The high-altitude regions of Pakistan have experienced unprecedented snowfall spells this winter that shrouded the area in thick snow cover. What this means is tidings of catastrophic hydro-climatic events in the offing as the below-freezing temperatures surge with the commencement of a warm spring followed by a hot summer. As the deposited thick snow blanket thaws, it might trigger some severe catastrophic events in the coming months.
Normally snowfall in these regions begins from mid-November stretching beyond mid-January. However, in recent years, a clear shift in the precipitation intensity and duration has been observed in general across Pakistan and particularly in Gilgit-Baltistan. This variability in precipitation has greatly affected the already vulnerable lives of people living in these fragile environments by augmenting risk arising from potential hydro-geo-meteorological hazards.
The high accumulation of snow and extended below freezing temperatures is quite an unusual anomaly for some parts of the region. For instance, Gilgit city where one hardly expects snowfall remained covered in a white blanket of snow for many a days. Similarly, the adjoining areas such as Astore, Hunza, Ghizer, and whole Baltistan region have received voluminous snowfall compared to the past many years. This drastic change in the precipitation amount and in such short duration will provide perfect ingredients to trigger events like flash floods, avalanches, and land sliding in the coming months as temperatures rise consequently leading to road obstruction, infrastructure damage, food shortages, suspension of transport and communication, and related issues. On the other hand, the recent formation of a glacial lake in Hassanabad Hunza resulting from glacier expansion is posing a serious threat to the local inhabitants. According to various sources the Shishper glacier which is surging at an alarming rate and has already destroyed some of the existing infrastructure i.e. a powerhouse and water channels in its path and threatening the downstream human settlements in addition to a crucial proportion of Karakoram Highway. Similar cases were also observed last year in Imit village which was hit by a GLOF event, resulting in the destruction of more than 35 houses and disconnecting the whole valley from other parts, creating food shortages and communication emergencies in the Ishkoman valley. Yet timely evacuation by the community emergency response team prevented human casualties.
The recent climatic anomaly in the region has increased the susceptibility of locals and increased the probability of natural hazards in the region. A boom in tourist influx to the region, and eminent status of Gilgit-Baltistan as a critical linkage between Pakistan and China for trade and commerce means more human life at risk and more infrastructure vulnerable. This makes emergency preparedness imperative to ensure human safety and to keep the wheel of economic progress running.
Therefore, the current government, including federal and Gilgit-Baltistan along with other agencies and organizations should step up their emergency preparedness for any future unfortunate happening in the coming months. The steps could be taken to fully engage and support the local communities vulnerable to such disasters. Furthermore, the government should ensure the provision of basic commodities and encourage the locals to store food and other essentials for a prolonged period. Though natural disasters cannot be prevented but advance planning and coordination among the concerned authorities other stakeholders and communities will ensure reduced risks and enhanced resilience. An emergency planned for is an emergency averted.
The Writer is a Research Student at the University of the West of Scotland