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Awareness and Preparedness – The Ways to Harness

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Pack your bags and get ready for a summer-fun trip! This appears as the punch line of most tour companies luring their customers to relish the mesmerizing beauty of the sky-towering snow-cloaked mountains, lush green meadows and grasslands, turquoise watered lakes, vibrant colors of four seasons, and freshwater springs of Gilgit-Baltistan. People visiting this part of the world only after getting to know it widely for less than two decades now know it as serendipitous.

Hey-ho! People flowing into this remotely pocketed region are oblivious to the fact that this beauty is indeed fleeting. In a few more decades our future generations will be deprived of sighting this scenic beauty – all pleasing and soothing to the eyes. Well! Yeah! This place is no exception to Climate change which has become a hot potato.

Indicators of this unpalatable event have already surfaced since just a decade ago the natural landscapes, currently being defaced by the mushrooming of all sorts of hotels, markets, restaurants, and guest houses, were untainted while the highly untapped areas through the years of tourism and infrastructure development have now metamorphosed into the unpleasant bustling towns swarming with tourists, with deafening sounds of vehicles and ultimately abounding in an adulterated air.

Last year was marked with disasters that wreaked havoc in Hunza as a heavy flood due to an outburst of the glacial lake (GLOF event) at Shishper glacier washed away the only bridge on Karakoram Highway connecting Hunza with Lower Hunza and the rest of the down country, along with a few houses and agricultural and pasture land of the residents. The flood appeared very much like a sedated serpent that devours every animal coming its way. This brought tourism to a halt in the region for a few days while the people associated with tourism found themselves in hot waters as it altered the landscape within moments.

While growing up in the valley, I observed a lot of changes pertaining to the infrastructure, development, tourism, practices of people, and the weather. Torrential downpours and floods devouring the whole of the villages were unlikely events happening once in a blue moon in summer by then whereas, these are now observed frequently also in seasons other than summer too. Hotels and guest houses were rare and merely confined to one or two towns in the whole region. However, most of the villages across Gilgit-Baltistan could now be spotted with homestays, guest houses, hotels, and restaurants teeming with tourists, feeding them with diverse cuisines and offering breathtaking views of lakes and mountains. I am not doubtful of prognostication that in a period of just five or ten years, these too will be hit by disasters for mother nature being unforgiving won’t spare these ugly constructions disfiguring her aesthetic beauty.

Being home to almost five thousand and a half glaciers, Gilgit-Baltistan with its highly fragile ecosystems is facing the dire consequences of Climate Change. To one’s great astonishment, a faction of the population still believes it to be all-natural. I was assisting one of my international friends in documenting a film about Climate change when she inquired a resident of one of the most affected villages about Climate Change and he retorted declaring all of it natural and human beings utterly helpless before it. To my sheer amazement, I realized that we are running out of time to digest what is happening around us. Educating the masses on Climate change has become central to our survival as dwelling in these highly vulnerable areas, we need to spur the preparations for handling the emergencies that await us ahead. The recent unfortunate events of floods and other related disasters brought us a message that we are not safe anywhere, not particularly in the high mountains as floods washed away the settlements in the areas which have never had a history of receiving a flood or being hit by a natural disaster, before. This is motioning to the fact that we need to control the Climate Change crises with every bit of effort and contribution parallel of little drops of water that amount to seas and oceans. The educated lot could be seen making an effort in every way possible while those aware of climate change and its consequences help them with everything that falls in their capacity.

The land of Gilgit-Baltistan housing treasures of organic aesthetic beauty offers multifarious opportunities for tourism in the region but unfortunately, it never could escape the tampering of nature by human beings with anthropogenic activities of all sorts. Above all, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are least prepared for facing the music. There is an emergent need of educating the masses at large that climate change is real and could wreak havoc if not addressed timely. There will be a time shortly when pictures of the currently beautiful landscapes will cease to appear in the future. It does not take long for a natural disaster or a human-induced one to alter the geographical landscape since the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Syria turned several regions in both countries upside down shaking down the infrastructure, taking hundreds of lives while depriving millions of their homes and loved ones.

