Imagine waking up at 4 a.m. to the wails of a siren. For Sherqilla, a small village in Pakistan, that siren was the difference between life and death. The siren is part of an early warning system that woke up all the villagers in time for them to get to higher ground and avoid the floods that ensued in 2017. Just one year earlier a similar flood swept away six households, livestock, 250 acres of cropland, and roughly 600 acres of fruit and trees.
The early warning system in Sherqilla was developed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development or ICIMOD. ICIMOD was recently recognized by the Gilgit-Baltistan government in Pakistan for helping to increase the resiliency of vulnerable mountain village communities through their Indus Basin Initiative.
Gilgit-Baltistan is home to the Hindu Kush, Himalayas, and Karakoram mountain ranges. The population of the region is roughly 1.9 million people, around 80,000 of whom are vulnerable to “inland tsunamis.”
Normally one would think of a tsunami and imagine waves crashing down on an unsuspecting coastal community. In the case of Pakistan, the tsunamis come from within. These inland tsunamis are known as glacial lake outburst floods or GLOFs. GLOFs occur when the water of a glacial lake breaks through its natural dam and floods the nearby areas. Based on a 30-year average from 1981 to 2010, climate change has warmed the mountainous regions of Pakistan by an estimated 1.2 degrees Celsius, leading to an increase in GLOFs and natural disasters. The impacts on the local community is both swift and unforgiving.
The Chitral Valley is another prime example of a remote mountain village impacted by climate change. Three major floods have occurred in less than six years, claiming the lives of 50 people and leaving hundreds of thousands stranded, according to the Washington Post.
The Indus Basin Initiative
In light of the constant threat of GLOFs, ICIMOD made the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority more pro-active in the face of such natural disasters. Aside from improving the local irrigation systems and agricultural conditions of the communities, ICIMOD established hazard management systems in Gulmit, Passu, Hussaini, and Gulkin. These systems are known as community-based glacier monitoring and early warning systems or CBFEWS.
According to ICIMOD, CBFEWS consists of tools and plans used to detect and respond to flood emergencies. The monitoring priorities of the system depend on the community. In Gulmit, for example, locals monitor the debris flow. However, as previously mentioned, in Sherqilla, the system monitors flash floods. In Passu, the locals look out for GLOFs. This is all part of the ICIMOD’s Indus Basin Initiative.
Back in September, following floods in August, ICIMOD implemented a five-day training program to improve the ability of participants to install and use the community-based flood risk management system. The training consisted of learning both the technical and conceptual knowledge behind the early warning device designed by ICIMOD. The 17 participants in the training came from local governments, NGOs and other partners. They hailed from Nepal, India, and Pakistan. According to the ICIMOD, in order to be effective, the CBFEWS should involve a number of elements: “risk knowledge and scoping, community-based monitoring and early warning, dissemination, and communication and response capability and resilience.”
In the hopes of further increasing resilience in the region, ICIMOD recently aided in facilitating an international conference. ICIMOD, the Government of Nepal, and the European Union worked together to make the conference “Resilient Hindu Kush: Developing Solutions Toward a Sustainable Future for Asia” a reality.
At the event, the director general of ICIMOD, David Molden, gave words of thanks and encouragement. In his speech, he recognized the importance of future collaboration saying, “Building resilience also calls us to improve participation of all groups, particularly communities, women and youth in creating a vision and action plan for a more prosperous future.”
See ICIMOD Director General David Molden’s Full Speech here.
Of course, GLOFs are not the only natural disasters that plague the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Avalanches, monsoon rains, and other natural disasters make the socio-economic conditions even tougher on the people of the remote mountain villages. ICIMOD further recognizes that Gilgit-Baltistan isn’t the only country under threat from impending GLOFs. As such, it has begun discussions on the possibility of replicating the early warning system in other areas. ICIMOD hopes that these expansion efforts will help to ensure the safety of villagers living throughout the region.