“It was around 10:20 am 17 March 2022. I was at home, heard a loud crash and suddenly the ground shook under my feet,” said Alibek Alidodov, Avalanche Preparedness Team (AVPT) volunteer in Roshtqala District, Tajikistan.
“At first, I thought it was an earthquake, but the crash was getting louder and louder. I immediately went outside to see what was happening. Suddenly I saw a huge avalanche descend from the other side of the river and head straight to our village.”
Between November 2021 and March 2022 there were 440 avalanches in the mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan in which we work. These events can cause loss of lives and livelihoods, shattering houses, damaging infrastructure and closing roads.
“In the West, people who die in avalanches are mostly recreationists. They’re choosing to be in that terrain. In Central Asia, there is no choice. People are living in these villages under the threat of avalanches,” said Doug Chabot, Avalanche Forecaster.
“In Europe you’re looking at something like 60 people a year dying. In the US it’s 30, and in Canada about 15. In Central Asia, we measure these deaths in the hundreds, especially in a bad year like 2012 or 2017. We have to warn and inform.”
In response, the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) has established a community avalanche education programme and comprehensive hazard assessment and monitoring systems. It is one of the only organisations in Central Asia to do so.
The winter preparedness programme has been launched every November since 2017. The plan covers pre-disaster training sessions, stockpiling, early warning systems and alerts, effective weather monitoring posts, fail-safe communication, exit routes, pre-emptive evacuation plans and procedures, and rescue and relief capacities. The programme is informed by detailed hazard assessment to map risks and safe areas.
Hazard, Vulnerability, and Risk Assessment (HVRA) is a community-level risk assessment framework that is foundational to AKAH’s work. It is a four-step process starting from desk-based analysis using satellite images and data from secondary sources. This is further enriched by a field visit and community consultation. Data related to existing hazards, past disasters and socio-economic data are analysed using the risk framework, to produce a risk map showing the settlement’s exposure to different levels of risk. This analysis is disseminated to relevant stakeholders, including government and community leaders.
“It is a unique approach as AKAH uses geographical information systems and database technology in conjunction with community consultation to develop a local-level risk map and a rich and consistent database of different relevant layers,” said Deo Raj Gurung, Winter Preparedness Programme Coordinator, AKAH. “Using this temporal and spatially consistent database, we can monitor risk evolution and gain insights into risk dynamics.”
AKAH has covered nearly 2,500 settlements through HVRAs, which are updated every three years. More than 600 of these settlements are highly avalanche prone. To monitor and predict avalanche risk in these villages, we have established 88 weather monitoring posts (WMPs), operated by 100 trained volunteers. Every day these volunteers collect weather data on temperature, snowfall, wind, rain and more, as well as any data on avalanches that occurred. They report this data daily to AKAH.
Hajirah Bibi, WMP volunteer from Lower Chitral, Pakistan described her work: “I have to record the data/readings from the weather monitoring post on a daily basis at a fixed time. But if the weather gets worse, I have to record the readings four times a day to share with AKAH officials. As a response, I receive weather alerts and warnings, which I have to disseminate among the community and focal persons for mosques, schools and other voluntary institutions... Going further, I am looking for more technical training to use updated equipment and also the skills to forecast weather.”
AKAH maintains a database of these daily weather reports, which avalanche forecasting expert, Doug Chabot, reviews every morning during the winter season to provide avalanche forecasts and advisories. Doug notes that a combination of three factors can cause avalanches: slopes steeper than 30 degrees, which are ubiquitous in the mountainous terrain of northern Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan; the weather, for example whether the snow is dense or powdery, and whether the wind is blowing it about; and snowpack (whether each new layer of snow is adhering to the others or could be easily triggered to slide). Assessing snowpack would require digging expeditions high in the mountains, so monitoring avalanche activity serves as a proxy.
Other than predicting and preparing for avalanches, mitigation strategies include triggering them at safe times, building defence structures high on the mountain in starting zones to prevent avalanches, or creating valley floor structures to protect houses. As these mitigation strategies are high cost and can cover only a limited zone per structure, having an effective system to forecast and warn against risk is crucial, as is getting people to heed warnings. For this, the weather monitoring posts are key.
“The weather monitoring posts require less than US$ 100 of equipment to set up and are run by volunteers. What’s really great is that the villagers collect their own data and are deeply invested in the programme. It makes the whole programme sustainable,” said Doug Chabot.
Through this programme, weather monitoring volunteers and local communities are learning to spot avalanche risks and monitor conditions to make their own informed decisions and cope with the risks they face.
“An avalanche happened when I was out of Shughnan. Before I left, I requested my family during the raising of snow to leave the house in line with what AKAH had trained us to do and said that the snow showed that there would probably be an avalanche,” said Rahim Bek, Shughnan District, Afghanistan. “Luckily, there were no fatalities.”
To help communities act on this information, protect and prepare against an avalanche and recover quickly if one strikes, AKAH equips local emergency response volunteer teams, including AVPTs, with specialised training.
Mohammad Haref, schoolteacher and AVPT team leader in Ishkashim District, Afghanistan, has helped safely evacuate people when his village was threatened by avalanches or floods. He has noticed more frequent avalanches over the years as temperatures have risen and rain and snow patterns have changed:
“Every year, our village experiences natural disasters. Considering the needs of our people and our community that is far from telecommunication networks and the inaccessibility of district centres during cold weather, I decided to join the team. I received training on first aid and search and rescue twice in the last two years. This year, I received professional training about avalanches. We have instruments such as shovels, tools to bring back patients, loudspeakers, electricity, saws, axes, string, as well as protective equipment including two [avalanche] probes, boxes and goggles.”
Saving lives and livelihoods
Communities are now better prepared with evacuation and response plans, and AKAH’s Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers mobilise quickly to respond.
“The avalanche completely blocked the river, and the water began to rise. The first house was already completely under the avalanche, and the second house was threatened by water rising from the river. Before the water reached the house, we immediately organised a safe passage and within 20 minutes pulled all the stuff out of the house. As a result, we saved all the property of the family of the second house. After 40-45 minutes, the water reached the second house and completely washed away the house. Fortunately, no one was hurt as the evacuation process by the AVPT and CERT volunteers of Roshtqala District was successful,” said Alibek Alidodov.
Between November 2021 and March 2022, 98 percent of the 448 recorded avalanches in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan occurred in AKAH’s programme areas. Thanks to the work of staff and volunteers, these incidents were responsible for only 13 percent of the total fatalities.
The future of winter preparedness
The villages have noticed warmer temperatures and increased rainfall at high elevations over the years, triggering more avalanches and reducing water availability as less water is stored as snow. We need to adapt current HVRA practice to assess future risks associated with climate change.
According to Deo Raj Gurung:
“There is scope to improve both winter preparedness and HVRA programmes. We need to make programmes climate proof to adapt current HVRA practice to assess future risk associated with climate change. Winter preparedness needs to be strengthened with better forecast and early warning systems. We need to improve the accuracy and scale of forecasts, going from the current regional-level forecasts to more localised alerts and warnings. Since ground data is crucial for avalanche forecasting, we need to invest in improving ground data collection. We need to see how we can improve community members’ compliance with advice, which is currently a challenge and even leads to loss of lives.”
We are working to expand the HVRA process to integrate climate risk, combining the extensive localised data and comprehensive records of natural hazard incidence we have collected over the years with data from global climate models, to model various future climate scenarios and inform action. We are also harnessing ecosystems and nature-based solutions such as afforestation to reduce current disaster risk while mitigating future climate-induced hazards.