at high risk of disaster

July 23, 2017
The people of Mastuj village striving to contain the flood water from inundating the road. — Dawn
The people of Mastuj village striving to contain the flood water from inundating the road. — Dawn

With the unique topography making it highly vulnerable to natural disasters all through the year, Chitral district’s elevations range from 3,600 feet above the sea level in the southern Arandu valley to 12,121 feet above the sea level in the northernmost area of Baroghil valley.

Spread over around 400km, the district covers one-fifth of the total area of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa i.e. 15,000 square kilometers. It has more than 5,000 glaciers flanked by the 100-plus peaks of Hindu Kush chain of mountains with an altitude of over 5,000 meters.

It is at risk of many natural hazards from flash floods to glacial lake outburst floods to avalanches to landslides. The frequency of natural calamities in the area has increased manifold during the last 10 years.

Many villages have been wiped out or damaged by floods during the period. Among them are the villages of Sonoghur, Brep, Reshun, Booni Gol, Shoghor, Zhitoor Garam Chashma, Washich, Bumburate, Muzhgol, Phargam and Orsoon.

The frequency of the GLOF has increased many times over the period and thus, threatening the existence of a number of villages across the valley.

The villages of Reshun, Booni Gol, Sonoghur, Golen, Gohkir, Brep and Yarkhun face that threat like a sword of Damocles as 604 households have been washed away during the period rendering the people homeless.

As showed in a National Disaster Management Authority report, the number of local residents at the high risk of natural hazards is 227,321 and that of the 20 union councils of the district, no union council has been free from disaster risk.

The worst type of natural hazards hitting the valley occurred in the summer of 2015 when the flash floods wreaked havoc in 23 of the 36 sub-valleys of Chitral for a month. As the calamity was unprecedented, different parts of the district remained cut off from each other for more than three weeks, while the families rendered homeless totaled 2,134.

According to the Provincial Disaster Management Authority, the Rs15 billion worth of damage was caused to infrastructure, including roads, jeepable and pedestrian bridges, drinking water supply schemes, irrigation channels, schools, hospitals and food godowns.

The frequent number of natural disasters in different forms in the recent years has made the government and non-governmental organisations and local communities feel the intense need for making the people resilient on one hand and making preparations to mitigate the sufferings caused by disasters on the other.

After the 2015 calamity, many NGOs sent in food and non-food items and medicines in large quantity. However, one such organisation came forward to prepare the vulnerable people for the next disaster.

Abdul Ghafar, the head of a local support organisation at union council level, said the NGOs virtually made the calamity-hit people addicted to beggary as they heaped both food and non-food items in their tents.

He added that he didn’t come across a single organisation, which made the people of the vulnerable areas resilient and prepared to cope with the situation in future.

Mr Ghafar said resilience and preparedness were more important than the mound of payments and gifts showered on the affected people after the occurrence of disasters.

“Saving lives is the most important thing to do in calamities. This can happen only through preparedness.

However, the NDMA and PDMA seem to be totally unaware of its need as they have yet to launch any programme of preparedness on grassroots level,” he insisted.

The organisation’s head said although the district had put in place district disaster management plan many years ago with the financial assistance of some foreign donors, it had yet to be implemented through the involvement of the local population in the exercise to make them resilient.

Saving lives is the most important thing to do in calamities. This can happen only through preparedness, says Abdul Ghafar, head of a local support organisation

He said preparedness had two essential components consisting of imparting training to the village folk, both male and female, and enlisting volunteers thereby to respond on emergency basis.

“The second component is that stockpiles of both food and non-food items and medicines should be ensured at village level. Due to the vastness and mountainous topography of the area, no relief items can be transported and delivered to the calamity-affected areas from the district headquarters.

The government has no arrangements for keeping stockpiles at union council level, which should be done away with,” he said.

District nazim Maghfirat Shah acknowledged that there was no consistency in the approach to the natural disaster management in different tiers of the government.

He said all efforts for public awareness and training to respond to disasters should begin at grassroots level.

“Different organisations, both government and non-governmental, hold one-day seminar or workshop, which is a futile practice unless it is not held in the village level,” he said, adding that during his first tenure in office from 2005 to 2010, he had prepared the district disaster management plan but it existed on paper only though it carried a detailed programme for each eventuality.

He said once the provincial government strengthened the district governments financially, he would ensure putting it into action word by word.

“In such circumstances, the emergency department of the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, an organ of the Aga Khan Development Network, came as a ray of hope for the disaster-prone village. It has trained over 36,000 local community members as a first responder with the provision of over 90 stockpiles to effectively respond to disasters,” he said.

Regional head of the organisation Amir Mohammad said the frequency of natural disasters over the years had made the communities well awakened to the situation, while his organisation had done a great job in reaching the grassroots level for preparedness.

Published in Dawn, July 23rd, 2017