2022 Monsoon floods in Pakistan swept the majority of the regions in Southern Punjab, Sindh, and Baluchistan scraping every bit of agricultural produce with it. Talk of the flood water and you will still see it stagnant with hundreds of people stranded in it across several areas paving way for mosquitoes and microorganisms to build a haven resulting in waterborne diseases. This appears just the beginning while catastrophic events as such await us in the future.  

Mountains being headwaters have hundreds of glaciers in them while their pelt down leads to rising sea levels in addition to GLOF (Glacial lake outburst floods) events etc. This is the ultimate reason that floods sweep populations whether settled in mountainous areas or plains.

The good news is, the tables could always be turned reducing the risk of hazards with effective strategies. Ted turner quotes it, “While the problem can sometimes seem overwhelming, we can turn things around — but we must move beyond climate talk to climate action.” Conferences and frameworks developed such as the Copenhagen Accord being a following document of the Kyoto Protocol suggest a bottom-up approach that entails the mitigation aiming at risk reduction to be implemented at a grass root level i.e. the actions need to be taken at a local level. Actions taken at a grass root level contribute to significant results.

The question arising in the cognizance of the aforementioned context is, what actions are significant in combating climate change that is needed to be taken at a local level? The answer lies in the two ways that are discussed and highlighted in every conference, every training program, and every plenary session, etc. nationally and internationally. These are Awareness and Preparedness. David Attenborough highlights the underlying logic saying,” There is no question that climate change is happening; the only arguable point is what part humans are playing in it.”

Nature-based and sustainable solutions are preferably the only choices to embark upon the journey of countering the long-lasting impacts of climate change while the knowledge of these solutions comes with awareness and preparedness. Awareness of the locals in the context of their changing weather and precipitation patterns, the practices that changed from generation to generation, the landscape that altered with all sorts of human activities, and so on over the years since their childhood will instill a better perception of the changing climate. On the other hand, preparedness emerges from the actions that will be taken from the point one realizes that humans have destroyed the planet. Albert Einstein once said, The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” 

Numerous developing countries teeming with a majority of the population despite being uneducated and poor always have a knack to play their role in the forefront but still, a number of these countries fail to understand the wonders of science and technology. The people in those countries have regard for scientific knowledge, and once informed will conform to the ways that scientific knowledge brings them. Hence contextualizing preparedness will play a crucial role in bringing efforts paramount to override the challenges of changing climatic conditions. In the face of any emergency, the local community is the first to be hit by a disaster and must be informed and prepared.

Hence, preparedness follows awareness, as they both go hand in hand.

Preparedness deemed the least important in our country is cataclysmic. Lacking a proactive approach, the actions are only taken post a disaster causes devastation. If we remain pertinacious in holding on to lethargic attitudes, surely the planet will fall to shambles before our eyes. Therefore, preparedness is central to reducing the risk if not wiping it out altogether.

In the context of Gilgit-Baltistan, the situation is axiomatically deteriorating day by day while a majority of people think the hydrometeorological disasters are natural. The residents must be informed through awareness sessions conducted at each locality while giving them food for thought to save the planet from destruction. Being a tourist destination, each individual is indulged in, erecting an ugly concrete structure contributing to the mushrooming of hotels, guest houses, and so on, at least in an ill practice that yields nothing beneficial. Awareness stand-alone will only lead to disappointment in people but awareness with accountability will bring in desired results. Thus, in light of awareness, residents must be prepared to handle emergencies while preferring to adapt to nature-based solutions. Community emergency response teams and village emergency response teams should be constituted of the people who are based in their locality and are likely going to spend a longer period in their hometown. Women being central to the process must be given priority for they are the most vulnerable to disasters.

