Skardu: Until recently, Ali lived in the mountains above Skardu with his family and his cattle. He and other shepherds lived contentedly amidst the verdant pastures, their cattle grazing freely about. But then a huge piece of glacier tumbled over from the mountain above their village, playing havoc with life and property.

“We were forced to leave our lands and migrate to the Skardu city and other safe places,” says Ali.

Changes in temperature in the wake of global warming has made the geo-glacio-hydrological hazard – where landslides, gravity, earthquake and rising temperature cause glaciers to move or shift downhill – a frequent occurrence in the cold and mountainous Gilgit Baltistan, threatening lives and livelihood of mountain communities in the region.

Such incidents usually happen during spring and early summers and a recent glaciel landslide at the “world’s highest battlefield”, Siachen killed about 150 Pakistani soldiers. In 2010, a landslide at the Attabad village in the Gojal valley of Gilgit Baltistan(GB) killed 20 people and turned the entire village into a lake, displacing 6000 people.

Ayesha Khan, an expert on glacier dynamics, told News Lens that recently about 500 lakes in Gilgit Baltistan had frozen over, turning into glaciers that could potentially threaten lives of people living in nearby settlements in the event of a glacier shift.

“About 50 of these glaciers are at highly instable and could break down any time, displacing thousands of people,” said Khan.

Spread over 72,496 square kilometres, GB is prone to hazards due to its hard geological formations, geographic location and young and fragile environment, says the Flood Contingency Plan of Gilgit Baltistan Disaster Management Authority (GBDMA) for 2017. “Alongside scattered settlements, poor accessibility, low quality design and construction, deforestation and lack of awareness, make the people of GilgitBaltistan (GB) most vulnerable to risks of natural hazards.”

In recent years, temperature change in the wake of climate change has emerged as a greater threat in terms of how it has affected entire communities due to glacial shifts and landslides. “The valley stations of Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) at Gilgit, Bunji, Skardu, Yasin and Gupis show an increase in the mean temperatures for the period 1980 to 2006,” says the GBDMA contingency plan. “The maximum increase of 0.440 C per decade has been observed during the winter months. Gupis had a dramatic increase in precipitation of 157mm per decade, which is a four-fold increase of mean precipitation from 1980 to 2006 (Steinbaur & Zeilder, 2008). Majority of glaciers in Karakorum Hindu Kush region are retreating fast. Thirty five destructive “Glacier Lake Outburst Floods” (GLOF) occurred in the Karakorum during the past two hundred years along and 34 glacial surges recorded in the Karakoram (Hewitt, 2007).”

Deputy Commissioner Skardu Captain Nadeem Nasir told News Lens that instable glaciers in the region could affect a million people, forcing them to flee their houses while endangering lives of many.

The Provincial Minister for Environment Haji Khan said Gilgit Baltistan was quite prone to natural disasters and little could be done to prevent natural disasters due to the geography of the place. “However, we are working on damage control and to make lives of people safe and secure. The GB Disaster Management Authority has been established to provide relief and protection to people in the wake of a disaster.”

However, local residents affected by glacier meltdowns expressed discontent with government’s measure to mitigate their situation. They said the disaster management authorities do not alert the communities vulnerable to disasters in time. Their main focus, said villagers, remains the plain areas rather than villages located in the mountains where, they say, more than 70 per cent of the region’s population lives.

People affected by glacier meltdowns in  Attabad and Balghar said  the government had only provided them a sack of wheat, 5 kg of sugar, 5 kg of rice, 1.5 litres of cooking oil and a tent. “After providing these basic necessities there is barely any follow-up from the government,” said Yousaf Hussain, a local resident. “The government has been of little help during times of disaster. It is usually the community and relatives that have to come to the aid of people. They government has never helped us with relocation.”

Local people also complain that most of disaster awareness and management seminars and workshops are organized in Skardu and Islamabad instead of disaster prone areas. “It raises the question whether the government organisations are choosing convenience over effectiveness,” said Hussain. “These seminars and workshops are conducted in big hotels and mostly in English, making them inaccessible to the ordinary people of GB.”

Former provincial minister planning Raja Azam Khan said to the government had formed the GB Disaster Management Authority to help protect the people in case of glacier meltdowns but all too often people ignore government warnings and relocate to safer places even when they are warned of an impending disaster.

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