Dec 13, 2010

Local initiative

Kohistan is being included in the process of relief and reconstruction by mobilising communities and giving them a voice

By Natalia Tariq

Zar Buland sat at the side of the rocky Karakoram Highway at Dubair Bazaar in Kohistan, staring into the tranquil flow of the river Indus right below him. He cursed at the deceiving nature of the water which only months ago had engulfed the entire bazaar, its mighty current washing away the road, shops, and bridges. There was hurt in his eyes, the very water that had sustained him, his family and the entire community -- running water mills, generating electricity, and irrigating what little land they had managed to cultivate had also been the source of immense destruction.

His son, Abdullah, can no longer attend school, most of his day spent traveling far from home to fetch water for the family. The flash floods have come and gone, but they have left behind collapsed bridges and wrecked roads. The valley where Zar Buland’s village is located is now cut off from the main bazaar and what was before the floods an hour’s journey, now takes days of difficult hiking through the mountains. Even the communal water mill that his wife used to go to every week to grind their grain for cooking has been washed away by water.

On Thursday 28th October 2010, we accompanied the staff of Omar Asghar Khan Development Foundation (OAKDF) to the remote Kohistan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) to see flood relief and rehabilitation activities in the area. The Indus River divides Kohistan into two parts with the eastern portion referred to as the Indus Kohistan and the western portion referred to as Swat Kohistan.

The Karakoram Highway passes through Kohistan on its way to Gilgit, and as we drove from Abottabad to Batagram, into Besham (Swat), finally crossing the Chakai checkpost to enter Kohistan, we instantly became aware of the abundant natural richness of the area. Driving along the Indus on one side of the Karakoram Highway, one is surrounded by massive mountains that lead into lush green valleys and forests home to some of the world’s most endangered species such as the tragopan pheasant, musk deer, and snow leopard.

Kohistan consists of 14-15 valleys where people have settled along water streams that flow from the Indus. The population is estimated at 472,570 (1998 census) -- a highly contested figure as it is presumably understated. After Dera Bugti, Kohistan is the most impoverished district in Pakistan and ranks second lowest in terms of human development. Even before the floods hit, people led a harsh and difficult life devoid of basic literacy and health services (the entire district is only served by 3 Rural Health Centers and 15 high schools). Kohistanis rely on forestry and rearing livestock for their livelihood and many of them travel to find work in the major cities of Pakistan or migrate to the Middle East.

OAKDF is one of the few organisations operating in Kohistan. The area is difficult to access not just in terms of its geographical terrain, but also because of the complex tribal dynamics and conservative culture that prevails. The fact that we did not come across a single woman on the visit and that many of the men were carrying guns speaks volumes of the difficult environment of the area. Due to these reasons, the district has been underserved not just by civil society organisations but also by the government.

Over the years, Kohistanis have learned to rely on themselves to meet their needs and this goes to explain the great self-sufficiency and resilience of these people. However, recent flooding has opened an entry point into the area as introverted governance and communal structures of the area are now becoming more open to assistance and engagement with outsiders. The disaster has also highlighted the need for tribes that are hostile towards each other to put aside their differences and come together in a time of great distress.

On Friday 29th October 2010, we held five meetings with people from various Union Councils of Kohistan regarding their flood relief and reconstruction needs:

Floods have affected people’s mobility in the region. Bridges, pathways and roads have been swept away. This is incredibly problematic as Kohistanis living up in the valleys come down to the main town centers with their livestock when winter approaches. Without roads and bridges making this journey through the mountains has become next to impossible. People claimed that they now make an hour’s journey in a day. The distinction between relief and reconstruction becomes blurred in practice as without access to bridges and roads it becomes very difficult for people to carry the food they receive through food distributions to their villages.

People’s discontent with the role (or lack thereof) the government has played in terms of flood relief and rehabilitation in the area was highlighted repeatedly. They feel that Kohistan has always been an excluded district of KP and the same has held true even in the post flood situation. The government’s efforts have been focused on areas such as Nowshera and Charsaddah.

Even though distribution of Watan Cards has been promised the government has not yet fully delivered. There are immense issues using the few cards that have been distributed as people lack information on usage and there is only one ATM machine servicing the population.

Water mills that were used to grind grains and water run electricity generators have also been destroyed. Rehabilitation of water channels is urgently required. Education, already lacking in the area, has suffered even more after the floods. Lack of access to potable water has meant that children now have to travel far to fetch water and cannot attend schools.

Health situation is already dismal (not a single hospital exists in Kohistan) and has been worsened as a result of lack of mobility caused by floods. The nearest hospital is in Mansehra which has become difficult to access now that bridges and roads have been destroyed.

Apart from identifying the needs of these communities, the meetings were also used as a platform to discuss advocacy possibilities. The sheer scale of needs identified in Kohistan makes it clear that both international donors and the government have to step up their assistance and address these needs with a comprehensive strategy.

This will only happen if the people of Kohistan form alliances with each other and with the rest of the Hazara population and demand their rights. At the final meeting held in Pattan, where all the communities came together, they were asked to set aside their differences and form committees that can come together on the platform of Tehrik-e-Huqooq-e-Hazara that was formed by OAKDF when the earthquake hit in 2005. They were also asked to map the needs they had identified at the earlier meetings to start forming a relief and reconstruction strategy.

Even though the flooding in Kohistan has almost entirely destroyed Zar Buland’s livelihood, his dreams are not yet shattered. The second most marginalised district of Pakistan is being included in the process of relief and reconstruction in a way that is mobilising communities such as the one Zar Buland belongs to, and giving them the agency to voice their flood related concerns.

OAKDF has already helped rebuild three bridges, conducted food distributions in the area and their technical team has completed feasibility and costing of roads and pathways that will improve access in some of the valleys of Kohistan. There are some other organisations working there too.

Despite these interventions, the flood relief/reconstruction efforts in the area are incredibly insufficient. The havoc created by the floods has been monumental and needs to be met by an equally colossal response. For years, the plight of people like Zar Buland has gone unnoticed. We must not let the flood affectees of Kohistan become the forgotten victims of this dreadful catastrophe.

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