In a video gone viral among some circles, an old man lies curled up in the snow, frozen to death. Some people can be seen picking him up carefully and placing his dead body on a mat. The video is from Baluchistan – one of the worst-affected areas in the recent cold wave that hit Pakistan.

In yet another video from Baluchistan, lines of cars are seen stuck in the snow on the main road of Muslimbagh district.

But this is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

Authorities across South Asia were caught off guard as heavy snowfall triggered avalanches, burying homes and people in the first fortnight of 2020. With cold winds blowing from the Mediterranean and picking up more moisture from the Caspian Sea, the western parts of the Hindu Kush Himalayas were the worst hit.

On January 12, the official death count in Afghanistan stood at 24, according to news agency Reuters. With many areas still out of bounds and the thermometer falling to minus 12 degrees Celsius even in valleys in the northern parts of the country, Afghanistan’s Natural Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) feared that that the toll may be far higher.

Reuters reported that many key roads have been closed since the beginning of the year, including the Salang Tunnel connecting central Afghanistan with the north of the country, and the Kabul-Kandahar highway.

Most of the deaths on January 12 were reported from the western province of Herat, where roofs of two houses collapsed under the weight of snow, killing at least eight people, including women and children.

Afghanistan’s meteorological department has forecast more cold waves in the coming weeks. So has its counterpart in Pakistan, which has recorded the highest number of deaths so far. The latest official count by Pakistan’s NDMA on January 16 said at least 106 people had been killed, including 77 in Pakistan administered Kashmir, 20 in Baluchistan, five in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and two in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB).

In Kashmir’s Neelum Valley, at least 60 people were reported dead.

Sardar Shoaib, a snow leopard conservationist, said, “Usually when there is snowfall, it is about one to two feet deep, in a period of around two days; this time, in the same period it is about five to six feet.”

Shoaib added that in a village in Surgham Valley, around 30 people had gathered under one roof, in the hope of being in a safe spot. An avalanche came crashing down right on top of the house and buried them. “Avalanches have killed many people in other places, even more remote, including tiny villages. Some people have lost their property, some people their lives. The Guraiz, Kail, and Shounder valleys are all extremely vulnerable areas.” he says. Tinier villages in the Himalayas may have been worse hit. “They are so far flung and so remote, that even the locals from adjoining areas do not know how these people are living. I am certain that news of the deaths – if any – will reach days later, mainly because communication links have gone down,” he said.

With such heavy snowfall on steep slopes, avalanches occur when slabs of snow break loose from a mountainside and race downhill, sometimes rolling down the main roads, even at the speed of a car. “Avalanches have even taken down forests along with them,” said Shoaib.

The climate change connection

Hamid Mir, an expert in glacial lake outburst floods, pointed out that the weight of water in ever-expanding glacial lakes have destabilised the Himalayan slopes. Lakes are forming at the snouts of glaciers because the glaciers are melting faster in a warmer world, but the moraine where the snout is located is unable to carry water downhill at a faster rate. So the meltwater gathers at the snout forming a lake that gets bigger every summer, till it bursts its banks and comes crashing down in a flood. Pakistan has witnessed such floods in 2005, 2008, 2010, 2015, 2017 and 2019. In India the entire state of Uttarakhand was devastated in 2013 due to floods triggered by the outburst of such a lake. Deaths have been reported in Nepal by such flash floods. Bhutan is spending an enormous amount of money and effort in recent years in an effort to stabilise the slopes of such a lake and to let out some of the water in a controlled manner.

Heavy snowfall in such destabilised slopes multiply the avalanche risk. In India, security check-posts and homes in Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have been buried under avalanches in recent days. Ten deaths have been reported from Kashmir. In all the states, rescue workers are still trying to reach remote villages, especially those located above 2,000 metres.

Rescue work in India has been hampered because the crucial Jammu-Srinagar highway is closed by snow, just like the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan administered Kashmir. Blocked roads often have tragic consequences. Hamid Mir said, “My friend had a brain haemorrhage and lay in the nearest Basic  Health Unit for three days before he died, just because he could not be transferred to a hospital in Peshawar – which in ordinary circumstances is 12 hours away.”

In all the countries, armed forces are using helicopters to rescue stranded people and drop food packets. Six trekkers are still reported missing in Nepal. In Bhutan, authorities report serious drinking water shortages as all pipes are frozen. The tourist town of Shimla – capital of Himachal Pradesh in India – had a large number of holiday makers to see in the New Year, but most people left in a hurry when the pipes froze.

Residents, who cannot leave in such a manner, are facing serious shortages of food, medicines and other necessities all over the Himalayan region in South Asia. In most places, power lines have been snapped by the snowfall, and there is shortage of gas cylinders which people may have used for heating as well as cooking. Stockpiles of wood are running low in most homes.

Talking about rescue and relief measures, Rashidul Ghafoor, spokesperson of the Deputy Commissioner of Chitral, said, “We do have some facilities but we may need more. Mainly in all such vulnerable areas, the measures that the administration takes are preventive, which means that the transport unions are told the forecast; messages are sent through social media, TV and radio; signboards are placed on roadsides. But sadly, many of the passengers have not bothered to pay heed and have continued onwards.”

Ghafoor thinks that next time, as soon as there is forecast of such a cold wave, road clearing machinery should be moved to the remote upper slopes of the Himalayas and kept ready. The problem, he admits, is that “we are generally reactive rather than proactive.”

Hamid Mir says that messages sent by the authorities should include advice to stockpile food, water, fuel, fodder and other basic necessities. He also thinks it will be a good idea to put up tents as far away from slopes as possible so that people can find some shelter if their homes are destroyed by an avalanche. He also thinks tractors with snowploughs should be kept at the ready in remote areas, and alternate access routes clearly marked beforehand.

Crop bounty this summer?

While the heavy snowfall and consequent avalanches is creating havoc all over the Hindu Kush Himalayas, farmers think the extra moisture will lead to a bountiful crop this year. Yahya Musakhel, Baluchistan coordinator of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, said, “We rarely receive rain, and when it snows or rains, the people prosper thanks to crops. This is a dark time, where so many have died and are suffering. But maybe there is a shred of hope that this cold wave may have brought with it.” Afghanistan, which saw the worst drought this century in 2019 because of low winter snowfall at the end of 2018 and beginning of 2019, will also have less to fear this year.

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