By Zainab Khalid (Lanzhou University and COMSATS University)

The first thing that strikes travelers to the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Northern Pakistan, where the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalaya mountain ranges meet, is its dramatic landscapes. Tall, bare almost ugly, somewhat scary mountains are broken by deeply cut valleys, whose meandering rivers and tributaries surround you as you move deeper into the region. It is hard not to admire the fine balance the region’s residents have sustained between their livelihoods and their environment.

This region of Pakistan is not only visually fascinating, but also socio-culturally complex. Its people speak multiple languages and belong to several ethic groups (primarily Burushaski and Wakhi). The region’s combination of natural and political hazards mean that it is no stranger to crisis; be it natural events, sectarian violence or the repercussions of its confused political status. More recently, this region, like the rest of Pakistan and the globe, has had to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic too.

Many scholars are pulled to the region to study its fascinating geography and geology, but they tend not to respond to issues that are important to local people, and one of the most serious of these is disaster communication. When things go wrong, there are few ways to find out about it. In official communications, the colonial language English and the national language Urdu dominate. These exclude local people and their languages. Like many minority groups around the world, the people of the region had hoped to connect with each other in their own languages through the internet. But the intense securitization of the region, and of communication, has made this difficult too, creating a backlash among local youth.

Figure 1: A small pocket of 6 houses living in one part of the Hassanabad Village in Hunza (Zainab Khalid, 2019)

Natural hazards and subsequent disasters are a looming threat in this landscape. So much so that its people are either actively or passively prepared for them. They carry with them the memories of previous disasters. It has been a decade since the twin disasters of the Attabad Landslide (2010) and then dammed lake occurred in Hunza. The horrific landslide took with it the whole village of Attabad (after which it is named), 20 lives and blocked the Hunza river. This resulted in the formation of Attabad lake. The Attabad lake was initially 21 kms long. It inundated several houses in nearby villages. Today, it has become one of Pakistan’s top tourists spots. Local people have invested in business such as water sports and hotels, converting their tragedy into opportunity.

Looking over the beautiful lake, it is hard to believe that this is a by-product of a disaster.

Figure 2: Attabad Lake on a serene morning (Zainab Khalid, 2018)

Since then, there have been several incidents of smaller intensity but none has been as jolting as Attabad. These events include a glacial lake outburst flood in Shimshal Valley, Upper Hunza, and Mayoon Landslide in central Hunza. Other than these, occasional landslides, rock falls and debris flow triggered by erratic rainfall, snow or sometimes hot and dry weather are very common in the region. The consistency of these events means that effective crisis communication can save lives.

I live on the plains below Gilgit-Baltistan, but I was in Hunza conducting fieldwork in 2019 when another outburst flood occurred from the Shishper Glacial lake. After Attabad, everyone was on high alert for this outburst, and there had been many predictions about how serious it could be. As the event happened, it was closely monitored nationally and internationally. As we watched, the glacier moved several meters forward and blocked glacial-melt water from Shishper Glacier and nearby Mochowar Glacier. This created a glacial lake. A lake burst finally occurred in the summer 2019, with another episode in May 2020. Being a student of disaster studies, I watched carefully as the chains of response to the disaster unfolded. Slowly, local responses were overtaken by government responses. As this happened, what had been uniquely local responses to the disaster were erased by state institutions and bureaucratic mechanisms.

Figure 3: Shishper Glacier surging through Hunza Valley (Zainab Khalid, 2019).

The shift from local to provincial and national responses to the disasters was accompanied by a shift in language use. The people in Hunza speak Burushaski, while in upper Hunza or Gojal, Wakhi is the dominant language. But in the official communication during any natural event such as floods, landslides, rock falls, and so forth, all directives and information are provided in either English or Urdu. The use of English in the region is a remnant of colonialism. Urdu became the nation-building language that the post-colonial state employed to bring unity to its socio-culturally diverse peoples. Locals have learnt and used these languages as a survival strategy. Their survival instincts operate not only in a diffuse way, to fit in with the Pakistani state’s power, but in a very direct way so that they can learn about disasters.

Using local languages enables two-way communication. Using English and Urdu means that the state is talking to the region’s people, not with them. Local newspapers, such as the Pamir Times, Hunza News, are written either in Urdu or English. These languages may provide wide coverage, but they also increasingly exclude locals from the conversation. English and Urdu media undermine linguistic diversity and automatically exclude the majority of people, who do not understand these adopted languages well. Communicating in these languages assumes that what they have to say is not important. It suggests no one wants to hear people who speak in their own languages: they are never heard, they do not have a voice, they do not have an identity, and in the chaos, they are invisible.

The lack of internet access in the region has also stopped mother-tongue communication. Gilgit-Baltistan’s sensitive geopolitical location means that its cellular and internet networks are controlled by the state security department. This network, named SCOM (Special Communications Organization—Mobile) has a limited and poor service which hinders the communication among locals and tourists. Military control of the server enables them to control communication in the area but has other consequences that are not usually considered.

When disasters occur, this lack of communication can have life-altering and even tragic consequences. As the COVID pandemic has shown, maintaining a poor service is not just a military matter; it represents a threat to these communities’ well-being.

The first wave of COVID-19 hit Pakistan in March 2020. The federal government closed educational institutes and encouraged e-learning to avoid the spread of the virus. Like other students, the native students of Gilgit region also travelled home. Unlike students in other areas of Pakistan, however, they faced real problems trying to communicate with their teachers and health services as the pandemic unfolded.

Figure 4: A student in Gilgit Baltistan attending online class. Photo source Kamran Ali Baig (Twitter: @kamranalibaig66)

Students from the Gilgit-Baltistan region took to popular social media sites—Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—to expose the region’s low-quality cellular network and internet. The lack of connection was not now. But the spread of the virus awakened a sense of injustice among the students who had become desperate in the face of the pandemic. Several people, including popular social activists and bloggers, joined the movement, which lasted several months. Maintaining a protest movement in such a geopolitically sensitive area as Gilgit-Baltistan requires tenacity.

Maryam Shah, an architect from Hunza, created a logo for the movement. It is one of the most popular and shared logos on social media in the region. The logo is set on the backdrop on the digitized map of Gilgit-Baltistan, with the internet bandwidth.

Figure 5. Maryam Shah’s logo.

A central aspect of this situation has been the youth who called out the discrimination they face. Their education and awareness enabled them to agitate for change and community-focused communication. They called out the government, security agencies and their fellow countrymen alike who are oblivious and unbothered by Gilgit-Baltistan’s communication plight. It is unfortunate that the communication revolution that changed the world is still not freely accessible to locals in Gilgit-Baltistan. This would provide a work-around the other mediums that exclude them. The control over the most prominent mode of communication is equal to disabling the local people from raising their valid concerns on the relevant platforms where their presence would make a difference.

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan live with geological and geopolitical instability. The security situation, particularly the weak communication infrastructure, has exacerbated their ability to deal with the environmental crises in their own languages.