Statement by Prince Rahim Aga Khan
“For decades the AKDN [Aga Khan Development Network] has been working with vulnerable communities to improve quality of life and reduce disaster risk. Today in the face of the climate crisis, understanding and mitigating these risks is even more urgent. Only by helping these communities adapt and thrive in harmony with their often-precarious habitat can we hope to mitigate the effects of climate change.” — Prince Rahim Aga Khan, eldest son of His Highness the Aga Khan and Chair of AKDN’s Environment and Climate Committee
Mawlana Hazar on Risks of Global Warming and its Impact on the Habitat
“I am also worried about the process of warming…. how warming is beginning to create situations where life is at risk, where it was not at risk before. We are seeing villages which are being wiped away by earthquakes, by landslides, by avalanches. We are seeing people moving to dangerous areas in mountain environments. And very often these populations do not have access to good knowledge about the way these environments are predicted to change over time. And they are therefore leaving areas of risk, but not really understanding that very often they are moving to other areas of risk. So public knowledge about change processes is something which I consider very important indeed. I would like to see that as part of general education. I would like to see that as part of secondary education, so that all young people have a better understanding, particularly in our world, in the Islamic world, of the spaces in which they live, how they can ensure the security of their habitat, how they can practice good construction in these areas. In the work that I do, I see these processes of change as being badly predicted and not really forecast in terms of the human and economic resources that are needed to underwrite good processes of change.” — His Highness the Aga Khan, extempore remarks captured by Simerg on November 5, 2016, Dubai.
The 2020 World Habitat Awards
A ground-breaking partnership by Newcastle City Council to prevent homelessness in UK city Newcastle Upon Tyne and a unique approach set up by the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, Pakistan (AKAH Pakistan) to integrate disaster risk management into habitat planning and development in remote areas of Pakistan, are the two Gold Winners of the 2020 World Habitat Awards. Alongside these two Gold Award Winners, World Habitat has given two Silver Awards for projects in Nepal and Netherlands and three Bronze Awards for projects in Cambodia, Brazil and Portugal.
“This project, led by the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, Pakistan, is the embodiment of a human rights approach to climate change adaptation policies. This novel project manages to combine indigenous knowledge, community involvement and technological advancements to ensure resilient, sustainable communities capable of living in dignity, security and peace amidst the rising threat of climate-induced disasters.” — Leilani Farha, Global Director of The Shift, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, and one of the judges of the 2020 Awards
The Awards were established in 1985 for the identification and the promotion of good habitat practices, a concept that was virtually unknown then, and the Awards were supposed to run over three years only. However, the response was so positive that World Habitat decided to keep the competition running. After 30 years, the World Habitat Awards are going from strength to strength. As well as international recognition, a prize of £10,000 is made to each of the two Gold Award winning projects. The Awards are presented each year at a major UN-Habitat event. The 2019 trophy presentation took place at the World Urban Forum in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates in February of 2020. The first awards were presented in 1986 in London by HRH the Prince of Wales and the Dr Arcot Ramachandran, UN-HABITAT Executive Director.
Highlights: AKAH Pakistan’s Gold Award Winning Project, “Integrating Indigenous Knowledge and Technology for Safer Habitat”
Pakistan Suffers $18 Billion in Damages and Losses Due to Disasters
According to the World Bank, Pakistan is one of the most disaster-prone countries in South Asia, having suffered an estimated $18 billion in damages and losses during the past decades. The northern mountainous areas — home to some of the most disadvantaged and isolated people in the country — are subject to earthquakes, floods and many other hazards that have caused mass-scale damage in recent years. The remoteness of these areas also poses difficulties for preparedness and response efforts. Population growth, climate change and increasing environmental degradation make future disasters more likely. Several international and national agencies work on disaster preparedness and response in Pakistan, and this has increased since the floods that affected the country in 2010.
An Innovative Project for Protection Against Hazards
The Integrating indigenous knowledge and technology for safer habitat approach set up by the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, Pakistan (AKAH Pakistan) integrates disaster-risk management into habitat planning and development projects at village and community levels. AKAH Pakistan introduced community-based hazard, vulnerability and risk assessments (HVRAs) in the country for the first time in 2004, combining local and scientific knowledge to map risks, determine residential and economic zones, and develop disaster management plans. AKAH geologists use satellite images and risk-mapping tools, with participation from residents, who contribute local knowledge and receive training on the process. This enables them to build in safer areas and protect against hazards.
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“COVID-19 has particularly underlined the crucial need to strengthen resiliency and promote more inclusive and just societies. Reducing urban inequalities is a cornerstone to ensure we are all better prepared for future shocks and crises. In this light, UN-Habitat particularly appreciates the focus on the preventive approach of both Gold-winning initiatives, as well as the focus on creating resilient communities and societies. These initiatives also address two topics that are crucial to the UN-Habitat mandate and to the global agenda: comprehensive strategies to prevent homelessness and initiatives to strengthen resilience to climate change and natural hazards.” — Maimunah Mohd Sharif, UN-Habitat Executive Director
Impact of AKAH Programme
To date, AKAH Pakistan has conducted HVRAs in 785 settlements, mostly in the mountain areas of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral regions — home to more than one million people. The project has provided more than 20,000 households with technical assistance in maintaining and improving their homes, constructed over 4,000 shelters for internally displaced people, and created more than 280 community disaster management plans. Weather monitoring posts and community-based early warning systems are also installed.
