DevelopmentGilgit - BaltistanPakistan

Analysis: Costs of expansion

by Aziz Alidad

The construction of Karakoram Highway ((KKH) in 1978 was an example of human success in diminishing his subordination to natural forces and constraints. Globally, though, the initial euphoria of human triumph over nature proved short-lived. It was realised that the dominance of man over nature was not without a cost — in the form of natural resource depletion, global warming, ozone depletion and their repercussions.

Therefore Environmental Protection Agencies (EPAs) were set up across the globe in order to safeguard the earth from the detrimental effects of rampant and unbridled development.

EPA, established in Pakistan in 1993, extended its sphere to Gilgit-Baltistan in 2007. This was imperative because the region is characterised by fragile environment. Like elsewhere, EPA Gilgit-Baltistan was responsible for a detailed study of development projects against indicators of physical, biological and socio-economic impacts.

Soon after the setting up of EPA, Gilgit-Baltistan witnessed a mega project — improvement of KKH. The project inked on Nov 26, 2006, commenced work on July 3, 2008. The total cost of project is estimated at US$ 490, 8723, 43 (four hundred and ninety million US$). The contract for the project has been awarded to China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC). In the initial phase, the project covers the area from Khunjerab to Raikot Bridge. Between these two points KKH runs parallel with Hunza and Indus rivers, crosses Khunjerab National Park, negotiates the archaeological sites and historical village and touches the borders of the proposed Central Karakoram Park (CKP). Therefore, EIA of the project of such a mega scale becomes essential. As per the ToR of the project, CRBC is responsible for its EIA.

Although the work on KKH expansion has already begun, no EIA report has been made public. The issue of environmental sensitivities of the project was not highlighted in the media. These involve impact on watershed areas of Indus River, endangered wildlife in Khunjerab and Central Karakoram National Park area, environmental contamination, waste water and solid waste of camps. Ideally an independent monitoring consultant (IMS) ought to monitor the project activities against Environmental Management Plan (EMP). The IMS will prepare a non-compliance report for National Highway Authority (NHA), and the latter will submit it to EPA. But none of these issues have been addressed so far. It is common knowledge that the consultant conducting EIA has already prepared a report without consulting public, line departments and NGOs. There are reports of glaring discrepancies in the EIA report.

EIA report helps in understanding the situation on ground. In the absence of the report, the only way to gauge the impact of KKH expansion on different spheres of life of Gilgit-Baltistan is to take stock of project activities in the light of guidelines provided by EIA indicators. Some of the activities of the contractor on KKH expansion project in Khunjerab National Park (KNP) are in clear contravention of sub-section 1 to 12 of section 12 of Wildlife Preservation Act NAs 1975 and United Nation Convention on Biological Diversity. For instance, the former clearly states “no person shall reside in a National Park.” Despite these prohibitions the contractor has built permanent structures by destroying vegetation and cutting slopes, and operating machinery that might not be in compliance with National Environmental Quality Standards.

Passing the whole buck of such practices only on the contactor is not fair, because, as a foreign firm, CBRC may not be cognisant of the details of country and customary laws that regulate the affairs of the region. Indeed, it is the foremost responsibility of local administration to guide the contractor about the unknown legal terrain and local ethos of Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan respectively. It is said that the high officials of Gilgit-Baltistan administration have identified the sites for camps on Khunjerab National Park. In clear connivance of their duties, they gave permission of constructing permanent structures on it.

Allowing such practices without necessary safeguards will nullify the achievements of KNP that was established in 1975 with the cost of Rs47 million. Environmental degradation of KNP will put the lives of 87 species of birds and 24 types of mammals at risk. The mammals include endangered Marco Polo sheep, Brown Bear, Indian Wolf, Himalayan Ibex, Golden Marmot, Snow Leopard, Common Red Fox and Blue Sheep Cape Hare. The camping sites outside the national parks also need to be monitored because they are situated along Hunza and Indus River. A discharge of wastewater and disposal of solid waste into rivers will contaminate the water of Indus River, which is the lifeline of agriculture of Pakistan.

Other than the environmental impact of KKH expansion, cultural and historical heritage is also endangered, as the expanded KKH will pass through some of the sites and villages having archaeological and historical importance. In Haldikish (Hunza), KKH passes through a site that contains the inscriptions and petroglyphs on the ‘Sacred Rocks of Hunza.’ It is a record of pre-Islamic period of history; the culture of Gilgit-Baltistan served as a link between China and Gandhara civilization. Since the culture of Gilgit-Baltistan is totally oral, it has no tradition of written history. Preserving historical monuments like Haldikish will help the region to save a concrete historical memory. Elimination of this historical record will make the region impoverished in terms of cultural history.

The ancient site of Haldikish lies literally at the end of KKH on the right side. A further extension of KKH on the right side can have a detrimental impact on the culture and tourism of Gilgit-Baltistan in general, and Hunza in particular. Expanding the left side of KKH with a significant distance from the site can avert the environmental and cultural destruction, and the rocks of the site can be preserved according to the guidelines chalked out by UNESCO in its book on rock preservation methods.

Across Hunza River, from the site of Haldikish, is the ancient village of Ghanesh. Ghanesh still maintains unique built heritage. Considering the historical and cultural importance of this village, Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) has conserved environmental and archaeological heritage of the village. This is a best example of development without any harm to cultural and historical heritage and inbuilt environment of the area. The conservation site has already lost two thirds of its land to land-erosion. Expansion of KKH will deprive the site of its adjoining open spaces that are part and parcel of the inbuilt environment. Instead of carrying out expansion activities in historical sites and villages alone by the implementing agency, it would be better to forge partnership with organisations that have the expertise and experience in heritage preservation.

