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25 Sep 2020 | Pakistan

Climate change and the increasing risk of hazards in Chitral, Pakistan

Ghulam Rasul, Mandira Singh Shrestha, Sher Muhammad, Muhammad Ismail & Dr Abid Hussain

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Sentil-2 satellite images just before the flood (left) and after (right)

Ghulam Rasul, Sher Muhammad, Abid Hussain, Muhammad Ismail & Mandira Singh Shrestha

Mud and debris left behind by a flash flood in Yarkhoon Lusht
Mud and debris left behind by a flash flood in Yarkhoon Lusht, a village in Upper Chitral. (Photo: Zahir Uddin)
In Reshun village of Upper Chitral, a flash flood washed away
In Reshun village of Upper Chitral, a flash flood washed away a bridge completed in 2019. (Zahir Uddin)
Reshun village locals and volunteers build a makeshift bridge
Reshun village locals and volunteers build a makeshift bridge for immediate use. (Photo: Muhammad Aslam Sherwani)
A villager clears away debris
A villager clears away debris carried to this homestead by the floods. (Photo: Muhammad Aslam Sherwani)

In the early morning of 14 August 2020, a flash flood hit Yarkhun Lasht, a remote village in Upper Chitral district in northwestern Pakistan. It washed away 17 houses and partially damaged eight others. The flood damaged the standing crops and swept away dozens of livestock. In all, nearly 60 households suffered serious damage. A 16-year-old girl died in the incident.

This article, based on our research at ICIMOD, seeks to present the causal factors underlying this flash flood, its impacts on the local community, possible connections with climate change, and local and governmental responses. In conclusion, it underlines the importance of early warning systems, and suggests some response mechanisms as a way forward.

Situating the village

Yarkhun Lasht is situated about 130 kilometres north of Booni, the district headquarters of Upper Chitral, and 225 km northeast of Chitral town. The village has about 90 households, with about 700 people in all. Agriculture has been the main source of livelihood in the area, but animal husbandry is increasing in importance.

Yarkhun Lasht was considered among the relatively safer places in the district. It is a wide valley with large agricultural fields. The village has some government infrastructure, including a godown for grain, a local dispensary, a high school, and a police station. The godown in this village is considered very important for local food security. It also supplies grain to Broghil Valley and other areas at higher altitudes. Fortunately, it survived the floods.

This year’s monsoon, among the strongest ever

Another heavy monsoon spell hit the region during the first week of September, due to which local streams and the Swat and Kunhar rivers were heavily flooded. Several stranded tourists had to be rescued.

This year’s monsoon has been one of the strongest to hit Pakistan in the past five years. Frequent westerlies ‒ mid-latitude, powerful winds that blow from west to east ‒ over northern Pakistan resulted in an active monsoon in northwestern Pakistan, including Chitral and the adjoining mountainous areas of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), there has been intense rainfall in high-altitude, glaciated areas of Chitral. Several flash floods have been reported from Yarkhun Lasht, Reshun, Booni, and Bomret. These floods carried heavy boulders, mud, and debris downstream, damaging landscapes, settlements, and infrastructure along the way. In some cases, the transported debris created dammed conditions for the Chitral River or caused a change in its channels.

Climate change in a fragile mountain context

The incidence of climate-induced hazards has increased across the Hindu Kush Himalayan region in recent decades, resulting in a loss of lives and adverse impacts on livelihoods, infrastructure, and ecosystem services. The climate has changed drastically in the Upper Indus Basin (UIB), particularly in districts of Upper and Lower Chitral. Though this region was largely considered to be beyond the range of the summer monsoon, it has experienced frequent and erratic spells of rain during the last decade. The frequency and magnitude of floods and glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) in Chitral have also increased. Multiple factors – increased temperatures, heatwaves, erratic rainfall, and their combined effects – contribute to greater GLOFs.

Additionally, mountain communities here are extremely vulnerable due to inadequate preparedness, poor infrastructure, their settlements being near river courses, limited livelihood sources, lack of evacuation planning, and little access to insurance. Damage to crops, livestock, and infrastructure adversely affects the food security and livelihoods of thousands of people in the region each monsoon.  For instance, heavy monsoon rains coupled with a GLOF destroyed hundreds of acres of cropland and thousands of livestock in July 2015 in Mastuj, Lotkoh, Laspur, and Kalash Valley in  Chitral.

Not a GLOF

A GLOF had hit Yarkhun Lasht in August 2000. This time too, the district government said that an outburst of a glacial lake was responsible for the flash floods here. However, historical data from Sentinel-2, a European space agency satellite, indicates no permanent glacial lake in the Yarkhun Valley. What the pre- and post-flood satellite images ‒ of 13 August and 16 August 2020 respectively ‒ show is a partial blockage, caused by a landslide, of the glacier-fed stream midway between the village and the glacier upstream.

Sentinel-2 satellite images just before the flood (left) and after (right) Note: The damaged area is encircled in blue. The red indicates cropland.

The excessive rain caused an outburst of the pooled water along with debris, significantly damaging the crops and households in Yarkhoon Lasht. We estimate, from the satellite data, that approximately 52 acres of crops were destroyed. But it was not a GLOF.

Local and official responses

As soon as the flood hit the village, the people ran to safer places. Some local volunteers – comprising of villagers and NGO workers – helped in the evacuation of people, but there was no time to save their valuable items and livestock. All the link roads to this village got blocked, and were only restored the next day. The district administration of Upper Chitral sent some essential relief items for the affected 59 households the day after the flood. However, a medical team from Chitral reached Yarkhun Lasht only after two days due to the arduous 15-hour journey.

Need for an early warning system and response mechanism: a way forward

To mitigate future damage from floods and GLOFs in remote and vulnerable mountainous areas, it is important to establish integrated early warning systems through the effective use of targeted climate services that blend hydrometeorological parameters, remote sensing data, and indigenous knowledge. Institutions such as the PMD, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA), the District Disaster Management Authority (DDMA), and local governments can work with local people and civil society organizations to understand and map the risks towards establishing these systems.

The hydrometeorological parameters would include rainfall and temperature forecasts, persistent heat waves, riverine flows, and glacier melt. Remote sensing tools are essential to consistently monitor riverine flows, glacier surges, and landslides, which may block waterways. One also needs to tap into the indigenous knowledge of local communities in mountainous areas about the occurrence of floods and GLOFs. They can anticipate changes in riverine flows from landslides or on seeing debris blocking a waterway. They could assess the potential risk of a glacial lake outburst on hearing unusual sounds from a glacier. Such an integrated early warning system can issue alerts periodically to ensure community preparedness. These can even be issued daily, when needed, during high-risk periods such as the monsoon and during the summer months when extreme temperature spikes can accelerate glacier melt. The capacity of the communities to understand these alerts may be built through awareness campaigns and local-level trainings.

It is also important to incorporate appropriate mitigation and risk-reduction measures and establish a proper rescue-and-response system in remote and vulnerable mountain areas. It is difficult to quickly reach hazard-hit sites from faraway towns and district headquarters, to enable timely rescue and relief. Additionally, in post-hazard situations, communication networks often fail to work, and road and aerial access is often paralysed. We would suggest a cohesive rescue-and-response system, in which the local government formalizes and integrates local volunteers into their disaster recovery protocols. They ought to be trained regarding evacuation processes, and local administrations ensure food supplies, medical aid, financial support, and the rebuilding of damaged assets to “build back better”, in order to enhance the disaster resilience of mountain communities.

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