A temporary wooden pedestrian bridge helps locals cross the river at Hassanabad in Hunza after a GLOF washed away the original bridge along with houses and buildings
A temporary wooden pedestrian bridge helps locals cross the river at Hassanabad in Hunza after a GLOF washed away the original bridge along with houses and buildings

Muhammad Abbas, 50, is living with his family in a tent set up in Sherabad in Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan. His house was washed away in the flood caused by a glacial lake outburst in Hassanabad on May 7.

“It was the hardest time of my life seeing my house being washed away in the flood and, when I turned to look at my children and wife, they were in a state of panic, their eyes full of tears,” says Abbas.

He is not the only one who witnessed his world crumble that day. His younger brothers, Muhammad Akbar and Shahid Abbas, and six other families are among the glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) affectees who have also been living in this tent village, collectively established by the administration and the Aga Khan Foundation.

Abbas is worried for the future of his family of five; they are unable to adjust in a single tent, which is their only protection for now against the harsh weather.

The Shisper glacial lake outburst flood earlier this month dramatically washed away not just houses but also a bridge in Hunza. It was just the latest of an increasing number of natural disasters in recent years in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. Are authorities prepared to deal with them?

A major bridge on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) at Hassanabad also collapsed and nine houses were destroyed and swept away by the GLOF on May 7. The local community claims that the rest of the 18 houses in the area have also visibly weakened, having developed cracks in their foundations, and are vulnerable to another similar disaster. The administration had the homes evacuated and moved the families to the tent village in Sherabad.

The glaciers of Shisper and Muchuhar had started melting in 2017, which climate scientists attribute to global warming. In 2018, both glaciers then started melting together and formed a lake after their water exit was blocked. The lake first burst in 2019 and then every consecutive year since but, last year, the flow of water had increased substantially.

The KKH, one of the most perilous highways, is blockaded in places by landslides every other day
The KKH, one of the most perilous highways, is blockaded in places by landslides every other day

“[T]he glacial lake size was 15 percent more than the recorded size for the past three years at the pre-outburst level of the lake,” the Remote Sensing Specialist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Dr Sher Mohammad, was quoted as saying in a report carried by The News.

Tariq Jameel, the spokesperson of the GLOF affectees committee in Sherabad, says that initially they were not aware that it was glacial lake. It was in 2020 that some experts identified it as one and began to make efforts to mitigate the expected disaster by holding meetings with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) as well as government officials.

According to Jameel, the support from the government and NGOs for the construction of water channels is what helped them reduce damages caused by the 2021 flood. But this year, the flow of water and intensity wreaked havoc.

“When we observed the water rising,” Abbas, who is a meter reader in a local electricity company, tells Eos, “all of us started to evacuate our homes, packing some essential items with us.” That night, the families in Sherabad spent the whole night awake in fear.

After last year’s flood, Jameel claims that 37 houses were declared vulnerable by the government. This May, nine of those houses were completely swept away by the raging waters.

After a week of road closures, the administration — with the help of the local community — set up a wooden pedestrian bridge for crossing the river. Meanwhile, the National Highway Authority (NHA) has commenced construction of a steel emergency bridge, in order to continue the smooth movement of traffic on the KKH.

History of landslides and flash floods

The camp set up in Sherabad for GLOF affectees
The camp set up in Sherabad for GLOF affectees

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit Baltistan have been experiencing various natural disasters — earthquakes, flash floods, landslides — for over a decade now. A surge in these natural catastrophes has not only caused heavy losses of lives, but a number of people have also been left disabled after being injured. After the 2010 flash floods, the incidence of landslides and flash floods has reportedly increased, in both winter and summer seasons.

In the 2010 floods, 1,700 people were killed and thousands affected. Similarly, in the 2015 earthquake, which had hit Shangla, Chitral, Swat and other areas, 290 people were killed. On July 19, 2016, a flash-flood in Shangla, Kohistan, Chitral and Swat caused massive destruction and killed 71 people. On July 7, 2019, a GLOF occurred in the remote area of the Golen valley in Chitral. With the continuing rains and floods throughout the month, around 40 people died and many structures were destroyed.

Speaking to Eos, the Deputy Commissioner Shangla, Ziaur Rehman, says that landslides, whether on the main Bisham-Swat road or link roads, have become a routine issue in the district of Shangla. “As it happens, after every second day, the roads get blocked,” he says.

Routine as it may be, each disaster that strikes haunts the local community for the rest of their days. The deputy commissioner recalls the heart-wrenching tragedy that occurred earlier this year. In January, a massive landslide knocked down a house at Kuza Alpuri, on the outskirts of Shangla district headquarters, killing a family of six, including three children. A week-long search operation for one child ended with the discovery of his body. The rest of his family had already died in the incident.

Abid Ali lost five family members and a friend of his father’s in the Kuza Alpuri incident. Recalling that day, he says, he was on the way to Islamabad when his cousin called him to return home without telling him about the landslide. When he reached Alpuri Chowk, the police were stopping vehicles from going ahead because of the landslide. That is how Ali got to know about it.

According to Ali, boulders had fallen on his house in the past too, before the major January landslide. Ali’s father had submitted an application to a sessions court in Alpuri for the protection of the houses in the area, “but neither the NHA [National Highway Authority] nor the government took action,” Ali tells Eos. He has been living on rent since the tragedy, while appearing in court for the case he has filed against the administration regarding its alleged negligence.