Preparedness doesn’t only come with taking action in the hour of need or emergencies rather it begins before the onset of disasters. Preparing beforehand and remaining alert is crucial. This is brought about by early warning systems which are never seen in areas that are prone to hazards. Being highly susceptible, these areas must have consolidated early warning systems installed with the latest AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology. Unfortunately, preparedness is often mistaken for emergency drills and evacuation plans whereas it is inclusive of all the actions counting toward the saving of lives.

These two ways, Awareness and preparedness coupled with accountability and a proactive approach rather than a reactive one will produce prolific results in saving the world in general and Gilgit-Baltistan in particular. Being home to mighty glaciers and peaks, it is prone to disappear with GLOF events, landslides, and avalanches eroding beautiful landscapes forever. It is time to buckle up and counter the momentum of the rolling stone from killing us.

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Climate Change Threatens Gilgit-Baltistan’s Ecosystem: A Wake-Up Call

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As time passes, the threat of climate change is becoming visible day by day. The globe is witnessing harmful impacts, and developing counties face music more severely. Gilgit Baltistan is no exception. The region’s geography makes it more vulnerable to the disastrous effects of global warming. Gilgit Baltistan is home to the largest non-polar glaciers, including Siachen, Baltoro, and Hisper glaciers. Global warming is increasing the rate of melting glaciers, causing floods, and disastrous effects are more severe each year. Rapid climate change poses a significant threat to the region’s delicate ecosystem, thus affecting people’s normal lives. Climate change results in various adverse effects on the ecosystem of the region. The rising temperature disrupts the natural habitat of various plants and animals and affects the pattern of vegetation and water sources. The changing pattern, severe rainfall, and heat psychologically impact the region’s inhabitants, and people live in constant fear.

The region is known for its natural beauty: snow-capped mountains, lush green fields, crystal-clear streams, and eye-captivating lakes. Thus the habitat of the region is a source of tourism influx. However, changing weather patterns of weather is disrupting the tourism industry. Unpredictable and severe weather events, including heavy rainfall, floods, and land sliding, pose dangers to travelers, making them less appealing to tourists. Last year the Hassanabad bridge that connects Nagar and Hunza collapsed due to the glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF). This created a lot of trouble for the tourists and locals. Such incidents could result in heavy casualties, as happened in the Chamoli District of India, which took more than 200 lives.  Thus the main source of income of the region, which is the tourism industry, could be affected badly in the future if the situation continues the same.

It is estimated that there are around 7000 glaciers in Pakistan, most of which are located in Gilgit Baltistan. Three of the World’s seven largest glaciers are sited in Gilgit Baltistan. Due to global warming, the rate of melting glaciers is increasing, causing floods and glacier lake outburst flooding(GLOF) threats. The whole GB has been identified as either a high or very high-risk region with respect to GLOF hazard. The head of the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), Ghulam Rasool, mentioned in 2018 that the average temperature in the last 80 years in Gilgit Baltistan has increased by 1.4 degrees Celsius as compared to 0.6 degrees Celsius in the rest of the country. According to the Ministry of Climate, 3044 glacial lakes have been developed in Gilgit Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. 33 lakes have been identified as prone to hazardous glacial lake outburst flooding (GLOF). In a report jointly prepared by the Agha Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP), National Disaster Management Authority(NDMA) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) mentioned that all three geographic zones of the district, located on the western edge of Gilgit Baltistan are prone to hydro-meteorological hazards during spring, summer, and winter. The report added, “Floods happen every year or every second year and are the main causes of socio-economic disruption in the area. Important sources for these floods are glaciers and lakes situated at the higher altitude alpine zones. These sources cause flooding due to heavy rains, thunderstorms, and snow melt,”. More than 7 million people are vulnerable to the threats of climate change in GB and KP.

This severe rainfall raises the risk of flash floods, devastatingly affecting communities and infrastructure. The natural habitat is affected badly, causing the endangerment of many species of the Northern areas, such as Himalayan Ibex, Markhor and Snow leopard. Floods threaten human lives and damage agricultural land, homes, and vital infrastructure such as roads and bridges, further disrupting the region’s development and stability. The last year saw flood disasters in the Ghizer district and some other regions. The outburst of Shisper Glacier in Hunza devastated lands, homes, farms, and infrastructure. Due to these losses, locals migrate to other cities in Pakistan.

