MUST we punish the people of Murree, the Galiyat and the entire northern belt of the country for receiving snowfall? The snowfall in Murree has already cost human lives and brought the local economy to a screeching halt. The inquiry committee set up by the Punjab government has proposed some administrative measures that will only restrict citizens’ mobility and stifle the nascent tourist industry. The government’s administrative measures are costing the local economy dearly. In this tragedy lies an opportunity to pursue climate-smart ecotourism in the country’s fast-degrading mountain ecology.
Clearing snow is a simple municipal function. Making Murree a district will not make the problem go away, but the timely use of road salt will. Millions of kilometres are routinely cleaned everyday by local governments in many parts of the world; they only maintain a fleet of snowplough trucks, snow-blowers, front-end loaders and dump trucks. Often these are the same trucks, tractors and road-graders used in summer for road maintenance. They take a regular dump truck and fix a snowplough blade in front. This is essentially a private sector function that, given the opportunity, local contractors and service providers can perform from Ghora and Ghika Gali in Punjab to the Khunjerab Pass in Gilgit-Baltistan on the China-Pakistan border.
Pakistan had embarked on a reform agenda for disaster preparedness after the 2005 earthquake and established Erra, followed by the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), supported by provincial set-ups or PDMAs. The district disaster management authorities (DDMA), that were to be set up under the act exist only in official files. They have been notified but not resourced.
Environmental sustainability rests in bottom-up planning. At the union council level, three to four squads of seven to 14 trained locals can help constitute a force of 20 to 50 workers in a UC to clear all major arteries. A normal size tehsil, would probably need twice as many staff headed by a local government officer. Under the NDMA Act, it is the duty of DDMAs to ensure early warning of any disaster and make plans to deal with it. But the ground reality is that instead of resourcing DDMAs, the national and provincial authorities have, since the 18th Amendment, competed with each other for resources to develop Multi-hazard Vulnerability and Risk Assessments. No MRVA has been developed for Murree.
Pakistan’s mountain areas deserve integrated area development planning.
Instead of recognising this grand failure, the inquiry committee has investigated a dozen top-heavy institutions to determine their responsibility in the tragedy: the police, forestry, highways and C&W departments, in addition to FWO, IESCO, NHA, Rescue 1122, NDMA, PDMA, the army and the Provincial Crisis Management and Control Centre. None of them were unambiguously held responsible! The committee ended up suspending some traffic police, forest and district-level emergency officers. By reviewing their compliance with SOPs developed decades ago as an added set of responsibilities for the commissioners, the inquiry committee has effectively buried the reform agenda of empowering local communities to serve as the first line of defence against climate-induced and other disasters.
The dysfunctionality of the reform agenda is glaring: the Galiyat Development Authority that was set up by the KP government claims a 24/7 snow removal centre but has no coordination with the hill station; Rescue 1122 has not been equipped for the mountain areas; the meteorological department has not upgraded or standardised its warning systems for snowstorms and heatwaves; the Environment Protection Agency has not developed guidelines for extreme weather events. Equally important, adaptation plans still have to be developed for the mountain ecology. In the meanwhile, unplanned tourism has put enormous stress in several areas on local land use which has resulted in soil erosion, natural habitat loss and pressure on endangered species. Negative environmental impacts are increasing to include the depletion of local natural resources, air and water pollution and waste management issues. The municipal and tourism development plans for them have yet to be developed to meet the growing demand from domestic tourism that has been enabled by an increasing web of motorways substantially reducing travel time for motorists.
Murree has become a choke point as other snowy areas have not been developed. Its unplanned and unsafe multistoried buildings, hotels and resorts are hazardous and cannot serve as models for neighbouring tourist destinations. The promotion of skiing resorts or ice hockey needs to be supported by resourcing newly formed local governments at the district level and UCs 46, 59 and 15 respectively in Abbottabad, Mansehra and Murree to have infrastructure that is safe and environment-friendly.
Tourism is weather-dependent and by extension, climate-dependent. Pakistan’s mountain areas are exposed to multiple hazards and climatic changes have begun to increase this exposure. Snowstorms, landslides, avalanches and rockfalls are becoming more common and more intense, threatening livelihoods and infrastructure. The patterns of annual rainfall and snowfall and the duration and timing of snowy days are changing. The closure or cancellation of tourism destinations as a result of climate not only affects local economies, but also the attractiveness of destinations and reduces their economic opportunities.
The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change has predicted that mountain ecosystems will change profoundly as glaciers melt. This problem will only get worse as temperatures continue to rise. Pakistan already has more than 7,000 glaciers out of which an alarming 3,044 have become glacial lakes. Many others have been marked as a potential risk due to rising temperatures. As they melt, they can burst their banks and flood downstream. This phenomenon is called glacial lake outburst flood and results in changed periods of water flow, having a major impact on water availability for agriculture or hydropower. The recently formed Attabad Lake has already become a tourist destination as an example of disaster-induced tourism.
Pakistan’s mountain areas deserve integrated area development planning. The transition to climate-resilient development in mountain areas will create opportunities for sustainable tourism, offering immediate development opportunities for Pakistan’s mountainous areas. The government can help ensure that climate opportunities are captured by reviewing existing policies and plans and focusing on long-term value rather than making hollow claims. Local governments that are being elected now can play a pivotal role in bringing about change that can include managing transition to a climate-smart local economy supported by ecotourism.
The writer is an expert on climate change and development.
Published in Dawn, January 30th, 2022