THERE is no good time for disasters but this is a particularly bad time. Pakistan’s biggest-ever river-water blockage created by the Jan 4 landslide on the Hunza river — a tributary of the Indus which is the lifeline of the country’s power and irrigation systems — is swelling day by day.
The lake is turning into a huge water bomb threatening to cause more damage than many Taliban bombs put together.
Breaching the artificial lake, that has already pulverised villages, inundated acres of irrigated land, orchards and meadows, left many homeless and threatened food supplies for a population of more than 25,000 along the Chinese border, is turning out to be a tedious task. The lake is over 18km long and 320 feet from the ground, and it has submerged a big chunk of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) and its longest bridge.
Over four months of labour, the use of heavy excavating machinery and bulldozers and the assistance of Chinese engineers working on widening the KKH to build a spillway through the wall of boulder and mud stretching nearly three kilometres has brought partial success for the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO). But even before the FWO has been able to dig down to the water level, the latter is rising to the level of the FWO cranes. The water build-up is becoming more rapid with rising temperatures and snowmelt.
The emergence of the new lake has received a mixed response across the country. Despite its dangerous implications, it is seen by some as a naturally formed dam, a gift from God, to a people who have failed to build one in decades. Even many local tour operators were excited at the prospect of a new lake being added to the list of Hunza’s tourist attractions — until an increasing number of geologists started waving red flags.
The Wakhi-speaking people of Gojal, who have been virtually cut off from the rest of Pakistan for the last four months, have for years shared their pastures, the silk route (KKH) and their belief in Ismaili Islam with the more visible Broshuski-speaking people of lower Hunza. Today, they share a calamity. For the first time there is no road connection between them and the poverty-stricken people are being fleeced by boatmen taking advantage of their despair.
The people in Gojal and Hunza are lucky to have the world’s leading philanthropist Prince Karim Aga Khan as their spiritual leader. In dealing with this tragedy, the institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) including FOCUS Pakistan teamed up with government agencies and the army, just as they did during the 2005 earthquake, to rush relief goods and services to people living in the affected sites.
AKDN may be good at helping the people but it can’t really build a spillway over a major river blockage. It is essentially the federal government’s job to do so. Meeting this challenge is beyond the capacity of NGOs or the nascent political set-up of Gilgit-Baltistan. Clearly, the federal government needs to do a lot more to prevent disaster. In view of the nature of the crisis, it could seek technical help from friendly countries and send out emergency alerts to international agencies that are equipped to handle the situation.
The authorities need to focus on stabilising the debris, expediting work on spillways and also minimising potential risks downstream. Round-the-clock monitoring and a foolproof early warning mechanism are needed. Since the army has always played a dominant role in disaster management, it should monitor inter-agency coordination and supervise the functioning of all agencies. In the meantime, the Gilgit-Baltistan government in coordination with the federal authorities should continue to help out displaced villagers by providing them with shelter, food and medicines besides ensuring that their children continue to receive schooling. They should immediately embark on identifying suitable land to relocate the affected people and draw plans to rebuild the necessary infrastructure and restore lost livelihood opportunities.
The potential lake outburst could topple a number of bridges on KKH setting the region’s hard-earned development gains back by a decade, and could cause new security challenges and major food shortages in the area as rebuilding the devastated portions may take years.Nothing can be said for sure at this point, but it would be prudent to prepare for the worst instead of waiting for a miracle. Among other things, the prime minister needs to be reminded of his Gilgit-Baltistan election promise to upgrade Gilgit and Skardu airports, equip them with all-weather landing systems, cargo and passenger handling and emergency airlift facilities, especially to facilitate direct cargo flights from the neighbouring Chinese province of Sinkiang.
The other day, it was good to see Gen Ashfaq Kayani visiting the affected area, reviewing disaster preparedness and progress on construction of spillway; he also interacted with the people and assured them of further help, while Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani spent his day campaigning for Jamshed Dasti.
The writer is a former board member of the Mountain Forum where he represented the Asia-Pacific region.