Driving around the corner on this sunny morning, I look down and see, squeezed between the steep cliff of a high mountain and the glistening river, a lovely little village. The bright green of its wheat fields, its colourful traditional houses and rose gardens make an enchanting contrast to the grey rock formations and pebbles.
As I walk down a narrow path into the centre of the hamlet called Bilphok, I think to myself what a blessing the proximity to the river must be. Old stone irrigation canals transport water rich in fertilising sediment to the fields; a beautiful water mill produces flour that feeds the villagers when made into chapati and the traditional Chitrali maize bread.
Through the leaves of the mulberry trees shine the colourful red, yellow, and green dresses of a group of women walking to the river. I follow them and see a girl performing a rather daring manoeuvre: She jumps onto a rock sticking out of the torrential mountain stream to fetch water. I am worried that if she trips now, the current will carry her away – but she does it so elegantly and skilfully that in no time, two heavy buckets of murky water are lifted to her mother on the shore.
I ask if I can help them carry the heavy load, but they kindly refuse. We introduce ourselves, and then 15-year-old Sabna and her mother invite me to have tea with their family in the garden. I am touched by their kindness and glad to experience the famous Pakistani hospitality once more, but frankly I am also worried about the dirty water in the bucket. Having a rather weak stomach, I fear that it wouldn’t be good to get sick while I am travelling.
From the expression on my face, Sabna guesses what I am thinking and starts laughing: “Don’t worry, we have some crystal clear drinking water for the tea in our house. The river water we will only use for cleaning.”
Over Chai, delicious fresh mountain goat cheese and dark bread, the conversation suddenly becomes very serious. I learn that the river, a dominating force in the villagers’ lives, has a dark and violent side. Sabna tells me about the previous summer: “We were getting ready for bed, when the neighbour suddenly started banging wildly on our door, telling us that we had to hurry to run up the mountain.” It had been raining for several days, and the council of elders had warned of an imminent flash flood.
“We didn’t even have time to really pack anything. My dad grabbed some blankets and pushed us out of the house. Through the pouring rain we rushed to climb to higher ground where all the neighbours had already gathered. I was very scared and clung to my mother as we stayed the whole night on the mountain.”
When the first daylight appeared, the group climbed back down to the valley. What they found was a devastated village. All the fields and the harvest had been washed away. Large boulders had been thrown into homes as if they were small plastic toys. There was mud all over the houses.
Sabna’s dad saw the mess and immediately wanted to start the clean-up, but Sabna’s mother insisted on making tea first, to warm everyone up after the cold night in the rain. “My mom went to open the tap, and all that came out was three drops of water and a last gurgling noise.”
The flood had swept large parts of the road away and destroyed the fresh water pipeline, in not only Sabna’s village but the entire town of Chitral. For three months the whole village depended entirely on unsafe water from the river.
“You see, when we filter it with cloths the water looks ok, but it has made me and my family sick.” Sabna tells me her loved ones suffered from frequent skin rashes and diarrhoea. “I go to school and want to become a doctor. Don’t just smile, I really want to become a doctor. I read medical articles and I know how bad water can make you sick.”
Surprised by Sabna’s knowledge and poise, I say good-bye and drive on upriver to see where the problem lies. In many locations the road has been washed out, often breaking off completely for a hundred meters or more. With the pavement gone, the water pipeline lies open and unprotected from the river. In many places, water pipes are broken, bent or disconnected.
I meet Tim Grieve, UNICEF’s Senior Advisor for Water and Sanitation and Hygiene in Emergencies, who uses a makeshift ropeway to cross the river, to inspect the fresh water source located deep in the rocks on the other side. He hangs on a wooden plank suspended just inches above the raging torrent as he is pulled back to our side.
Tim seems relieved to have solid ground under his feet again as he explains the situation to me: “Luckily, the starting point of the pipeline over there on the other bank has not been damaged, and you can see the purest mountain water coming right out of the rock. Now, our job is to make sure that this precious resource makes it all the way down to the families in the Chitral valley. For them and especially for the children, having access to safe water can be a question of life and death.”
He explains that with the generous support of the United Kingdom, UNICEF is able to rehabilitate the Angarghoon water supply system in the valley, which serves 80,000 people in Chitral Town and neighbouring villages like Sabna’s.
The pipeline was provisionally fixed three months after the floods, so that it could transport a little bit of water to cover the population’s most basic needs. Now, it runs at only a third of its usual capacity, for two to three hours in the early morning before the daily repair work starts. Until the pipeline is fixed and can function at full capacity again, families like Sabna’s need to get up early to store the clean water for their daily consumption.
Half a mile further down the valley, Tim and I meet Angela Kearney, the UNICEF Representative in Pakistan, during her inspection visit to the repair works. Angela stands on one of the pipes and helps the workers get it connected to the next segment. “When you see what kind of power the water has, to disconnect such heavy 12-inch steel pipes below us, it becomes quite obvious that the impact of climate change on communities can be disastrous.”
She explains to me that Pakistan’s Northern areas have been hit by an unusual series of natural disasters in the recent past. Chitral alone was hit by severe flash floods last summer, followed by an earthquake in October. Nine people, including seven children, were buried alive by an avalanche in the valley in the winter, and there was another earthquake in the spring.
Angela stresses that while disasters cannot be prevented, the risk for the population can be significantly reduced. UNICEF, working with the District Commissioner of Chitral and with support of the British people, is repairing destroyed infrastructure and at the same time preparing for future disasters by adding protective elements. For example, the riverbank, which carries the pipeline, will be reinforced by breakwater structures built into the river.
“Even more important”, says Angela, “are our efforts to make the population aware of potential risks, so that they can take appropriate safety measures in time.” She explains that the British people have supported UNICEF in producing educational materials that explain major natural disaster risks to pupils, who can share that knowledge with their families. UNICEF’s partner organisation Islamic Relief supports the effort and conducts awareness sessions in the disaster-prone communities.
Thanks to such efforts, the people of Bilphok village knew when it was time to leave their houses and run for higher ground. This knowledge probably saved Sabna’s life.
Daniel Timme is Chief of Advocacy and Communication at UNICEF Pakistan.