Certain efforts are needed at both the government and individual levels to protect Gilgit Baltistan’s ecosystem and address the challenges caused by climate change. High authorities should develop and implement strategies for ecosystem restoration, sustainable land management, and biodiversity conservation. As tourism is the major source of income, the government should encourage responsible and sustainable tourism practices that minimize the ecological impacts. This includes educating tourists about the ecosystem’s fragility, promoting eco-friendly accommodations, and supporting local initiatives prioritizing conservation and community development. Since floods cause water shortages and draught situations, water management practices should be implemented to cope with changing water availability. Further, awareness campaigns should be conducted to educate local communities and tourists about climate change impacts, its consequences, and the importance of individual and collective action. Encourage behavioral changes that reduce carbon emissions and support conservation efforts. In addition, we should discourage deforestation and put effort into forestation and planting trees as much as possible. The billion tree Tsunami project of Imran Khan deserves appreciation, and the current governments should follow the same policies. 

Climate change is a real threat. Still, many people in GB have no concerns over the intensity of the threat that awaits to show its more disastrous shape in the future. However, it is to be noted that the threat cannot be controlled if we leave all the burden on the government. Everyone must play their roles. We should encourage individuals, communities, and governments to work together to preserve the region’s natural beauty and protect its unique biodiversity. We must work with government authorities to raise awareness, implement sustainable practices, and support conservation efforts. We can protect Gilgit Baltistan’s ecosystem and preserve its natural beauty for future generations. Together, we can work towards a more sustainable and resilient future, ensuring that this precious region continues to thrive amidst the challenges posed by climate change. It is the situation of now or never to recognize the intensity of the situation before it’s too late.

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Empowering the Next Generation: EPA’s Grassroots Efforts in Raising Awareness on Climate Change and Mitigating Flood Impacts

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During the recent summer, Pakistan experienced one of the worst floods in history, causing widespread damage and devastation. Despite six months having passed since the disaster, the government has been unable to fully recover the affected areas and clear the floodwaters. The main cause of this prolonged recovery period is attributed to the blockage of the sewage system and the lack of proper planning. In the northern region of Pakistan, homes built near streamlines and riverbanks were washed away by the flash floods. While such destruction could have been prevented through precautionary measures, proper planning, and hazard alerts by the relevant authorities, their failure to do so has resulted in this devastating outcome.

As many families lost their lifelong savings in an instant and watched their homes washed away by floods, it’s important to understand what happened and explore ways to prevent such devastating events in the future.

In the summer of 2022, Sherqillah village was struck by a flash flood that brought devastation and loss of life. More than 200 homes were affected, leaving 250 families displaced and their properties severely damaged. In addition to the loss of lives, the flood caused extensive damage to vital infrastructure, including irrigation channels, roads, powerhouses, water supply pipes, and suspension bridges. The Gilgit Baltistan government and Aga Khan Agency for Habitat worked together to evacuate at-risk families and provide relief supplies to those who lost their homes. However, this disaster could have been prevented with better planning and precautionary measures. In this article, we will explore the causes of this tragedy and how it can be avoided in the future.

In July and August of 2022, Bubur village experienced three devastating flash floods, causing extensive damage to homes, infrastructure, and cultivated land. The floods resulted in the destruction of 35 fully damaged and 24 partially damaged houses, along with a damaged Jamatkhana and partially damaged D J school. The most recent flood caused damage to 25 acres of land, and 8 homes were partially damaged. During this difficult time, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKH) provided two months’ worth of food to affected inhabitants, and built four houses for those whose homes were damaged. Many families were forced to stay outside their homes for almost 2 to 3 weeks, and 120 families had to temporarily relocate. These floods serve as a reminder of the urgent need for effective measures to prevent and mitigate flood damage in vulnerable areas.

