Chimi Seldon & Kosar Bano
6 mins Read
Hasanabad, a village located some 2,100 metres above sea level (masl), is four kilometres away from Shisper Glacier. Since 2018, when a sudden surge of the glacier terminus (the snout or lowest end of a glacier) was first recorded and an ice-dammed glacial lake was formed, its villagers have been living in constant fear of potential glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).
In May 2021, the glacier surge in Hasanabad triggered a GLOF that damaged houses, agricultural land, and orchards in the village. In this piece, we discuss how disaster events such as these compound the vulnerabilities of mountain communities and exacerbate already existing inequalities, disproportionately affecting women, children, and vulnerable groups – including the disabled, the elderly, and those with small land holdings.
Glacial surges are a common occurrence in Hunza, which is located in the Karakoram mountain range. Surges such as the one at Shisper Glacier – in which case the surge blocked the proglacial river flowing from the Machuhar Glacier and formed an ice-dammed lake – are unpredictable and sporadic, which makes them riskier. The lake dam at Shisper has breached several times since 2018, with the most recent breach taking place in May 2021.
Mountain communities are living with the impacts of steady glacier retreat and change, uncertain snowfall patterns, and increased incidences of cryosphere-related hazards. The impacts of cryosphere-related hazards are not just limited to the destruction of property; they pose increased risks to lives and livelihoods, and manifest in the social structures of mountain communities. In such pressured circumstances, preexisting societal inequalities are exacerbated, and women and vulnerable groups bear the brunt of these changes.
Women’s responsibilities increase during and after disaster events. In Hasanabad, the May 2021 GLOF damaged the water channels and tanks the villagers depended on. Women, who are tasked with the responsibility of managing water for household use, had to take on the responsibility of exploring clean water sources, necessarily further off from their village, and fetch water for daily use.
To get a sense of the issues the villagers were facing as a result of the disaster event, we organized a focus group discussion in the village. Participating community members, a majority of whom were women, complained of back problems resulting from carrying water over great distances. They also spoke about how the responsibility of cleaning up after floodwaters have inundated homes and cattle sheds falls heavily on them.
Villages like Hasanabad follow deep-rooted traditional social structures where men and women have predetermined roles and responsibilities at both household and societal levels: Men make the decisions and inherit and control assets; women take care of children and the elderly, tend to cattle, fetch water, and prepare food.
Such a social structure has contributed to multilayered social inequality. Women are dependent on husbands and/or male family members. When recovering from damages and loss during disaster events, they are not able to apply for loans on their own. Such factors, inevitably, entrench their dependence on male family members.
Those who hold power – religious figures, politicians, and social workers – are almost exclusively male. As such, men have considerable decision-making powers. The only flood warning system in the Hasanabad, installed by the Meteorological Department of Gilgit Baltistan, is managed and maintained by men. As a result, it is only men are privy to important information. Additionally, not much effort or resources are invested in the dissemination of information that can save lives, and women are not brought into the loop.
During the May 2021 GLOF, Sher Bano, who is in her 50s, was cutting grass by the riverside. She had not received information about the impending GLOF risk. Although she was rescued by volunteers on time and reunited with her family, timely information could have saved her the anxiety and stress she had to endure. Had early warning been communicated efficiently, through women’s networks, for example, the risk to her life could have been greatly reduced.
Government and non-governmental organizations are working to support communities like those in Hasanabad. The Pakistan Meteorological Department carries out regular glacier monitoring activities on the Shisper Glacier. The department has also conducted a vulnerability assessment of downstream communities and used the exercise to identify safe zones and routes and organized mock drills for community members to prepare them for the disaster events.
The creation of disaster response groups such as the Gilgit Baltistan Disaster Management Authority, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH), the GLOF 2 project of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the Gilgit Baltistan Rural Support Program (GBRSP) are steps in the right direction. These groups organize frequent training programmes on disaster response and management for community members and provide loans to those affected by disaster events. However, most participants are men, and post-disaster recovery planning, management, and other activities inadvertently reflect a gender bias.
In the aftermath of the May 2021 GLOF, affected communities lived in damaged houses, emergency shelters were congested, and there was a lack of basic facilities (including suitable kitchen and toilet facilities). The inclusion of women – who are more in tune with the everyday realities of managing households – in post-disaster recovery decision making might have made a difference.
Despite the frequent threat of GLOFs from the Shisper Glacier surge, concerted action to safeguard the lives of communities living close to the riverbanks is yet to be taken. A lack of funds and coordinated efforts from responsible agencies seems to be the main challenge. It has become common practice for community members to move into their relatives’ homes in neighbouring villages every summer when the risk of flooding is the highest. However, this is not a solution. There is a need for formal, institutional mechanisms to be set up to ensure that no one has to live in tents on riverbanks that are at risk of flooding, collapse, and erosion.
As threats from a changing climate are ever present in the lives of mountain communities, there is a need for a proper disaster response, recovery, and rehabilitation plan. In this regard, recent developments in Hasanabad have been encouraging. There are now several disaster response groups working with the community there.
However, to be truly effective, this plan needs to be inclusive and considerate of social and gender dimensions. Mountain communities are often located in remote, inaccessible places, making it difficult to ensure relief work and support reach there on time. In consideration of the remoteness and preexisting social conditions, it is imperative that all intervention activities prioritize gender and social inclusivity throughout the project phase.
Such intervention activities could start from the basics. Gender sensitization trainings, for instance, could be organized for families, including men, to educate them on how discriminatory cultural and social norms based on gender compound poverty and other vulnerabilities. Such trainings could promote behavioural change and encourage the sharing of responsibilities among men and women in care-related activities.
Parallelly, there is a need to encourage stakeholders to create favourable conditions for women to partake in decision-making processes. Encouraging greater representation of affected women and vulnerable groups in decision-making processes for response and recovery – by ensuring committee membership, particularly when decisions regarding food distribution, identification, and assessment of damages are being made, for instance – will ensure that the needs of historically disregarded groups are met. Furthermore, efforts to ensure property/asset rights to women, such as by allocating land to women in new placement areas, will aid stronger rehabilitation.
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