DevelopmentGilgit - Baltistan

Proper Planning for Minimizing Potential Impacts of Widening of KKH is required!!

By Aziz Karim

The multi-billion USD widening project of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) was finally inaugurated by the President on February 17, 2008.  The KKH is highest international trade route built at an altitude of about 4,733 meters, having an approximate length of 1,300 KMs.  It connects China and Pakistan across the Karakoram mountain range, through the Khunjerab Pass.   It passes through hundreds of villages and towns of Northern Areas. Most of the road is overshadowed by towering barren mountains.  Indus River flows through the Karakoram Highway for over 200 km.  Here KKH together with the Indus divides the mountain ranges of Himalayas and Karakoram Range and winds around the foot of Nanga Parbat, (one of the tallest peaks of the world). The Highway then leaves the Indus for Gilgit, Hunza and Khunjerab rivers to take on the Karakoram Range, which has 12 of the 30 highest mountain peaks in the world.  By the time the road reaches the Khunjerab Pass (4,733 meter height), it crosses the high Central Asian plateau before winding down through the Pamirs to the fabled Chinese City of Kashgar, at the western edge of the Taklamakan Desert.  It has highly importance economically and military due to its strategic position in the region.  Other proposed links in future are rail and oil pipeline between the two countries. 

Along the highway hundreds of villages are built on the patches of mountains.  Apart of these, protected areas also located which include parks, wildlife sanctuaries, game reserves and historical locations.  Northern Areas of Pakistan has a unique ecosystem with enriched flora and fauna and medicinal plants.  In spite of unscientific management and ruthless hunting, wildlife in the Northern Areas still supports rare and endangered species of mammals and birds like Marco Polo sheep, blue sheep, markhor, black bear, brown bear, chakor and ram chakor.

(The writer is an Islamabad based environmentalist. He belongs to Altit, Hunza).

The inhabitants are living here from centuries despite of sever climatic and devoid civic facilities.  The livelihood of the majority of inhabitants is based on agricultural on patches that they made after endeavors of generations physical man-hours works for making the land plain.  The tourists of the world become stunned when they visit northern areas and see the lands and houses made by the inhabitant’s through physical and man work hours of generations.  In the northern areas, there are very few places where you can make plains by using  modern machinery like bulldozers, excavators and dumpers, etc, otherwise you have to use man power to enable a piece of land for cultivation or for a construction of a shelter.  It is due to natural topography of the land in the mountain region, along the highway, most of the land in the passes is less than a kilometer wide except some major towns in central Hunza and Gilgit where you can find passes having width of about 5 – 10 km. 

So, the widening project of KKH is needs ultra attention to make the inhabitants of mountain patches less affected. Certainly this mega project will help significantly in increasing the living standard of the mountain people but potential adverse affects seeming larger if significant planning is not done before start of the construction phase.

Some Potential Impacts from construction are listed here under. 

      Geophysical impacts:Physical scarring of the landscape, Increased risk of land slippage, accelerated soil and rock erosion, alteration of soil quality by loss of top soil and blockage of natural drainage, 

       Pollution of soil, water and air quality: Construction activities that use machinery and employ large numbers of workers in temporary camps generally may cause some pollution hazards. 

       Impacts on the biological environment: Disturbance to protected or sensitive bird and mammal species during construction, including the risk of hunting by contractors.

      Socioeconomic impacts:

o              Land acquisition: Loss of agricultural, grazing or otherwise valuable land, loss of buildings and other infrastructure, displacement of inhabitants living on or near the project area and , temporary land acquisition for construction camps.

o              Noise: Noise disturbance is possible during and after the construction phase, particularly in residential areas. 

o              Interaction with the local population: It will be desirable to establish a relationship with the local communities prior to and during the construction work to ensure that their natural concern about possible socio-economic impacts is taken into account.

o              Safety hazards for the local population:  The project related traffic and operation of the construction machinery and then the regular traffic on the highway can be hazardous to the population in and around the vicinity of settlements.

o              Resource utilization:  The sourcing of supplies such as water, fuel, camp supplies, etc., required during the construction phase can adversely affect the available resources particularly.  The demands imposed by the project needs can severely hamper the availability of essentials to the already resource-starved locals.

o              Health impacts: Influx of the migrant labour can expose the local inhabitants to diseases and health risk in the remote rural areas. 

o              Impacts on historical and cultural features: Important historical and cultural sites may be affected because any construction work is likely to cause irreparable damage. 

Mitigation measures:

     The loss of valuable land should be minimized. This can be done by constructing the road along the bank of the River Indus.  By constructing the highway along the river bank following benefits can be achieved in long and short term.

o              The proposed route will bye-pass all settlements in the region which will save the valued land for the inhabitants which is already decreasing day by day per person due to increasing population density.

o              The future traffic load to major towns in the region will be in controlled manner, so inhabitants will be safe from multiple problems of various types like, accidents, vehicular jams and pollution of various types etc.

o              By constructing proper road along the river bank, silt and sand from the region will less migrated along the river water to down stream dams so annual maintenance expenditures will be lessen and life of the dams will be increased.

o              No major demarcation activities will be required for future projects for oil pipeline and rail track once a requisite land is marked properly along the bank.

o              Heavy traffic to/from China will pass smoothly and less time will be consumed.

o              Less compensation of land will be paid to owner’s comparatively high valued land in the settlements.

o              Flora, fauna and endangered species of the ecosystem of the region will be lessening affected.

o        Continuous liaison should be maintained with the affected community and their concerns addressed appropriately.

o        Noise from the camp sites and construction sites should be minimized using appropriate means (silencers, barriers, etc.) as required. 

o        Camps should be constructed at least 500 m from any settlements.

o        No construction works should be carried out during the night.  Night time traffic should be minimized particularly near the communities.

o        The construction activities should not block the existing roads and tracks.  If unavoidable, alternate routes to be provided in consultation with the affected people.

o        The construction crew’s interaction with the local population should be minimized.  Liaison with the local community should be maintained.

o        Unskilled and skilled employment should be provided to the local communities.

o        Safe driving practice should be enforced for the project vehicles.  A speed limit should be enforced for the project vehicles passing through settlements.

o        It should be ensured that the supplies (water, fuel, construction materials, camp supplies, etc.) are sourced in a manner not adversely affecting the local population. 

o        All sites of archaeological, historical, cultural and religious significance should be left untouched..

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