Tue. Jun 25th, 2019

Preparedness beyond Prayers:

Eyewitness account of the Passu GLOF

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Noor Muhammad

 

The Shimshal River had suddenly changed its winter color. It was greenish – blue the day before but we saw it acquiring dark muddy colors and, of course, we all were afraid. Then we heard that a glacier in Passu had burst and flooded the village. Naturally we all were anxious as what to do. We hired a vehicle and reached Passu, with our dear cameras. We saw the roaring water of glacier increasingly approaching the Karakuram Highway. We went up to the glacial lake located at the bottom of Passu glacier. Black water was gushing out of the chest of Passu glacier; fear and apprehension written on all faces.

To our surprise the lake was frozen. We could not see major cracks in the ice that capped the huge lake, either. The water was mixing into the lake and then coming out smoothly, making no noise. But as it left the mouth of Passu Lake, its voice, speed and impact increased. A large amount of water was coming out of the chest of Passu glacier, mixing with water of the Passu lake and then heading towards river Shimshal. En – route it threatened Passu Village, a Chinese made bridge and the Karakuram Highway. We photographed the lake, the glacial outburst and the damaging impact on the land surrounding that flooded torrent. Night fell as we reached back to KKH. A large number of people had gathered on the spot and where moving this way or the other way, looking at the flow of water.

Suddenly the water changed its course and went closer to an office building constructed near the Chinese bridge. In no time we saw the office collapsing and then being carried away. At this point the people became even more apprehensive. They could imagine, probably, the village being destroyed, God forbids. We then saw the “Tehsildar” and “Thanedar” approaching the flood site. Along with them were officials of the Ismaili council. They surveyed the site, and volunteers of FOCUS – Disaster Management Team, were summoned. The SHO said, “Khuda ki qasam meray paas sirf do – teen sipahi hay”. He was assured that volunteers, scouts and trained members of FOCUS were on their way and he did not need to worry. So he did not worry and left the scene. By the way he did talk to someone over a wireless phone while he was there.

Again the flood changed its course dangerously and, this time, we thought it would drown parts of the KKH. Luckily it did not. Nearby buildings were vacated in the mean time. Darkness climbed down the mountains of Passu wrapping the valley in black. We, then, could see a large number of people coming to Passu from Ghulkin, Hussaini and Gulmit. They came and, they saw.

We all were helpless in front of the disruptive might exhibited by the glacial outburst. Officials of FOCUS had also come, bringing with them whatever equipments they had stored to combat natural calamities. Everybody could see that the sheer thundering voice of the flood was overpowering our ‘preparedness’. A few Tarpaulin Tents can not combat the shivering cold of Passu, or elsewhere in the northern areas.

I took the opportunity to visit the village and see the situation there. Needless to say, the settled village is located at some distance from the flood site. I wanted to meet a relative whose house lies at the fringe of the village. However, I was stopped from going to their house. I was told about a possibility that water might reach that region. I went to the Jamat – Khana (Prayer hall – cum – Community Center), on learning that people had gathered there. I met many people, including my relatives and found all of them terribly afraid of the calamity. Most of them cursed ‘disunity’ in the village for this calamity. Some said, “disharmony has shown us this day”. I may or may not have agreed with them but kept my silence.

Then all the volunteers, who had come with the aim of helping their brethren in the time of need, were also gathered in a meeting hall. We all stood, hands folded, in prayers. We prayed to God Almighty for “Mushkil Aasaan”. I salute the Passu community for not forgetting the golden tradition of Tajik hospitality. We all were offered Tea, Paratha and Meska (butter). How could I have resisted the temptation despite of the alarming situation at hand?

It was resolved during speeches and discussions that not all of us were needed. Let me remind you that around three to four hundred people had gathered in Passu from the neighboring villages to offer a helping hand, if needed. We all were thanked in the nicest terms and told to go back to our villages and inform our people that situation was under control and we needed not to worry. As if the prayers had been heard it was said that water was receding. So we returned. A selected number of trained people, however, from each village were told to stay for the night in Passu. In the mean time people from Khyber, Ghalapan and Moorkhoon also reached Passu.

I had to return to the fear gripped Karachi, next day (i.e. 7th January, 2007) so I bed farewell to Passu and returned along with others.

