FLOODS in Pakistan have caused extensive damage to many parts of the country. It has been widely debated that although the rains were several times higher than expected, poor governance and lack of disaster preparedness exacerbated the destruction. Many lives and infrastructure losses could have been avoided if our disaster management authorities had been efficient and proactive.
The Gilgit-Baltistan region is more vulnerable to the effects of climate change for both natural and political reasons. GB has the most number of small and large glaciers outside the polar regions. This ecologically fragile part of the world now faces the grave threat of glacial lake overflows (GLOFs).
A report published by the British government on August 28 should be a revelation for the authorities. Between June 30 and August 26 this year, 110 flash floods were reported in Britain. Seventeen people lost their lives and six were injured. The infrastructure losses in the region – already underdeveloped and dependent on the center for its budget – are also enormous.
According to the report, 418 houses were completely damaged and 257 partially damaged; 22 power plants were destroyed; and 78 drinking water supply systems and 500 irrigation canals were damaged. In addition, 56 bridges and 49 roads were washed away, seriously affecting the mobility of people and the transport of food from Rawalpindi. While most of the damaged facilities have been temporarily restored, including 19 power stations, the rains and floods have laid bare the region’s weak infrastructure.
Failure at the political level must be challenged.
Although the rains appear to be over, the threat of GLOF still looms mainly due to environmental degradation. The reasons are many but the failure at the political level must be questioned. The promotion of mass tourism in this ecologically fragile region without proper planning has led to an influx of tourists and an increase in land and air traffic. The absence of environmentally friendly tourism policies and infrastructure has aggravated this situation.
What are the political reasons for GB’s vulnerability? The region joined Pakistan in November 1947 and was linked to the Kashmir issue. The arrangement was made to win more votes in the plebiscite supposed to decide the fate of Kashmir and its people. Since then, GB has been administered and governed by various regimes and federal governments of Pakistan on an ad hoc basis. The region has no representation in the national legislature and its assembly has not been given full autonomy in local affairs. Federally appointed bureaucrats have more say in the administration than elected members.
The priorities of local leaders were exposed during the recent disaster. At the height of the flash floods, some British ministers, including the chief minister, were present in Islamabad in a show of loyalty to their party leader who was appearing in court for contempt of court against him. After being largely let down by bureaucrats, people also seem to be losing faith in local leaders, who face criticism on social media, mostly from educated young people in Britain who point to their incompetence and priorities biased.
The opportunity that seemed to open after the passage of the 2009 Presidential Ordinance, by which their assembly was empowered – at least to a small extent – seems to have been elusive. Since most of the GB’s elected members belong to traditional national parties, it would be difficult for them to deviate from their party policies. Recently, the UK Assembly passed the Revenue Authority Bill by a majority. The infamous act will impose various taxes on the population in an otherwise tax-free region. All previous efforts by the center to impose taxes failed due to massive protests and strikes. The move has already sparked protests and sit-ins in Britain.
The federal government’s record is not encouraging in terms of uplifting the region both politically and economically. Recently inaugurating the Jutial Sports Complex in Gilgit, Britain’s Chief Secretary Mohiyuddin Ahmed Wani said the UK government’s dream was to provide an independent workforce from the region to the world in the IT sector , which he described as the future of Pakistan. Mr. Wani may have overlooked two fundamental requirements for the IT sector to explode: first, the availability of uninterrupted high-speed internet and second, electricity. Both are rare in the UK. Given that the region has faced chronic power outages for years, this vision seems like a daydream.
GB needs practical solutions from federal and local governments. People live in a situation that constantly puts their lives at risk. There is an urgent need to formulate and implement sustainable policies to protect people and the environment.
The author is a lecturer at the School of Economics and Social Sciences, IBA Karachi.
Posted in Dawn, September 12, 2022