A fire storm out of snowstorm in Murree | By Shahzeb Khan

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A fire storm out of snowstorm in Murree

The death of 23 tourists stranded in their cars in Murree truly shocked Pakistan. An anticipated snowstorm trapped tens of thousands of cars that entered Murree to enjoy the snow.

Despite how well-serviced the area generally is and how frequently such tourist influx happens, help did not come right away and 23 people, including entire families, died from hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning. Official sources attribute the tragedy to a combination of high snowfall and high number of tourists.

People may have been drawn to Murree that fateful day by reports of snowfall. This happens every winter. Why has such a disaster occurred now, severe enough to have impacts like prompting Punjab government to announce it will accord Murree the status of district?This question needs to be seriously investigated.

Officials say the snowfall in Murree, part of a severe cold front affecting Pakistan and India, was unusually severe and tourist inflow unusually high. PM Imran Khan tweeted of “Unprecedented snowfall” and Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid said Murree was seeing “a huge number of tourists after 10 to 15 years”.

These are plausible claims. Severe weather is picking up worldwide due to the climate crisis and prolonged COVID-19 pandemic is motivating people to jump at any opportunity for vacation.

One may blame the weather, or the affected tourists themselves, but the authorities clearly have a lot to account for.

Pakistan’s Met Department issued an alert on January 5 forecasting” isolated heavy to very heavy” snowfall for various hilly areas in Pakistan including Murree around 08 January.

The government should have taken precautions regarding the expected influx of tourists into Murree during weekend. But precautions were not taken at all. Road management kept letting in cars until authorities declared an emergency.

Before the snowstorm disaster, Fawad Chaudhry tweeted that 100,000 cars just entered Murree (which has parking space for 30,000 cars only), and hailed it as example of Pakistan’s tourism industry rising. Nobody saw the danger approaching until cars started getting stuck in the snow.

Furthermore, it took very long for rescue to arrive. People were stuck in their cars for 20 hours.

The authorities in Islamabad and Rawalpindi (where they had their own problems to deal with, on account of heavy rainfall) only responded after trapped tourists documented their plight on social media and news channels sounded the alarm. The authorities were clearly ill-prepared. Of course, once the crisis began, tackling it was truly an immense challenge.

The snowstorm that blocked tourists also hampered movement of emergency vehicles, including helicopters. Clearing the roads became impossible due to cars under thick snow for miles. Some abandoned their cars and evacuated on foot, adding to the challenge of removing vehicles.

The snowstorm also impacted local residents and hotel services. Finding comfortable accommodation inside Murree for rescued tourists became as challenging as getting them down from the hills.

The best way to handle the situation would have been to preempt it, which the authorities had an ample opportunity to do.

The weather department releases information publicly, yet more has to be done to ensure it is delivered to the people needing to hear it.

Many who visited Murree that day say they received no warning about the weather or the growing traffic jams on the road to and fro.There is now a row over the snowstorm’s handling by authorities, from the lowest bureaucracy to the Prime Minister.

Given all else IK must deal with, this snowstorm could become his Hurricane Katrina. Opposition is demanding a judicial commission to determine who is at fault. The Islamabad High Court holds NDMA responsible for the tragedy. All is pointing fingers at each other.

We can clearly see a picture of how much the governance responsible for handling an event like Murree’s snowstorm is divided into numerous agencies that operate quite separately, creating an administrative mess and confusion over who is supposed to do what.

Different political factions are using the tragedy for point scoring, fuelling the political firestorm emanating from the snowstorm. Polarization like what Pakistan is experiencing lately can impact management of a crisis. When one part of the state machinery is trying to bring down the other, matters can grind to a halt.

Factionalism also causes government to appoint people on key jobs primarily for loyalty rather than competency. There is need to investigate if people at the management level are appointed through improper channels and are, consequently, highly incompetent. The havoc of Murree snowstorm is just one manifestation of today’s challenges.

COVID-19 drives people to vacation in remote areas where help is not readily available should trouble arise. In early 2021 in the United States, a pandemic-related increase in backcountry skiing is believed to have caused the deadliest week of avalanche fatalities since 1910, for instance. Murree tragedy shows our nation’s continued shortfalls in coping.

—The writer is Director at Pakistan’s People-Led Disaster Management.

 

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