Thanks to Google Earth we, now, know how dangerous our valleys actually are. The realization was cemented by whatever I saw and felt during this close brush with reality. People say that similar lake bursts have already taken place in the past in Passu. They can remember their parents talking about it. But we have to ask ourselves this crucial question, are we prepared to face similar, or worst, situations? Would wearing a FOCUS shirt and cap enable us to combat Mother Nature? Are only prayers needed to weave shields of protection around our villages? Can’t we, still, move beyond prayers and prepare ourselves to combat the impact of global climate changes?

What does the future hold for our stranded villages, spread along the Hunza River, covered from all sides by glaciers? Do we need to think about the issue?

4 thoughts on “Preparedness beyond Prayers:

  1. Well appreciated Noor for this nice account of the event.

    True there are many lessons that we might draw from this ‘natural simulation’ and ‘disaster call’ to test our state of ‘preparedness’ .

    However we also need to understand the current resources available with us, besides the ‘caps and ‘shirts’.

    In disaster management we preach and it is proven worldwide that the ‘first responders’ are the local communities. The response agencies of the government or NGOs being ‘away’ from the scene will only be able to respond after the dust has settled.

    For this very reason, Focus Humanitarian Assistance Pakistan, which is a disaster management arm of the National Council and an affiliate of AKDN, started Village Readiness program, which provides awareness about natural and man-made hazards to villagers, gives the local volunteers basic training in Search and Rescue, disaster logistics, fire fighting and First Aid. At the Local Council level a basic stockplie is maintained comprising of non-food items, like tents, blankets, ropes, shovels, First Aid Box etc., so that in time of immediate emergency the community leaders are able to mobilize. The Village Emergency Response Teams (VERTs) at village levels and Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs) have been formed under the leadership of the Local Councils to mobilize these resources locally.

    The local community leaders along with the local administration with technical support from the local CERT team assesses the situation and if they feel they situation is out of their control, they immediately contact the District Administration, the recently formed government’s Northern Areas Disaster Management Authority (NADMA), the Home Secretary acts as Director General, and also inform/ask the Regional Council and Focus Office to mobilize support.

    All disasters could not be predicated, nor it can be prevented. However through preparedness and mitigation measures we may reduce the risk to lives and property.

    Yes I agree that ‘prayers’ are important tools that can console those affected or reduce panic in an hour of trial and could serve as a binding, cohesive force to unite people and retool their resources to do more.

    However, in order to reduce risks and save lives we need other resources and tools like risk mapping, land-use planning to avoid construction in fragile and risky zones, awareness raising, training, equipment and trained volunteers.

    After every disaster or disaster response there is a need to relook at the disaster risk reduction plans, the way we responded to it and identify gaps, and be prepared for the worst.

    Amin Beg

  2. Respected Amin Beg

    Thanks for providing information about the management mechanism that has been developed by FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance. We hope that this will provide ample information to our readers about our “prepardeness beyond prayers”.

    Regards

    Noor

  3. Dear Amin & Noor

    I read the narrative of the situation, and summery of the actual situation and Amin’s response regarding the mechanism been established by FOCUS in the region. I’d like to add on some background information with which FOCUS really focused at its early stages. GLOF of Shimshal was one of the top priority hazard areas, which used to be monitored by FOCUS twice a year till 2002 by aerial sorties. In addition to Community Based Disaster Risk Management (CBDRM) initiatives (already Amin Bhai elaborated the chronology of it) FOCUS tried its best efforts to establish an early warning system by installing VHF and HF Radio communication down stream of Shimshal valley but without any success due to the army and civil bureaucracy. FOCUS couldn’t get required frequency at that time. Now I think situation is changed post 2005 earthquake. Now we can see Disaster Risk Reduction is no more an irrelevant subject in Pakistan. Through this note I would suggest that FOCUS ( I hope Amin Bhai is still Board Member) should take up this early warning system initiative again. Sudden onset disasters do not provide enough space to mobilize the recourses available under the CBDRM approach. Early warning systems coupled with safe haven approach can help communities to save their lives in case of GLOF or other sudden onset disasters in the areas where our communities live. Of course continuous drills are a must!!!

    Jalal

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