Context & Culture

A Perfect (Snow) Storm: What can be done against avalanche damage in Afghanistan


Crushed by an avalanche: bended pylon of one of the country’s major power lines. Avalanches interrupted the electricity supply for Kabul since 24 February. Photo: Pajhwok

After an exceptional dry winter, snow finally arrived in Kabul and the northern and central provinces. However, the sheer amounts of what should have been a blessing for farmers, turned into a catastrophe for some communities living in these areas, as the snowfall triggered a series of avalanches, claiming the lives of almost 300 people. It also bent pylons of one of the country’s major power line, interrupting electricity supplies for the capital Kabul. Topography, seismic activity and effects of dramatically changing climate patterns throughout the country are the causes of such events and are, therefore, predictable, argues our guest author Ikramuddin Bahram, (*) a geologist in training who has worked in the field of disaster management. According to him, lack of government preparedness has contributed to the increased sufferings of Afghan villagers in the unusually high frequency of avalanches in the last few weeks. He points out measures that should be taken before  next winter’s snowfalls.

The latest series of avalanches following unexpectedly strong (and late) winter snowfall in the northern and central provinces in the past two weeks has put the nation into three days of national mourning last week. The avalanches began to occur on 24 February. So far, according to official figures, natural disasters have hit 23 provinces throughout Afghanistan. Avalanches claimed the lives of 268 people, most of them – 198 – in Panjshir province, and injured more than 100 others. After that, 12 more people were killed by avalanches and landslides in Nangrahar and Badghis provinces on 7 March. Also Badakhshan, Bamian, Daykundi, Parwan, Takhar, Nuristan and Laghman were hit hard. The material damage of the latest weather anomalies, in property, livestock and infrastructure, remain unquantified so far.

However, this episode is not over yet. There has been more heavy snowfall – that came down as rain in warmer areas – over the past days. Fresh avalanches at the Salang pass not only closed the major national north-south highway for a second time, but also forced the country’s major electricity supplier, De Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat, to suspend efforts to set up emergency power lines to at least alleviate power shortages in the capital Kabul. In Jalalabad and Laghman, the heavy rainfall also collapsed the roofs of houses.

Charting the risks

This latest series of natural disaster hitting the country (see AAN reporting about landslides in Badakhshan in May last year here) is partly related to the specific topography and climatic conditions of the area at the juncture of the rugged Hindu Kush and Pamir Mountains.

Over 80 per cent of the annual precipitation of Afghanistan falls as snow in the  mountain ranges of the country. (1) When the snow melts faster in spring and summer, it floods the lower-lying regions, and in winter, avalanches rush down the slopes on which, often, small villages are situated. Slopes have been traditionally used for housing to leave the valley bottom for farming purposes.

High angle slopes are characteristic of central and north-northeastern Afghanistan. Peaks ranging as high as 7000 meters (and some above) are not rare. Deep gorges with steep walls because of river incisions that snake through the mountains are common. High peaks, usually covered with snow and and characterised by heavy accumulations of winter precipitation are thus a defining feature of the region.

Therefore, avalanches are common hydro-meteorological hazard in northern Afghanistan. It is the deadliest natural hazard after earthquakes and floods in the country. A classification of hazards with regards to the risks they pose to the local populations was published in the National Disaster Management Plan (NDMP) of 2003. This document classifies nine of Afghanistan’s provinces as high-risk areas for avalanches, including the recently hit provinces of Badakhshan, Bamian and Panjshir. 14 other provinces are at medium risk.

Causes: topography, fault lines and climate change

A glance at the historical data of recent major avalanches in Afghanistan that made international news headlines reveals a concerning set of data that go beyond the risks charted in the NDMP. For example, avalanches on 16 January 2009 and 7 February 2010 at the Salang tunnel claimed the lives of 10 and 165 people respectively, while another one in early March 2012 killed around 50 in Shekai district of Badakhshan province. Major snowstorms and the resultant avalanches have started to happen more frequently but in a predictable pattern.

The high angle slopes of the Hindu Kush form the perfect setting for the accumulation of snow. (2) Seismic activities along the active fault lines in the vicinity of the Hindu Kush-Pamir juncture (the Central Badakhshan Fault, Andarab Fault and Darwaz Fault, among a host of smaller local faults), can also cause slabs of snow to rush downhill. Furthermore, the temperature variations at the rock and snow interface make the ice located at the interface melt which, then, acts as a lubricant that enhances the glide of the overlying snow slab. A ‘perfect storm’ under such conditions in this geologic setting exacerbates the propensity and frequency of avalanche occurrence, especially when rates of unusually high precipitation precede the events. This has exactly been the case in the Panjshir and the other provinces hit over the past weeks.

Why better precautions have not been taken?

As these are natural processes that have shaped the earth for over millions of years, avalanches are not a surprising phenomenon, even if more recent climate change (3) has made them more frequent. To someone with even subtle understanding of surface geography, a topographic map of the region suffices to conclude which areas are at risk of avalanches. It is possible to take precautions against them.

In the aftermath of the recent avalanches, the government and aid agencies rushed to the scene and offered assistance, but it was still a far cry from what was needed. The main roads and  link roads are still covered with thick snow (see this stunning picture by Bilal Sarwari from central Nuristan) and remain impassable, particularly for non-food item assistance that cannot be airdropped. Also the bodies of those stuck in the avalanches are yet to be recovered.

