Residents of AJK’s Gurez valley hit hard by prolonged winters

Published April 8, 2024
Three men try to carve out a pedestrian track somewhere near Phullawai village of Gurez sub valley.
Three men try to carve out a pedestrian track somewhere near Phullawai village of Gurez sub valley.

Mohammad Arshad is a local councillor in Saonar ward in the upper belt of Azad Jammu and Kashmir’s picturesque Neelum valley – one of the most attractive tourist destinations located northeast of state capital Muzaffarabad.

In most parts of the lower belt of the valley, River Neelum serves as the Line of Control (LoC). However, beyond Lawat, the valley straddles the river up to the last village of Taobutt.

The 45-kilometre-long-stretch between Kel and Taobutt is known as Gurez sub-valley. Famous villages between Kel and Taobutt are Machal, Jandar Seri, Janwai, Phullawai, Marnat, Saonar, Sardari, Halmat, Shundas, Nikrun and Kareemabad. Gurez sub-valley is hit hard by harsh winters as the main road leading through it is mostly engulfed by snow and landslides for about six months.

Saonar, from where Mr Arshad comes from, comprises two hamlets – Saonar Bala (upper) and Saonar Paen (lower) – which lie between 2300-2400 metres above sea level on the left bank of River Neelum. These hamlets are accessed by a suspension bridge from the main Neelum valley road where a small bazaar also houses Mr Arshad’s grocery shop.

Noor Ahmed, 80, collects firewood to be taken inside his nearby house in Saonar Bala village of Gurez sub valley.
Noor Ahmed, 80, collects firewood to be taken inside his nearby house in Saonar Bala village of Gurez sub valley.

“Climate change has drastically affected the weather pattern of our area, dragging rainy and snowy spells in times which would otherwise herald the advent of spring,” he tells Dawn.

The last heavy snowfall was witnessed in the upper reaches of Neelum valley in March which has further delayed the spring season, thus multiplying the worries of villagers in the high-altitude areas, he says.

Of the month of March, he said: “No sooner had we removed piles of snow from our rooftops than another spell of snowfall greeted us to perpetuate our miseries.”

A man with a bag of edibles on his back trudges through a pedestrian track towards his homein Kel Seri village of Neelum valley.
A man with a bag of edibles on his back trudges through a pedestrian track towards his homein Kel Seri village of Neelum valley.

According to Mr Arshad, normally every year flowers start blossoming and vegetation becomes gradually visible from the middle of March. “But this year, as yet there are no signs of flowers, it seems they will blossom somewhere in the third week of April, thanks to irregular rain and snowfall patterns.”

Mr Arshad said timely snowfall, that is in November and December, would maintain the moisture in their fields throughout the summers. However, due to the off-season rains and snow the fields had not deeply absorbed moisture, he said, adding this would mean low yield of crops.

Goats and a lamb owned by a Saonar resident eat dried hay in the open.
Goats and a lamb owned by a Saonar resident eat dried hay in the open.

According to him, the most depressing problem for the Gurez sub-valley inmates is the closure of the main road during the six months of winter, due to which many patients lose lives for being unable to reach downstream health facilities in time.

“It’s the villagers themselves who have to spade away snow to create a pedestrian’s track to be able to ferry their sick to the hospital on their shoulders.”

He stressed that the government should address this issue on a scientific basis.

A man shovels off snow from his watermill in Halmat village of Gurez sub valley. — Photos by the writer
A man shovels off snow from his watermill in Halmat village of Gurez sub valley. — Photos by the writer

“The machinery for the purpose should be made available along the vulnerable areas round the clock - in working condition and with filled in fuel tanks - to leave no room for the concerned department to shirk its duty in this regard.”

Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2024

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