When the nearby Hindukush range is overcast by the scary combination of dense black clouds, thundering lightening and formidable thunderstorms, Noor Nabi and his fellow villagers know it?s time to get worried. This means flash floods are imminent.
?Whenever these three activities take place simultaneously on the mighty Hindukush mountains, they are followed by rising dust and reverberations of rocks falling and rolling down.That is the moment, when we know that a flood is on its way,? Noor Nabi, a resident of Jalkot area of the remote Kohistan district, told Dawn.
That is what happened on July 25 last year when a heavy spell of non-stop monsoon rains caused flash floods in 13 streams. Big torrents of water flowed down the hills and through the valleys of this scenic district before merging in the Indus River.
Mr Nabi?s village is located along River Indus a few kilometres from Dassu, the district headquarters of Kohistan. Flash floods are a common problem here.
Last year, around 70 houses in this area were swept away by the floods but there were minimum human causalities. Mr Nabi attributed this to the early warning system the local communities have developed through local knowledge and observation.
?On the morning of July 25, we sensed an imminent flood so we gathered our precious belongings and documents and climbed up to high altitude locations,? he recalled. Communities here use indigenous knowledge to protect themselves from the danger of flash floods since government aid seldom reaches their areas.
The communities in the hilly areas of neighbouring Swat have a similar system in place.They, too, apply indigenous knowledge to understand local hydrological activity and protect themselves when this hydrological activity adopts the shape of sudden and devastating flash floods.
Zarmat Khan, a resident of Buyun village of Kalam valley, explained to Dawn that many aged people, especially women, can predict oncoming floods by observing the movement of wildlife and their livestock.?When the goats come down, we know that something is about to happen. Mountain goats do not normally come down to the villages since they prefer staying away from the population,? Mr Khan from Mingora told Dawn.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is prone to flash floods originating from the two major river systems of Swat and Indus. Forecasting these flash floods and minimising the damages caused by them is an area of expertise that has been developed by the indigenous communities, says Mohammad Sher, the district disaster management officer of Kohistan.
Indigenous knowledge in this area is not just limited to forecasting floods; over time it has evolved to also include understanding of where the safest places for building houses are.
Take, for example, those parts of Balakot valley which are situated along Kunhar River. These areas are vulnerable to flash floods that occur as a result of hill torrents and cloud bursts.
?People in hilly areas have learned how to live with disasters,? Mohammad Anwar Khan Sherani, the district disaster management officer Mansehra said. According to him, these communities have memorised the pattern of floods and damages caused by different hill torrents so they do not construct houses in those places that are considered unsafe for living. ?They pass on information from one generation to other. Damages that were caused by flash floods as long as 40 years ago are still taken into account,? he explained.
This knowledge can be very useful if the government adopts it and uses it on a mass scale. In countries with similar geographical features as that of Pakistan and specifically Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a system of incorporating local knowledge of disasters has been made part of risk mitigation strategies. But in Pakistan, there has been little effort to use this knowledge in government response to disasters.
Today, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is the first province to have set up district level disaster management units. However, there still remains room for improvement. Shakeel Qader Khan, the director general OF Provincial Disaster management Authority (PDMA), acknowledged that integration of local approaches towards forewarning and risk mitigation were yet to be adopted in official strategy.
?Sophisticated equipment is needed to fore cast weather patterns, but one cannot underestimate the effectiveness of local wisdom about impending natural disasters,? Mr Khan told Dawn, and added: ?Efforts are being made to incorporate this element in future interventions.? The PDMA has signed an agreement with United Nations Development Fund to improve the newly set up district disaster management units.
In the first phase, 10 DDMUs of the most vulnerable districts will be given equipment and training regarding risk mitigation and community-led early warning systems, Mr Khan explained.
He added that this model will be replicated in other parts of the province in gradual stages.
However, a model that is utilising indigenous knowledge already exists. A relatively better system of disaster management was developed in Mansehra after the 2005 earthquake. Today, teams of trained volunteers are operating at all 56 union councils. They work for risk mitigation by utilising both local knowledge and local methods of communication.
?We already have a model. It only needs to be replicated to make use of indigenous knowledge in disaster management,? Khan adds. He, however, is not aware of any plans to extend the model