MUZAFFARABAD, Pakistan (AlertNet) - Muhammad Mushtaq moved his family and several neighbours to safety last September when their homes in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir, were flooded by an overflowing stream during heavy monsoon rains.
Mushtaq, who lives in a three-room tin-roofed house perched on a steep river bank at risk of landslides and floods, put into practice the disaster training he and four other local residents had received from Handicap International, a non-profit aid group that specialises in helping disabled people.
Over three to four months while the rivulet was swollen, they assisted thousands of children to get to and from school by forming a human chain across the water to make sure no one was washed away.
The 37-year-old, who works as a tailor to provide for his family of five, said the four-week disaster risk reduction (DRR) training has given him enough awareness and confidence to be able to save others in emergency situations.
“We are now mentally prepared to rescue people from floods and landslides, which we were not ready to do in the 2010 floods,” said Mushtaq, referring to the massive flooding that swept from the north to the south of Pakistan two and a half years ago, affecting some 20 million people.
Besides first aid and resuscitation skills, Handicap International has provided the volunteers with equipment, including first aid kits, search lights, stretchers, blankets, water bottles and megaphones.
Since the 2010 floods, Kashmir’s State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA) has been training government departments to deal with such crises, in collaboration with Handicap International and the Danish Red Cross.
SDMA Director General Zahoor Hussain Gillani said unprecedented rainfall and out-of-season snowfall - which he attributed to climate change - have made the region more vulnerable to disasters, putting people at risk of floods, landslides and avalanches.
"Living in a region prone to calamities - particularly flash flooding - due to its geographic location (in the Himalayan and Hindu Kush mountains), we must be prepared for emergencies," he said.
Earthquakes are another big threat. The last major quake struck Kashmir and Pakistan's North West Frontier Province on Oct. 8, 2005, killing around 75,000 people and leaving up to 3.5 million homeless.
As the government does not have sufficient resources to manage large disasters alone, it has teamed up with international and local aid groups to provide disaster preparedness training for community volunteers too. So far, 6,435 people have been trained in four districts.
The programme is striving for gender balance. More than 2,000 women have been educated about disaster risks and how to mitigate threats in their communities.
The partner agencies are also working together to establish an early warning system and emergency response teams, Gillani added.
For example, mosques have started announcing flood warnings in areas that are low lying or close to rivers. Flood information is communicated across police wireless networks. And better use is being made of weather forecasts to anticipate flood conditions.
Gillani said disaster risk reduction committees are being set up at village level, with financial support from aid groups, so that people can protect their own communities.
"We want everyone to be trained to cope with emergencies and disasters," he said. A key aim is to enable remote settlements to cope in the aftermath of disasters until aid reaches them, he added.
Naveed Awan, programme manager with the Danish Red Cross, said government officials and local people have been trained in advanced first aid, as well as search and rescue, to strengthen Kashmir’s emergency services capability. The initiative was launched to fill gaps identified in earlier disasters, such as poor coordination, he said.
"Various organisations involved in emergency response operations revealed that the incident command system was not well established, resulting in confusion as to who was responsible in taking the lead," Awan explained. That weakness could cause delayed and fragmented action, resulting in further casualties and injury among affected people, he added.
RISING RISKS IN CITIES
Zahid Hameed lost his right leg due to a lack of first aid after the 2005 Kashmir earthquake. His experience motivated him to set up an organisation called "Our Voices" to help protect vulnerable people from disasters. As part of the state-led effort, the group has trained volunteers in 20 villages and in city localities, as well as supporting the formation of disaster reduction committees.
"It’s basically behavior-change training, so that whenever a calamity strikes, everyone is aware and prepared to fulfill his (or her) responsibility because much of the damage can be averted if we react in a timely manner," Hameed said.
For example, people now know they should move to safer buildings like schools when heavy rains set in, hoist red flags during landslides and make stretchers to rescue injured people, he said.
Volunteers have also been given radios, so they can keep abreast of weather forecasts and act accordingly, he added.
Pakistani-administered Kashmir was one of the areas worst hit by the 2010 floods, with dozens of deaths, huge material losses and large-scale displacement.
And in August and September last year, around 40 people were killed and 2,000 houses damaged by rains and flash floods, according to the SDMA.
"The danger of lives lost…is growing in cities, given increasing encroachment on river banks for the construction of houses and businesses," warned Zahid Zaheer, who recently completed his training as an emergency services volunteer.
Roshan Din Shad is a freelance journalist based in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir. He has worked for national and international media, as well as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).