by Aziz Ali Dad
Attabad disaster of last January was the tip of the iceberg. There are numerous locations in Gilgit-Baltistan which for ages have remained exposed to natural disasters. The foremost question that arises is: why local communities recreate risks? To understand this phenomenon it is important to understand the interface among the social factors that contributes to the creation and recreation of risks in the particular geographical setting of Gilgit-Baltistan.
In their interaction with local environment, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been able to acquire knowledge that was embedded in the geography. It is this knowledge which enabled local communities to survive in the harshest climate and terrain of the world with meager resources. The indigenous knowledge pervades every sphere of life in the traditional society. Isolated from knowledge of the outside world, the inhabitants had to rely on indigenous knowledge, gained through experience, and perfected through trial and error.
This scribe visited Ghich village in district Ghizer last year. This village faced death and destruction in a flash flood in the summer of 2006. The old people shared their knowledge about dealing with an approaching flood, landslides, formation of artificial lakes, relocation of settlements etc. Farzand Shah, a shepherd, said ‘there was no system to transfer that knowledge to the new generation.’ The local community was more vulnerable because it neither had traditional knowledge nor modern technology.
Another factor that contributes to the creation and recreation of risk is the complex interplay of traditional and modern settlements. Traditionally, there was no system of exchange of land for money. The king created new settlements to adjust the growing population and generate more lagan (levy) for the treasury. The king used to distribute the best land to powerful people. Hence, traditionally powerful segments of society owned the safe lands and the weaker segments lived in areas exposed to natural hazards.
The traditional pattern of land distribution has consolidated the position of people vis-à-vis natural disasters. The fields, gardens, orchards and houses destroyed in the flood of village Damas in Ghizer district belonged to common people. It can be safely assumed that the complex interplay of patterns of society and its power structure placed some places and people in an insecure position than others which was one of the factors that contributed to building and rebuilding of risks.
With the opening of the KKH and developments in communication, the far-flung areas of Gilgit-Baltistan have been exposed to exogenous values, market forces and lifestyles for the last twenty five years. As a result local customs are fading away, social relations are disrupted and everything indigenous is being replaced by something new. In other words the society has experienced a ‘future shock’ at the cultural and structural level. A villager Jani Baig encapsulates this situation in the following words ‘In the days of yore we had to feed only our body. Now the desires and demands are too many for village resources to fulfill.’
Structurally the traditional way was effective in maintaining balance between individual needs and scarce resources by developing a social system and economy in which individual interest was inseparable from that of the community. Now the individual has the space to pursue his interests at the expense of the larger community.
In the absence of resources and capacities communities have no choice but to maximize utilization of local resources by contravening traditional barriers that managed resources. In such a situation the survival strategy is short term benefits at the cost of deforestation, excessive grazing, choking of rivers and streams – activities that directly and indirectly contribute to creation and recreation of risks.
Most of the old settlements in Gilgit-Baltistan contain houses concentrated in the ‘kot’ or fort settlement as a safeguard against threats from nature as well as human beings. The settlement around the fort is safe from rock falling, avalanche, flood and human invasion. This pattern is visible across Gilgit-Baltistan. For example, Baltit, Altit, Shigar and Kharpucho forts.
With the passage of time growing populations started to spread from the nucleus settlements of the fort to open areas defying the barrier between human settlement and nature. Cultural ethos also plays a crucial role in rebuilding of risks.
The cumulative result of the interface between multiple factors manifests in the shape of disasters. To tackle natural disaster it is important to take into consideration the multiplicity of social, economic, political and cultural factors.
Incorporation of multiple social dimensions in a disaster risk reduction strategy will not only make it holistic but also prove conducive in making it successful. Natural disasters are now inextricably linked with society. If we try to treat the consequences in isolation then we are recreating another disaster at policy level, whose effect may trickle down in the shape of natural catastrophes.
The writer is associated with Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO), Islamabad. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org