Training, Role and Response of Volunteers
Over 40,000 community volunteers have been trained across Pakistan in community-based disaster risk management. Alongside AKAH, they have responded to over 200 disasters and — through HVRAs — identified 50 extremely hazard prone settlements for relocation. AKAH Pakistan has also established 190 community-managed emergency stockpiles, which include tents, blankets, search and rescue tools and first aid kits.
Local Community Support
The project uses residents’ local knowledge together with Geographic Information System (GIS) data to map risks by using satellite images and advanced risk-mapping tools. The project educates and works with communities to build better and safer homes in safer areas and to develop and implement their village disaster-management plans, including structural and non-structural mitigation measures at local levels. The proactive approach of promoting HVRAs for planning — and not only for mitigation measures — enables communities to take control, reduce their dependence on humanitarian aid and be self-reliant, reducing risks and adapting to the impacts of the climate emergency.
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“After a traumatic year, two of the main housing challenges facing the world today are the impact of the climate emergency on vulnerable communities and the heightened risks of homelessness caused by the pandemic. We were inspired by two extraordinary projects that demonstrate how local expertise, partnership-working and making the best use of technology and resources can meet these huge challenges. We are proud to award them both with Gold Awards. All of this year’s winners are inspirational in their approach to providing safe and secure housing to communities across the world. We hope that their work will encourage other projects and programmes.” — David Ireland, Chief Executive of World Habitat, funders and co-ordinators of the World Habitat Awards
On-going work and progress
Fifty villages have been identified as ‘high-risk’, due to the regular occurrence of disasters. Therefore, relocating people from these settlements is considered the most viable option. AKAH Pakistan, together with local communities and civil society organisations, is working on developing a comprehensive relocation programme.
In addition, they have installed 52 community-based weather monitoring posts and four early warning systems. These alert communities of the need for temporary evacuation, saving lives from avalanches and floods.
“The awareness raising sessions and emergency response drills at the community level have made us learn about hazards and the immediate steps we need to take as first responders. Women and children in our village feel much safer than they did a few years ago.” — Zeenat of Shimshal Village.
AKAH Pakistan has used the HVRAs to inform its habitat planning activities for its Multi-Input Resettlement Program (MIRP) housing project, which is part of its longer-term relief efforts after 2010’s floodings and Attabad landslide. Through this project, AKAH has constructed 370 houses on safer sites in Hunza, Gilgit, Ghizer, and Chitral, for internally displaced people. They have also constructed over 100 community buildings — including schools, health centres and community facilities — in safe zones identified using HVRA maps and assessment reports.
Pakistan’s National Disaster Management Authority has recognised, encouraged, and also incorporated HVRA as a best-practice measure. AKAH Pakistan has also contributed to the National Disaster Management Plan and helped shape community-based disaster risk management guidelines.
Since its beginnings as a research activity to produce a pilot map for a district in northern Pakistan, the project has been improved by developments in science and technology as well as through the knowledge and input of communities, and has been scaled-up to reach almost 800 villages in Pakistan.
By the end of 2025, AKAH Pakistan plans to have conducted and updated over 2,000 HVRAs across Pakistan.
Four Stories from Local Residents
This house (constructed by AKAH) can’t be compared to our previous house (which was destroyed due to the disaster). They are simply worlds apart.” — Safaraz
(Safaraz, aged 55, works as a mason and was displaced by the landslide in Attabad in 2010)
“It was the most horrible sight. There was chaos, with people shouting and running everywhere. Some were desperately searching for their family members. Most people had their faces fully covered with dirt; eyes were barely visible… We had no clue that one day, just like that, we would be left homeless, with nowhere to go.
“Previously, we used to construct houses merely of mud and stones, without planning of any sort. This house (constructed by AKAH) can’t be compared to our previous house (which was destroyed due to the disaster). They are simply worlds apart. It was more like a place for keeping livestock, with no systems in place.
“We are so thankful to God, that now for this house, even the land’s safety was checked. It was only when AKAH had assessed the place (through HVRA) and declared it safer, the construction (of our house) had begun. This house is a proper house, unlike the previous one. It is so thermally comfortable and even keeps us warm in harsh winters. Proper lighting, water supply, and ventilation systems are there. I, along with my wife, had also actively participated with the organisation in its construction — it is ours and we love every bit of it. Most important of all, unlike our previous house, it is resilient, reliable, comfortable, and so, more loveable.”