The Gilgit Baltistan Environmental Protection Agency (GB-EPA) has taken steps in this direction, conducting environment and climate change awareness sessions for students, promoting critical and creative thinking skills, and inspiring young minds to become more engaged with their communities in productive activities.

Recently, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKH) has been actively providing aid to residents affected by disasters in the region. In addition to distributing high-quality food packages to 100 families, costing around 25000 per family, AKH has also been conducting training sessions to educate local residents on disaster and risk management. As part of their efforts, AKH has set up a temporary tent village to provide shelter to those displaced by the disaster.

Dildar Hussain, who recently participated in one of AKH’s training sessions, highlighted the importance of preparing oneself for emergencies and finding safe areas, especially for people with disabilities. According to Dildar, the training is effective and can be applied in real-life situations. He is part of a team of 25 members who work together during emergencies, and he believes that their unity and planning make it easier for them to carry out rescue missions. AKH’s efforts in disaster management and training are essential in helping communities cope with emergencies and build resilience for the future.

GBEPA is taking proactive steps to address climate change and mitigate its impacts on Gilgit-Baltistan. One such initiative is the development of the Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan 2017 (Revised 2022) and the Adaptation Action Plan 2022, which serve as important tools for disseminating target-specific adaptation and mitigation actions to secure the region from the adverse impacts of climate change. Technical experts have emphasized the need to mainstream climate change adaptation and mitigation in the medium to long-term regional development goals of Gilgit-Baltistan.

In addition to the Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan, GBEPA is working in close collaboration with EvK2CNR on the “Glaciers and Student Project.” This project involves the installation of automatic weather stations at Passu Glacier, Ghulkin Glacier, and Shisper Glacier to retrieve ground observations and improve understanding of climate-glacier interactions. This will also enable the monitoring of glacier dynamics in response to increasing climatic fluctuations.

Fakhra Muneeb, a technical expert at GBEPA, highlighted the agency’s collaboration with the Gilgit Baltistan Disaster Management Authority to raise awareness of preparedness and approaches to reduce the risks of floods through eco-based disaster risk reduction techniques in the region under the GLOF-II project. By engaging both men and women in these awareness sessions and collaborating with local organizations, GBEPA is taking a comprehensive approach to addressing this issue.

Flash floods can wreak havoc on communities, causing widespread damage and loss of life. Therefore, it is crucial to take proactive measures to minimize the risks and prepare for potential emergencies. The awareness sessions conducted by organizations like GBEPA can play a vital role in educating people about the causes of floods, ways to reduce the risk of damage, and what to do in case of an emergency. These sessions can help create a more informed and prepared community that is better equipped to handle the challenges posed by flash floods and other natural disasters.

In addition to these awareness sessions, it is also commendable that organizations like GBEPA are implementing the GLOF-II project, which focuses on reducing the risks of glacier lake outburst floods. Such floods can have significant impacts on the surrounding areas, and taking proactive steps to reduce their risks can be crucial. By working together, these organizations can help create a more resilient and prepared community that is better equipped to handle the challenges posed by flash floods and other natural disasters. Overall, these efforts can help protect lives and minimize damage in the face of potential emergencies.

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Plastic Trends in Gilgit-Baltistan – The Need to Combat the Consequences of Climate Change

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The world is threatened by the consequences surfaced by climate change. The rising temperatures, shifts in weather patterns, erratic rainfall, loss of agricultural land, displacement, loss of biodiversity, and so much more have challenged humanity to rethink its ways of life. Recently, the 27th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP27) was held in which the representatives of 100 states and governments participated. The conference concluded after intense negotiations on establishing a fund to compensate vulnerable nations for ‘loss and damage’ from climate-induced disasters.

Parallel to climate change, the use of plastic products and plastic waste has far-reaching social, environmental, economic, and health consequences. Plastic has many valuable uses which have made us addicted to single-use products. The use of plastic products, and plastic waste is a complex issue because of its non-biodegradable nature. If the matter is not taken seriously, our oceans will be filled with more plastic than fish by 2050. Not only this, but human health will be suffering from multiple serious diseases.

