The death toll from snowfall and rain-related incidents in Pakistan over the last three days rose to 82, with dozens more injured, officials said on Tuesday.
With rain and snowfall continuing in many parts of the country, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) said it is expecting an increase in the death and injury tolls.
The worst-hit was Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), where the death toll from incidents of snow-sliding stood at 61 according to the latest reports. Balochistan was also severely affected as heavy rains across the province claimed 20 lives, while leaving at least 11 others injured.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, taking to Twitter, said he had instructed the NDMA, military and federal ministers to provide assistance to the people of AJK on an emergency footing.
Azad Jammu and Kashmir
In Neelum Valley, the death toll in several incidents of snow-sliding rose to 59 as the bodies of victims were retrieved from beneath mounds of snow on Tuesday, said Fayyaz Ali Abbasi, a senior official in the AJK government. He added that another 53 persons were rescued alive in injured condition.
Around 80 per cent of the casualties had occurred in the hamlets of Bakwali and Seri in Surgan area of tehsil Sharda, he said.
Sharda is located some 137 kilometres northeast of Muzaffarabad and Surgan area stretches into the high altitude mountains from there. Bakwali and Seri are located around 8 and 10 kilometres, respectively, off the main Neelum valley road.
Witnesses said that the rescue operation was carried out by local residents, police and army personnel. Neelum Deputy Commissioner Raja Mehmood Shahid told Dawn that all but six bodies had been recovered by the rescuers. He added that army helicopters had also taken part in rescue and relief operation.
According to Shahid, at least 53 houses and 17 shops had been leveled by the avalanches, while 78 houses and a mosque were partially damaged. Apart from that, seven vehicles and three motorbikes had also been damaged, he added. “It’s a big disaster … a disaster that this area had not gone through at such a scale in over a decade,” he said.
AJK Legislative Assembly Speaker Shah Ghulam Qadir, who has returned from Neelum Valley, was in Islamabad on Tuesday to coordinate with the federal government authorities, including the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), to extend all possible assistance to the affected population.
Talking to Dawn from Islamabad, Qadir said that the rescue operation had almost been completed with the help of the army and civil administration but the next and real challenge was the relief operation, which too would be accomplished before Friday when another spell of heavy snowfall is expected.
Qadir’s electoral rival Mian Abdul Waheed, a former minister in the PPP government, stressed that since transportation of relief goods was not possible via the snow-capped link road to the affected hamlets, the government should engage helicopters.
“In order to keep the survivors alive, we have to rush essential supplies to them on a war footing,” he said. “This is not possible without employing helicopters,” he added.
Khalid Aziz, an official in the Neelum deputy commissioner’s office, told Dawn that around a dozen injured persons were airlifted from Bakwali to Sharda by an army helicopter that made four trips to the hamlet, using the ground of a local high school as a helipad.
The helicopter had also dropped relief goods there. However, it could not land in Seri village despite several attempts, he said, adding that rescuers were going to Seri on foot.
Khalid said that relief goods that had been sent from Muzaffarabad for the affected area were also stuck near Dawarian, some 24 kilometres ahead of district headquarters Athmuqam and 28 kilometres before Sharda, due to blockade of the main Neelum Valley road. Road-clearing machines had been employed from both sides to pave way for movement of vehicular traffic, he said.
Meanwhile, the spokesperson for Balochistan government, Liaquat Shahwani, said 20 people had lost their lives in the province in snowfall-related incidents. He added that Chief Minister Jam Kamal Khan was personally overseeing the relief work being conducted in the province.
"We are doing everything we can within the resources available to us," Shawani said while adding that work is being done to restore access to far-flung areas of Balochistan.
“Most of those who died were women and children,” said Mohammad Younus, an official with the provincial disaster management authority, adding that hundreds remained stranded.
Major thoroughfares in Balochistan, including Bolan Road, Khanozai Road and Quetta-Chaman Road have been closed for the time being, the statement said, adding that the most snowfall recorded in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was at Lowari Approach Road at a whopping 23 inches.
Mainly cold and dry weather is expected in most parts of the country tomorrow, with very cold in upper parts and north Balochistan, said the authority in its weekly outlook. Cloudy weather with light rain and snowfall over hills is expected in Gilgit Baltistan and Kashmir.
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a man was killed and three other persons injured, as several areas received heavy snowfall. At least nine houses were partially damaged, said the PDMA spokesperson.
He added that efforts were afoot to reopen blocked thoroughfares in Chitral and other districts, which had received the heaviest rainfall.
In Shangla district, several areas presented a picturesque view as they were layered under a carpet of up to six-feet snow. Other plain areas, including Bisham City and Karakoram Highway, received an inch of snowfall.
The snowfall also caused some mishaps as four houses were damaged as a result of avalanches in different areas of the district. At least three children were injured in one of the houses in Pir Abad area.
Meanwhile, routine life remained disrupted in much of the district on Tuesday as major arteries such as the Bisham-Swat, Alpuri-Puran and Karora-Chakesar roads were blocked while accidents were also reported due to the snow.
On Monday, avalanches, landslides and other rain-related incidents claimed at least 21 lives and left scores of others injured as most parts of the country remained in the grip of a strong westerly weather system that entered Balochistan in the early hours of Saturday morning.
Eleven of the nearly two dozen deaths were reported from Kashmir, seven from Punjab and three from Balochistan. Meanwhile, Punjab had recorded 14 deaths in rain-related incidents on Sunday.
In Chitral, the Lowai Top Road is still blocked due to continuous heavy snow fall, making the surrounding areas inaccessible to vehicular traffic.
Relief, Disaster and Civil Defence Secretary Syed Shahid Mohyiddin Qadri told Dawn that heavy snowfall and rains had blocked several arteries in high altitude areas.
"Neelum Valley Road, Leepa Valley Road, Chikar-Bagh Road, Bagh-Lasdana Road, Mehmood Galli-Abbaspur Road and Tain Dhalkot Road were all closed for traffic," he said.
The official advised people, particularly tourists, to avoid unnecessary travel in snowbound and landslide-prone areas during the prevailing weather conditions.