HUNZA, April 11: Hopes fading for the survival of three young tourists who were buried under the debris of snow and mudslide after an avalanche hit their hut at a tourist point in Hunza District on Monday.
According to local people, the rescue operation launched on Monday evening by the personnel of army and district police, members of boys scout and locals has still not yielded any results. The rescue and local experts fear that the missing persons might have been buried under heavy boulders and mudslide.
The avalanche triggered from Ultar Glacier hit a shepherd’s hut at a meadow where five young tourists were staying in. According to a local shepherd’s account, a huge boulder fell on the glacier causing a chain reaction and the avalanche slipped from a mountain slope. He alerted the young picnickers to run away. Two of them, Syed Anwar and Wajid from Altit village, ran outside the hut and were swept away by the strong wind. But the other three friends — Arsalan Mushtaq alias Shani, a resident of Lahore, Mamal Baig and Ilhan Baig both from Altit village — went inside the hut and were buried under the debris of the snow and mudslides.
After the avalanche, dark clouds of dust covered Karimabad creating panic among the local people and tourists staying in the area.
Mamal Baig, who was a student of a Lahore college, along with his friend Shani had come to his native village recently.
Avalanches in recent years
The disaster relived the bitter memories of the Atabad disaster when a massive landslide struck Atabad village on January 5, 2010, killing 19 people. The massive boulders and mud blocked Hunza River and created a dam that submerged three villages — Ayeenabad, Shishkat, and lower parts of Gulmit — upstream displacing hundreds of people and disrupting the link between Pakistan and China.
The KKH link was restored in 2016 but that left a huge impact on the economy, social and political life of Hunza. The affected people have not yet been rehabilitated or compensated. The traditional bureaucratic snags, mismanagement and corruption triggered protests culminating in the killing of a man and his son by a police officer followed by a violent protest in the region. The local administration unleashed a reign of terror in the valley arresting, political activists, including Baba Jan, a leader of AWP-GB, and convicting them on trumped up charges who are currently languishing in jail serving various jail terms including life term.
On April 5, 2017, Mirza Jan, 34, and his cousin Shadman were buried alive by a snow avalanche in the Chikar village of Chitral’s remote Broghel Valley. They had gone to the mountain to bring their Yaks back.
On March 19, 2017, a massive snow avalanche struck Susoom village of Karimabad in Chitral killing 14 people including eight students outside their village who were travelling back to their home. In a separate incident, a snow avalanche hit Kandaw Post of Chitral Scouts, killing a soldier.
In April 2016, a massive snow avalanche struck Shimshal Valley in north-east of Hunza destroying houses and orchards.
In 2013 snow avalanche destroyed fields and swept away many animals in Nagar.
In 1984 three women belonging to Sikandarabad village of Nagar were killed when an avalanche hit the village.
Nagar valley is prone to avalanches situating on the lap of Rakaposhi, and other peaks. Every year thousands of tourists pay a visit to this area who destroy the ecosystem due to anthropogenic activities.
During the flashfloods of 2015 and 2016, the mountain regions of Gilgit-Baltistan were badly affected due to heavy avalanches, mudflows caused by climate change damaging several settlements irrigation channels.
Over 159 villages in GB and Chitral have been classified as avalanche prone. 25 houses have reportedly been destroyed in the large-scale catastrophe. Only four people were also rescued alive by the local community members.
How avalanche occurs
Environmental experts and local people are concerned about the frequent avalanches, landslides and mudflows the GB has been experiencing in recent years blaming climate change for this phenomena. Most of the avalanches happen during March and April.
How and why avalanches and landslides occur and what precautionary measures should be taken to minimise loss of life and infrastructure needs to be pondered by all stakeholders.
Most avalanches occur spontaneously during storms under increased load due to snowfall and metamorphic changes in the snowpack such as melting due to solar radiation, rain, earthquakes, rockfall and icefall.
An avalanche or snowslide is a rapid flow of snow down a sloping surface triggered in a starting zone from a mechanical failure in the snowpack when the forces on the snow exceed its strength.
Avalanches are endemic and most common during winter or spring to any mountain range that accumulates a standing snowpack, and are among the most serious natural hazards to life and property, with their destructive capability resulting from their potential to carry enormous masses of snow at high speeds.
The only solution to cope with such situations is to improve road and building infrastructures, build tunnels on highways and create awareness among the people about the biosphere, conservation of the forest and other natural resources.
“Ultar incident is not unusual or unanticipated,” says Jahanzeb Murad, an environmentalist and energy expert. The region, Jahanzeb says, is already under stress for such phenomenon due to various factors including climate change.
Such incidents are unavoidable but the modern science has identified tools and technologies for an early warning system which can minimize the impact and casualties, he says.
According to Jahanzeb, an active monitoring of all such susceptible regions prone to disaster are needed. He suggests rehabilitation framework and arrangements which have become more crucial than ever.