In addition to environmental and cultural issues, there is the issue of compliance of activities of the KKH expansion with local customary laws. Most of the project area falls in areas that are not settled. Issues regarding loyalty of land, individual, and common property in non-settled areas is managed through centuries-old tribal and customary laws. It is a potential fault line between development projects and local communities. Different line departments and NGOs tend to negotiate through these customary laws to avoid conflict with indigenous population.

There is an apprehension among local communities that riding roughshod over local ethos and laws could lead to potential tension between them and the implementer of the project. To avert any untoward situation, it is indispensable to address the issues and areas that can create dissonance of interest between local communities and the expansion project.

Making the expansion project of KKH congruous with inbuilt environment, cultural heritage and customary law will help removing the hurdles and make it a success story. Keeping the indigenous people discontent in the process of the expansion of KKH can resolve problems in short term, but cannot prevent the discontent from coming back with vengeance in the long term.

The writer is a Gilgit-based social scientist.


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  1. I definetely, agree all the paragraphs of the respected social scientist, but my humbly submission is how we will set the priority. what will be on first, second and third- This choice is very essential in inception of any project.
    The fossil fuel energy which is the main components on effecting on the environment. If I may permitted to say the universe, inspite of all that, the oil exploration and related activities are not stopped and capturing on this most convential sources are open for all the countries.
    The first report developed by NHA and the main concern areas need a through study and to minimize the effects will be the only solution, just pointing only the descrpencies / destruction, the respected scientist didn’t highlighted the comparison sheet of merit and demerits. Nither any suggestion are highlighted for example my suggestion for the road would be to construct this on the main river in shape of bridge from Khunjarv upto Thakot Bridge.
    In this way non of the sites as the writter highlighted will damage. The road will be again a 8th Wonder of the World.(this was just an example). As shared about the oil industry we cant stop the development just for the sake of some historical sites and monuments.
    The second point I want to highlight is we should not mix the technical and development part with politics. I do agree if the concern Departments didn’t involved the local community, without them the EIA is not an applicable authentic documents. The department can’t start the project without satisfing the local communities. This is the international law of the EIA. If the centre line of the road remains the same as already done, how much the main demage areas may be highlighted and the respective communities be involved to minimise the damages. otherwise at glance narrating only one part will not justify to construct it or not.
    The plane land area is not enough and disturbace of the natural topography have its own effects on all related history, botonical, cultural,historical and what ever the writter has narrated.
    I am again of the openion, that he has only took one aspects and didn;t pointed the other side of the picture.
    I personally agree it is indespenseble to take the local community in confedence and satisfy them in all respect.

  2. Dear Azizalidad,
    Kuch Pane Ke Liye Kuch kona padta hai.
    Although its painful but its reality to accept as unfortunate,Still needed to replace the historical sites to other regions,Indeed its not time to go against our neighbour China which is always so kind for Pakistan,So we should humbly submit our reservations if they dont mind otherwise it will be also possible to shift the places So lets hope for some way and window,And we should try our best to cooperate to our highest possible capacity.Its the gate opened for our development in history with the help of God

  3. Infact such an article should have been published or written by the author earlier, as it is already too late, and despite all these facts highlighted in this article, I don’t think someone is going to considier it now.

    Infact I remember a discussion on PT before, on the issue of EIA for the expension of KKH, and one of our Engineer brother commented that such a mega event can not be initiated without doing the EIA. and it has been coducted already. I wish he read this article and realize the fact now.

    I do not agree with Hakeem at all when he says :kuch pana k leya kuch khona parta hay” By this expansion we are loosing a lot,(already narrated in the above aritcle) but what will we gain?? and by the way why are we so worried about Pak China Friendship? How are they going to benefit us by this?? There are no landloard in NAs, but people with very limited landholdings, and totally dependent on agriculture. Ironically the work has already been initiated, but nobody knows will there be any compensation for people who loose ther property? and if yes, would it be according to the will of the people or not?? This is all because the people are very descent and docile, that they can not even raise their voices for their rights. so for me there is no gain for us but loosing a lot.


  4. Thank you Aziz Ali Dad for bringing up this issue again.

    This is a criminal neglect on the part of NHA. Look at the number of cases in Pakistan and complaints against NHA disregarding PEPA 97.

    The environmentalists, heritage conservationists, lawyers and rights activists were raising this issue since 2006-07 with the government and through press conferences and protest rallies, but they are not bothered.

    NObody is against economic development and everbody understands that roads are the lifeline for development. However, experiences and lessons from world over is pretty evident that in fragile mountain regions where you have such diverse biological hotspots, cultural heritage, small landholdings of poor farmers, and risks to disasters of all kinds, any major road project needs to be conscious of the disaster risks, environment, culture and social impacts and the local communities and people need to be consulted and properly compensated for the loss of land, livelihood. Proper mitigation measures need to be put in place to protect the environment and cultural heritage of the area.
    Some years back New Murree project was cancelled by the court under CJ Ch Iftikhar. While cutting old trees in Islamabad, the court order to plant trees in replacement, the NHA road survey throug Kirthar National Park was re-aligned due to pressures from environmentalists and the court.
    In Baltistan, the diversion of shutung nallah water to the satpara dam was stalled, because of pressures from environmental agencies.

    So why can’ the NHA be forced to develop a mitigation plan for the damages in Khunjerab National Park and and upto Sost and pay for it? Why should they not do minimum interventions to reduce future landslide and rockfall risks? why should they not pay market rates to the farmers who lost their land, trees and building recently? why should not the UNESCO awarded Ganish settlement in Hunza be saved from destruction by doing a re-alignment of the road as proposed by AKCSP to them and the government??

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