The day the glacier broke

The Day the Glacier Broke

Shams Uddin, Chitral, Pakistan

Photo credit: UNDP

The Chitral valley in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan has over 363 small and big settlements scattered along the isolated valleys and sub-valleys of the 800-kilometer Hindukush range that stretches from its center in Northern Pakistan to Afghanistan in the southwest and Tajikistan to the northwest.

As fan-shaped landmasses varied in size and altitude, these villages are formed at the mouth of streams from glaciated debris tumbled down along floods at different times. The glacier-fed streams and springs provide mineral-rich water resource so vital for subsistent agriculture practiced for thousands of years.

Under the scenario of global warming and ultimate temperature rise in the Hindukush region, the meltwater collects as glacial lakes often retained by thinning ice walls, or fragile earth banks leaving the settlements in the lowlands consistently hazard-prone when earthquake, avalanche and torrential rain hits.

Booni, 85 kilometers to the northeast of Chitral town, is an alluvial landmass like most of the villages in the Hindukush region, formed by glacial deposits at the mouth of what is called ‘Booni Gol’ or Booni Stream.

On July 26, 2010 by 02:00PM in the afternoon, a huge GLOF struck the village. It originated from the glacier in Booni Zom (6,542m)—a highest peak in the Booni Zom group of prominent mountains to the east of the village in district Chitral Upper. The magnitude of the flood was so immense the wide span of the stream course could not accommodate it. Huge rocks and boulders, the size of a truck tumbled amidst the growing cascade and suddenly an unstoppable wall of water and rocks surged around the corner of the flood route, obliterating everything on its path. The overflow on either side entered the settlements destroying places of worship, houses, and cattle ranches. The jeep-able bridge and blacktopped road connecting Central Booni to the rest of the villages in the south vanished in a flash. The irrigation channels were badly disrupted leaving the standing crops of rice, maize, trees, fruit orchards and kitchen gardens without water for more than two months. The cost was colossal for the farmers, who are primarily dependent on subsistent agriculture to sustain their livelihoods.

Booni GLOF, 2010.

Glaciologists, based on aerial survey of the affected glacier, served ultimatum the hazard was far from over and that the villagers had to evacuate themselves to safe places forthwith. By overnight, the entire population was evacuated to the nearby safe villages for accommodation.

The socio-psychological trauma had been enormous for women and children, who were panic-stricken in the wake of the disastrous flood. Obviously, the situation for those living nearby the flood route was more wretched. Ladies ran amok with children tucked under their arms. Women and men collected household utensils, tended livestock and poultries to secure places before evacuating themselves to safety. In no time, then many displaced people started to reach at Gahli stadium, across the River Yarkhun, with the support from humanitarian organizations In a state of utter disbelief and uncertainty, the villagers spent the night in a torrential rain just to protect themselves against the looming disaster.

In the meantime, in absence of any Early Warning System, the police and volunteers from the local communities were deputed in the upper limits of the stream near the glacier to send early warning through mobile calls in case of another bout of flood.

The post-flood Booni Stream presents a deplorable scene. The green patches of crops/grasslands and the leafy overhanging trees that once festooned the fringes of the stream on either side presents a deserted look. The grief-stricken villagers standing at the edge of the stream ponder over the factors that triggered the disastrous flood.

Flash flood have become commonplace in the Hindukush region in recent years that the locals did not experience in the past. Few years ago, village Sonoghor and Brep were completed destroyed by GLOF in 2005 and 2007, respectively. Still in another instance, 10 people lost their lives and 45 were left homeless because of an unusual avalanche in Washeech village of Torkhow valley in the harsh winter of February 2005.

Written for the International Mountain Day, December 11, 2020

A Website on the Culture, History and Languages of Chitral.