By Raheel Iqbal
Gilgit-Baltistan was formally known as Northern Areas. The region, covering 72,000 square kilometers, is known for its lofty mountain ranges, meadows, rivers and glaciers. The climate in the region varies in different parts; some are are cold even in summers, like parts of Skardu, Astore, and Nagar. In winter the regions are covered with heavy snow and the temperature drops below zero degree centigrade.
With extreme weather conditions in winter, living in the region becomes challenging for the masses. As the mercury tumbles several degrees below the freezing point, residents are forced to remain indoors. The winter season lasts for almost 6 months, from November to March. These months are very challenging, especially for the poor masses, who often do not have sufficient means of heating their houses.
Sensing the demand for firewood, the timber mafia raises its head, reducing supply and pushing the prices upward, to ripoff the consumers and make a few extra buck. Power supply is too limited and vulnerable to be relied on for heating houses. In fact the power department starts raiding houses to confiscated immersion rods and other appliances, as power cuts increase, sometimes lasting for up to 18 hours even in Gilgit, the region’s capital city.
Far-flung areas are even worst, many a time cut off from rest of the region due to road blockade caused by avalanches or heavy snowfall.
“With 10 to 12 feet snow outside, you feel like imprisoned in your area for 4 to 5 months”, said Ghulam Ullah, an official of the Forest Department belonging to the remote Minimarg area of District Astore.
During the harsh winters, residents of the remote villages and valleys even find it difficult to get fresh food for several months, as supply routes get blocked and the markets are empties by desperate consumers. Health issues increase manifolds because access to hospitals becomes highly difficult, or even impossible in some cases. Very rarely, patients are shifted in choppers.
In view of the harsh winters, many families temporarily migrate to other parts of the country. Schools remain closed for at least two months.
In short, all aspects of live are negatively affected by arrival of winter.
In view of all these challenges, it is imperative for the government of Gilgit-Baltistan and the federal government to stock supplies in remote villages, enhance health facilities and improve the energy sector, using wind and water, of which there’s no dearth in the region.