FLOODS in Pakistan have led to widespread devastation in many parts of the country. It has been extensively debated that although the rains were many times higher than expected, poor governance and lack of disaster preparedness exacerbated the destruction. Many lives and infrastructure losses could have been averted had our disaster management authorities been efficient and proactive.

The region of Gilgit-Baltistan is more vulnerable to the effects of climate change both for natural and political reasons. GB has the highest number of small and large glaciers outside the polar regions. This ecologically fragile part of the world is now facing the grave threat of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF).

A report issued by the GB government on Aug 28 should be an eye-opener for authorities. Between June 30 and Aug 26 this year, 110 flash floods were reported in GB. Seventeen people lost their lives while six were injured. The infrastructure losses in the region — already underdeveloped and dependent upon the centre for its budget — are also enormous.

According to the report, 418 houses were completely damaged and 257 houses partially so; 22 powerhouses were destroyed; and 78 drinking water supply schemes and 500 irrigation water channels were damaged. Moreover, 56 bridges and 49 roads were washed away, severely affecting people’s mobility and transportation of food supplies that are brought in from Rawalpindi. While most of the damaged facilities have been temporarily restored, including 19 of the powerhouses, the rains and floods have exposed the region’s feeble infrastructure.

Failure at the policy level must be questioned.

Although the rains seem to be over, the threat of GLOF is still looming primarily due to the environmental degradation. The reasons are numerous but the failure at the policy level must be questioned. Promoting mass tourism in this ecologically fragile region without proper planning has led to an influx of tourists and increase in ground and air traffic. The absence of eco-friendly tourism policies and infrastructure have aggravated this situation.

What are the political reasons for GB’s vulnerability? The region acceded to Pakistan in November 1947 and was linked to the Kashmir issue. The arrangement was made to gain more votes in the plebiscite that was supposed to decide the fate of Kashmir and its people. Since then, GB is administered and governed by various regimes and federal governments of Pakistan on an ad hoc basis. The region neither has representation in the national legislature nor has its assembly been given complete autonomy in local affairs. The bureaucrats appointed by the federal government have more say in the administration as compared to the elected members.

The priorities of the local leadership stood exposed in the recent disaster. During the peak of flash floods, some GB ministers including the chief minister were present in Islamabad in a display of loyalty with their party chief who was appearing in court for the contempt of court case against him. Having been largely disappointed by the bureaucrats, people seem to be also losing trust in the local leadership, which is facing criticism on social media mostly from GB’s educated youth who highlight their incompetence and skewed priorities.

The opportunity that seemed to open up after the 2009 presidential order was passed, whereby their assembly was empowered — at least to a little extent — appears to have been elusive. Since most of the elected members of GB belong to mainstream national parties, it is believed to be difficult for them to deviate from their parties’ policies. Recently, the GB Assembly passed the Revenue Authority Bill with a majority. The infamous act will impose various taxes on the population in an otherwise tax-free region. All previous efforts by the centre to impose taxes have failed due to massive protests and strikes. The move has already sparked demonstrations and sit-ins in GB.

The federal government’s track record is not encouraging when it comes to the region’s upliftment both politically and economically. Inaugurating the Jutial Sports Complex in Gilgit recently, GB Chief Secretary Mohiyuddin Ahmed Wani said that the GB government’s dream was to provide a freelance workforce from the region to the world in the IT sector, which he described as the future of Pakistan. Mr Wani perhaps overlooked two fundamental requirements for the IT sector to boom: one, availability of uninterrupted and high-speed internet and two, electricity. Both are rare in GB. Given that the region is facing chronic power outages for years now, this vision only looks like a daydream.

GB needs practical solutions from both federal and local governments. People are living in a constantly life-threatening situation. There is an urgent need to formulate and implement sustainable policies for the protection of the people and the environment.

The writer is lecturer at the School of Economics and Social Sciences, IBA Karachi.

Twitter: @saj_ahmd

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2022

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