In recent years, Gilgit-Baltistan has become a brand due to its unique landscapes attracting tourists from various corners of the world. Where the tourism industry has brought economic benefits, it has also provided platforms for environmental pollution in the region.

Globally, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute for single use and then thrown away. The single-use products include water bottles, shampoo bottles, food packaging film, potato chip bags, cutlery, plates, cups, etc. Historically, from 1950 to 1970, a small amount of plastic was produced, which was easy to manage. From 1970 to the 1990s, the production of plastic tripled, and in the early 2000s it grew more in a single decade than it did in the last 40 years. If this historic growth continues, global production of primary plastic is forecasted to reach 1,100 million tons by 2050.

In Pakistan, more than 3.3 million tons of plastic waste are produced each year, making the country one of the highest percentages of mismanaged plastic waste in South Asia. The 250 million tons of garbage in Pakistan include plastic bags, pet bottles, and food scraps. Plastic pollution has not only affected human health but is also affecting marine life due to unmanaged dumping of plastic waste.

Unfortunately, the Indus River, which was once the source of fresh water, has been declared the second most polluted river in the world. The main cities of Pakistan are already wrapped up in plastic dumps and are traveling toward the North at a high pace. Most plastic items never fully disappear; they just break down into smaller and smaller pieces. Microplastics can enter the human body through breathing and accumulate in organs. A recent study has shown the presence of plastic in human organs including the placenta of newborn babies, lungs, spleen, and kidneys.

The people of GB are suffering from multiple diseases, microplastics could be one of the reasons, although it is not proven. Plastic has become our addiction because it is easily available at cheap prices. Gilgit-Baltistan is a place of natural beauty with a lot of tourism hotspots. However, in recent years, environmental pollution has become a complex issue in the region.

The garbage dumped along the roadsides and rivers has curtained beautiful views while inviting health-related issues to the region. Different organizations, including WWF-Pakistan, Environmental protection Agency, UNDP, UNEP, KADO, and AKRSP have previously conducted studies on plastic use and its management.

WWF-Pakistan, along with other organizations, has worked for the elimination of plastic from the environment, but the results are unsatisfactory. Previously, WWF-Pakistan actively participated in local and global campaigns focusing on mitigating and eliminating plastic pollution. Some of these include the “No Plastics in Nature” campaign, the “Beat Plastic Pollution” campaign, and the “Plastic Diet” campaign. WWF-Pakistan and Coca-Cola Foundation, in 2018, conducted a study in major cities of Pakistan, including Gilgit, to spread awareness about the recycling of PET bottles. In the year 2020, Hunza district was declared the first plastic-free district in the country, but due to a lack of interest and inconsistency, the initiative has now failed.

The world is waking up to the problem, and government, industry, and other stakeholders need to take immediate steps to save our planet.

Government can also promote innovation so that the plastics we need are designed and brought into the economy in a way that allows for their reuse. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Gilgit has taken a step forward to eliminate plastic from the region. It has provided alternative and eco-friendly solutions in the form of the Green Businesses initiative. The green business and circular economy initiative provide interest-free loans up to PKR. 96 million to local enterprises. To make it successful, every individual in society will have to participate responsibly.

Bringing Change: Taking Action Against Plastic Pollution Several alternatives can be followed by the plastic industry, such as making a product that can be reused. For example, the cloth bags. The production of cloth bags will also provide platforms to empower women in the region as well. To turn off the tap on plastic pollution, individuals can also play their role by pressuring the local authorities to improve waste management in the region. We can bring change from basic levels if we teach our younger generations to manage the garbage and clean up the surroundings in which we live. We all need to bring change in our behaviors and adopt new habits to limit plastic footprints. Importantly, rather than depending on others, why don’t we take initiative personally, the little acts can contribute to bringing a positive change, so why not be the first change makers?

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