The local people’s awareness is also a problem. Though natural hazards are recognised as potentially devastating, there still is a lack of understanding about how acutely dangerous the situation is. Most of the communities are also too poor to move to new places. Lack of land in the nearby areas to settle on is also an issue. The absence of government assistance, infrastructure and strong institutional measures exacerbates the situation. There are not enough weather stations in those valleys to monitor the changing weather patterns and predict the amount of snowfall so that local populations could be warned in time and no consolidated Early Warning System exists. The construction of mitigation structures for avalanches in these valleys is also over-due. Hazard and risk maps specific to avalanches either on the community level, provincial level or the national level are also still lacking. Even the 2010 National Disaster Management Plan, produced under the auspices of the Afghanistan National Disaster Management Authority (ANDMA) and praised by geoscientist and Afghanistan expert John Shroder (1) as “well thought-out,” fails to present a hazard map specific to avalanches.

When it comes to implementation and practice on the grounds, however, ANDMA as an institution has a nominal presence only and usually reaches at the scene late. Therefore, even good plans remain of no use unless the government institutions led by the central National Disaster Management Commission (NDMC) and ANDMA, as envisaged in the national plan, are strengthened in terms of personnel and machinery. (The NDMC is normally chaired by the second vice-president, but during the recent events the president seems to have taken over the lead.) ANDMA’s provincial chapters also remain drastically under-resourced and without sufficient capacity.

In such a scenario, it is high time for the government of Afghanistan and donor agencies to revisit not only the national plan but also the hazard map of the country. This should form the foundation of future activities of the ANDMA, its provincial chapters, the line ministries – in particular the ministries of rural rehabilitation and development, health and education – and relief agencies in the long term. To fulfill this objective, this writer calls for the establishment of a dedicated unit of geo-scientists and land-use planners with a clear mandate to particularly revisit the natural hazard maps.

Once this vital source of information is produced, a national disaster management plan could be put in place, which should be indigenous and practical and could address the disaster-related issues at community levels. On the other hand, short-term activities for the rehabilitation of the affected communities may include the construction of mitigation structures in the avalanche-hit communities, safeguarding the national highways and establishment of weather stations for timely evaluation of the changing weather pattern that could help predict, and thus avoid future avoidable disasters.

With this winter’s avalanche season hopefully coming to an end soon, there are some months to carry out the work before the next winter’s snowfalls.

(Editing by Thomas Ruttig)

(*) Ikramuddin Bahram is a Master’s candidate in Geology at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. US. He has lived and worked extensively in Badakhshan and the northern areas of Pakistan, for FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance, an international disaster management organisation.

 

(1) See: Shroder, F. John, Natural Resources in Afghanistan: Geographic and Geologic Perspectives on Centuries of Conflict, San Diego: Elsevier, 2014.

(2) 35 to 45 degrees is the angle at which most avalanches occur, while avalanches can occur between angles of 30 to 50 degrees. These angles are characteristic for the relevant Afghan areas. See: Bruce Tremper, Staying alive in avalanche terrain, Seattle: The Mountaineers Books, 2008.

(3) The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported an increase of the global average air temperature in the last century (1901–2000) of about +0.6° Celsius in their Third Assessment Report and for the period 1905 to 2005 of about +0.74° Celsius in their Fourth Assessment Report. Observations of increasing global average air and ocean temperature, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level indicate the global warming very well. The report ranks eleven of the twelve years between 1995 and 2005 among the 12 warmest years since the instrumental record of global surface temperature (IPCC, 2007). Recently, two separate analyses by scientists of the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have established the ten warmest years in the instrumental record, with the exception of 1998, to occur since 2000. The same analyses have concluded the year 2014 as the earth’s warmest since 1880.

Several studies have linked the severe weather events, extreme seasonal precipitation regimes, snow, glaciers, permafrost, ecosystems, the water cycle, and an accelerated retreat of glaciers over the past few decades in the region to climate change. (See for example Riaz (2010), Mergili et al (2014), and Jalilova and Aslanov (2013)). Events such as the mega monsoon floods of 2010 (on which the author wrote his BS thesis) in South Asia, the floods of 2011, 2012 and 2014 in Pakistan as well as the increase in the severity and frequency of flash floods in the Afghan northern provinces of Baghlan, Takhar, Badakhshan have been noted as manifestations of the impact of climatic change in the Himalayan-Hindu Kush region. Similarly, the major avalanche events in the region including the Siachen Glacier (on the demarcation line between Pakistan and India in Kashmir) ice avalanches of 2012 and the recent unprecedented avalanches in Afghanistan’s north could be linked to this pattern. However, for this to be conclusively established, detailed studies need to be conducted.

Heavier than normal snow fall on slopes of 30 to 50 degrees, and quick variations in local temperatures over a short period of time (snowfall followed by a quick increase in temperature and then cooling for a second episode of snowfall) constitute the formation of snow slabs ready to rush down upon a trigger, usually in the form of a seismic event. However, it is very early to call these recent avalanches to have been influenced solely by the change in climate since the Hindu Kush region has a history of such avalanches, except that the causalities and losses in the past have not occurred or not recorded or we do not know of.

References:

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, Pachauri, R.K and Reisinger, A. (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 2007.

Jalilova, G. and Aslanov, U., Poverty alleviation through mitigation of integrated high mountain risk in the Pamir region of Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, 2013.

Mergili, M., Kopf, C., MĂĽllebner, B. and Schneider, J.F., Changes of the cryosphere and related geohazards in the high-mountain areas of Tajikistan and Austria: a comparison. Geografiska Annaler: Series A, Physical Geography 2012.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “NASA, NOAA Find 2014 Warmest Year in Modern Record”, 16 January 2015.

Riaz, M., Pakistan monsoon floods: climate change or geological rundown?, 2010.

Riaz, S. and Bahram, I., Hydrodynamic analysis of Kabul River (NW Pakistan) during monsoon floods of August 2010, 2010.

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