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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