This year alone, four GLOFs instigated flash floods which swept away eight bridges
In the early 1900s, residents of Gilgit-Baltistan’s (G-B) Bagrote valley, around 40 kilometres from Gilgit city, patrolled their territory to guard it against Gohar Aman’s onslaughts. Aman was a ruthless ruler of what is now Ghizer district in G-B and a fierce opponent of Bagrote’s residents. Stories of Aman’s atrocities still find their way in everyday conversations.
Today, more than a century later, Bagrote’s people continue to patrol the area. Their adversary, though, is no longer a man. It is Mother Nature’s fury, triggered by climate change. Surrounded by 13 glaciers, the valley is inhabited by nearly 16,000 people. These residents live under a constant threat of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), a natural phenomenon that has resulted in substantial losses in various parts of the world over the years.
This year alone, four GLOFs instigated flash floods which swept away eight bridges, a hydel power project, dozens of water channels, standing crops and roads in Bagrote valley. Agriculture accounts for 15% of G-B’s production and such climatic catastrophes put a serious dent in the area’s economy.
“We are at risk of flash floods and the situation aggravates from June to October,” says Adil Shah, a local farmer. “There were so many flash floods this year. We were able to save our lives only because we were vigilant and adopted precautionary measures,” he adds, referring to the village hazard watch group (VHWG) formed by the Pakistan GLOF Project. The GLOF Project is working with GLOF-prone mountain communities in northern Pakistan to reduce risks from GLOFs and flash floods caused by melting snow.
At least 10 VHWGs were formed under the project, one in each village. The VHWG was equipped with the necessary equipment to alert locals in case of flash floods. Each group consists of around six men, most of them shepherds who spend their time on mountain peaks with their herds of livestock. They are provided cellphones and trained to use the devices, enabling them to communicate any possible threat to others.
“Though no loss of life occurred, the loss of property was immense. People have lost their livelihood,” laments Shah. “The role of VHWGs was critical. We are thankful to GLOF Project for that,” adds the farmer, who lost his brother to a flashflood in the valley two decades ago.
Another local farmer, Imtiaz Ali, says the village has been without electricity for the past month after a hydel power project was swept away in a flood.
The change in weather patterns has had a profound effect on farmers. “Till two decades ago, the ploughing season would start on March 21. It now begins in February,” shares Ali. “The date has now just become a ceremonial activity to reminisce.”
Dr Babar Khan of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says snow which usually fell on mountain peaks in November and December now comes a month or so later. “This delay means there is less time before the snow ultimately melts and triggers floods when the weather gets warmer around April.”
Pakistan GLOF Project has taken a number of precautionary measures to avert catastrophes in Bagrote valley. Special embankments called ‘gabion walls’ were constructed at six places along the ravines to neutralise the flow of water which has previously swept away homes and wreaked havoc.
“The technique proved instrumental in saving the population from disaster as at least four GLOFs occurred this year,” says Zahid Shah of GLOF Project, under which locals removed debris from four ravines with the help of excavators to help flood water pass uninterrupted. “Previously, nullahs were filled with boulders which obstructed the flow of water and changed its course towards villages.”
In the same vein, a ‘safe haven’ has been prepared for villagers in case of any impending doom. The facility is equipped with necessary items including medicines, tents, edibles and toilets. A group of at least 33 men and women have also been trained in risk reduction techniques. Moreover, an endowment fund of Rs2,200,000 has been created to help communities prevent disasters or mitigate losses. Local communities contributed Rs200,000 to this fund.
In addition to these measures, the meteorological department has set up two weather stations at an altitude of 4,100 metres to collect data from satellites. “According to the data compiled in 2013, there are 36 lakes close to glaciers. And if these lakes overflow and trigger floods, they are bound to wreck havoc with the population downstream,” warns Shah. “The entire region is mountainous like Bagrote, posing a continuous risk of flash floods,” he says. “The only way out of this is to replicate the programme in other areas as well.”
Shabbir Mir is a Gilgit-based reporter for The Express Tribune. He tweets @ShabbirMir
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 25th, 2015.