“Due to the training provided by AKAH, we as the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) volunteers know what to do before, during, and after the disasters…. Looking up to the organisation’s work is always a humbling experience for me… Even recently, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I volunteered for AKAH’s response and awareness raising campaign by spreading awareness on the preventive measures in our isolated part of the world.” — Amanullah Khan
(Amanullah Khan, aged 58, works as a teacher, farmer and local guide. He is a CERT captain in Gulmit, Hunza — one of 40,000+ volunteers who have received AKAH’s training on community-based disaster risk management).
“As the saying goes, saving one person’s life is equivalent to saving the entire mankind. What better accomplishment can there be in life than to be able to serve humanity for such a noble cause? In the harsh regions where we live, disasters both natural and manmade, are extremely common. And since it is a very far-flung and isolated area, the community plays the central role as the first responders in the event of disasters.
“I have been serving as a CERT volunteer for around two decades now, and have received numerous training from AKAH, ranging from first aid to critical rescue. We have been well-equipped with not just the skills, but with the emergency equipment too — in the form of community-managed stockpiles. Due to the training provided by AKAH, we as the CERT volunteers know what to do before, during, and after the disasters.
“I admire the dedication of AKAH and that it always works with us as partners. Therefore, I always try to volunteer for other activities of the organisation too. I have also participated in glacier monitoring and installation of the Early Warning System. Moreover, as a volunteer, I am also taking care of the Early Warning System installed at the Passu village. All these efforts are for our safety and so we must be active contributors in them. I am so proud to share that my daughters are also active CERT volunteers.
“I have been an active part of the response during several natural disasters including the Attabad landslide in 2010, Batura glacier in 2015, and the Shimshal floods of 2018 — evacuating people to safe havens, rescuing them from drowning in the rivers, and recovering dead bodies. Even recently, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, I volunteered for AKAH’s response and awareness raising campaign by spreading awareness on the preventive measures in our isolated part of the world.
“Looking up to the organisation’s work is always a humbling experience for me. The organisation is playing its crucial part for this great cause, and I am trying to play mine.”
“It was agonising as we had to carry my paralysed mother-in-law, my late father-in-law and my two young children and run for our lives to the safer sites.” — Rubina
(Rubina is from a female-headed household. Their home was one of 250 in Sherqilla Village made safer from the dangers of unpredictable debris flow)
“Our life was really worrying and uncertain before the intervention to make our home safer. My whole family used to spend restless days and nights fearing that the debris flow may destroy the houses and even take our lives. It was agonising as we had to carry my paralysed mother-in-law, my late father-in-law and my two young children and run for our lives to the safer sites. Now that the debris flow has a proper channel, our house and family are much better protected, and our peace of mind has been restored.”
The Early Warning System is such a blessing for this community. Villagers can now perform their daily chores while being at peace. During the floods in 2018, thanks to the Early Warning System, the sirens gave us approximately 45 minutes to evacuate.” — Arab Khan
(Arab Khan is a resident of Sherqilla Village, aged 73. He used to work as a watchman and is now retired)
“Previously, the locals took turns to monitor the flooding situation so we could evacuate communities, which was a challenging, tedious, risky, and hectic task. Sometimes villagers had to run for safety even during weddings. Ensuring children and elders were safe during the floods was particularly painful – many times we had to return to the ‘drowning village’ to search for them, also endangering our own lives.
“The Early Warning System is such a blessing for this community. Villagers can now perform their daily chores while being at peace. During the floods in 2018, thanks to the Early Warning System, the sirens gave us approximately 45 minutes to evacuate to the already identified and informed safe havens and avoid the disaster risks and vulnerabilities. I, along with my entire community, look forward to working with AKAH Pakistan on further risk reduction and mitigation in our vulnerable village and becoming more disaster resilient.”
2018: Prince Rahim and Princess Salwa Aga Khan Visit Pakistan and Survey Aga Khan Agency for Habitat’s Disaster Mitigation Work
Prince Rahim and Princess Salwa Aga Khan travelled to Pakistan for a six-day working visit in late October 2018, which included stops in several districts of Gilgit-Baltistan as well as in Chitral district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, along with the capital city of Islamabad and the southern city of Karachi.
As part of their visit, the Prince and Princess surveyed disaster-mitigation work in areas vulnerable to natural hazards. Many villages in the mountainous north of Pakistan are vulnerable to flash flooding. In Gilgit-Baltistan in July 2018, unusually warm weather caused intensified melting of snow and glaciers which resulted in a large glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) which submerged farmland and destroyed houses in Badswat and Bilhanz villages (Ishkoman valley) in Ghizer district. The Aga Khan Agency for Habitat (AKAH) has been supporting the local community by providing humanitarian assistance and relief.
Prince Rahim and Princess Salwa also surveyed community-based mitigation work, including the construction of stone wall flood defenses, undertaken in the aftermath of an earlier disaster in the village of Darkut (Silgan valley), in Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan.
More Photos of Prince Rahim and Princess Salwa’s 2018 Visit to Pakistan
Date posted: December 6, 2020.
Informative AKDN Videos and FURTHER READING AT World Habitat WEBSITE
AKDN Video: Gold Award
AKDN Video: Warning from the Roof of the World
World Habitat Website Articles
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