When asked about the application by the late Khurshid Ali, the deputy commissioner admits, “Yes, the district administration had received an application from the family before the tragic incident and that issue was taken up with the NHA too. But before the NHA could start work, the incident occurred.”

According to data provided by the NHA, 25 places from Thakot to Raikot in Diamer (GB) are prone to landslides. NHA data records 213 landslides on the KKH during 2019-20. During 2020-21, it reports 545 landslide incidents on the international route and, in 2021-22 so far, 484 landslides have been recorded. This shows an alarming increase in landslides with each passing year.

The KKH, built in 1966, is a major route in the north of Pakistan, which connects Pakistan with China at Khunjerab. However, this road — which leads from Dandai in Shangla in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to Raikot in Gilgit — is not only in bad condition but prone to landslides. During rains, it gets blocked at several points after landsliding, and it is perilous to travel on as the rocks seem to be hanging right over your head.

It is a fearsome journey, especially for first-time travellers. In November 2021, Sajjad Khan, a tourist, was stranded for three days in Kohistan Pattan due to a road blockade. He was on his return from Gilgit. “They were the most difficult days of my life,” he tells Eos, “spent in fear, on the road.”

A view of Kuza Alpura in Shangla where a landslide destroyed a house and killed six people in January | Photos by the writer
A view of Kuza Alpura in Shangla where a landslide destroyed a house and killed six people in January | Photos by the writer

“The KKH is not safe for travel during rains, particularly from Dandai to Raikot, because boulders fall on your vehicle and they can cause damage to life and your vehicle too,” the nature lover adds.

A local political activist, Malak Asad Khan, was travelling in March, towards the Upper Kohistan district headquarters for a meeting with colleagues. When they crossed Pattan Kayal in Lower Kohistan on the KKH, a boulder rolling down hit his vehicle. When Khan regained consciousness, he found himself in a hospital bed in Dassu, badly injured. His driver and friends were unhurt. However, his car was totally wrecked.

“Being locals of Kohistan and frequent travellers on it, we face multiple challenges due to blockades of road and it happens so often,” Khan says. “We also help and provide free food to passengers stuck on the KKH.”

Ghulam Abbas, deputy director NHA, tells Eos that the narrow KKH was built manually and in treacherous mountains, which is the reason why boulders regularly slide down to the road. He says boulders roll down nearly every day, and throughout the year in the identified landslide prone sites, the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) — the NHA’s contractor — clears the road for smooth traffic.

Early warning system

On April 29, 2022, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) issued a notification quoting the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) as saying that the temperature in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) was expected to remain 5-7°C higher than the norm for the next 5 to 6 days, creating a heatwave. The heatwave, in turn, was anticipated to enhance the melting rate of snow and ice, potentially triggering GLOFs and flash-floods in vulnerable areas of GB and KP. The KP Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), and the disaster management authorities in GB were “directed to remain vigilant and to take all precautionary measures” in light of the Shisper glacial lake reformation, and coordinate accordingly with the local administration and concerned departments.

This is usually the extent of an early warning system in these parts.

Administrative measures for better coordination provide cold comfort for the victims of Hassanabad at the moment. “We do not have any sort of clash with the government,” says Jameel in Sherabad. “We just want the government to at least conduct an assessment or study on glaciers in view of protecting the masses’ lives and their structures, fields and orchards.” He adds: “This would also benefit the government itself to avoid huge losses.”

Dr Farrukh Bashir, the director of the PMD in GB, says that, “After melting of the glacier and the formation of a glacial lake, the PMD team visited the site and briefed the administration, the GB government and federal authorities in 2017.” In 2020, he claims the PMD team started assessment and research and warned the government about the imminent threat. In the same year, the PMD installed an Automatic Weather System at the site of the glacial lake to learn about its movements.

Bashir says that they also created a WhatsApp group to keep the PDMA GB and Hunza’s local administration informed about the likelihood of a flood event and outburst of the lake, and posted updates when the lake started changing. He claims they first issued an alert of a likely outburst of the Shisper glacial lake on January 15 this year, and the last alert was sent out on May 6.

The GLOF affectees’ committee also demands that the government divert the flow of the lake and use it for hydropower projects; this would not only fulfil the local community’s electricity needs, but also generate revenue for the government.

Jameel shares that the local administration had, in fact, sent an assessment report of losses to the provincial government for quick relief and compensation but, he urges, the process needs to be expedited, in order to give prompt financial relief to the affectees.

Asma Baig, a young woman, is also living in a tent with her family at Sherabad. She misses her home too. But she knows there is no road that leads back to it. She tells Eos: “I don’t know about my future or my family’s but the government must address our problem and provide us permanent residences, so we can feel safe.”

Like Asma and Abbas, other affected families have been facing multiple challenges at the tent site, including shortage of drinking water, food, living space and protection from weather. Even though it is only the advent of summer, they are particularly worried about the advent of cold weather. They know how slow things sometimes move through government bureaucracy, and their fear is it will be a tough winter to survive if they are still living in tents.

The writer reports on human rights and social issues.

He tweets at @umar_shangla

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 29th, 2022

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