by Fazal Amin Baig
The year 2010 witnessed a natural disaster, which did not indicate a good omen to the people of Pakistan, particularly to the dwellers of the Indus River and Gilgit-Baltistan, resulting in result of a dangerous battle between the nature and the humans. January 4, 2010 caused disaster at considerable scale when a heavy landslide in Central Hunza ruined the Ghareyat village (these days called as Atabad), blocked the Hunza River and cut off the Karakoram Highway for more than 1½ km. This catastrophe of the first phase took the lives of 19 people of Ghareyat, damaged 43 houses completely and displaced more than 1,500 people who now stay in the camps in Karimabad in Central Hunza.
Soon after the blockage of the Hunza River, the second phase of natural catastrophe started when the river began transforming into a natural lake in the upstream called Gojal valley — an international borders’ magistracy (spanning on more than 10,000 sq km) connecting Pakistan with China and Afghanistan.
This phenomenon takes us back to when in 1858 the Hunza River blocked almost at the same place due to the landslide. A natural dam had emerged, submerging the upstream settlements such as half of Gulmit (the winter capital of the former principality), a significant portion of Ghulkin, Sisuni (now named as Hussani) and Passu while Shishkat and Ayeenabad were pasturages of Gulmit and not settled at that time.
The lake is lengthened to more than 40km and touched on a place called Sarmushk in Khyber (after crossing the Shimshal river and Batura glacier’s giant stream); while the width of the lake submerged the settlement of Gulmit up to the still-existing Shogirdi-e Khun, a house in Dalgiram in which the lake water started spilling over the threshold and stopped after the monstrous lake’s natural outburst. At that time there was no human power to face the challenge which we witness comparatively these days — equipped with the variety of technologies. The lake outburst of 1858 thus destroyed the settlements along the basins of Hunza and Indus Rivers. After reaching Attock, the giant storm sent a reverse wave in the Kabul River beyond Nawshira. Prof Dr. Kenneth Hewitt, a prominent Canadian professor Emeritus of Geography in Waterloo University reflects:
“The 1858 flood wave was still massive at Attock. In fact it sent a reverse wave up the Kabul River about 50km. Reports after 1858 suggest the flood wave reached 10-20m above high summer flows along the Gilgit and Indus, and caused erosion of river terraces ‘100s of feet’ back from the channel.”
Taking into account the historical evidences, the current landslide lake on Hunza River reminds us of the historical lake’s landscape. This has occurred beside the previous site and blocked the Hunza River. This time, the Karakoram Highway and two human settlements — Ayeenabad and Shishkat — reside on the lower portion of the previous lake site. The natural lake on Hunza River started devouring a significant part of these villages. By now, the lake has submerged almost 10 houses of Ayeenabad, more than 1500 kanals of land, thousands of domesticated plants, more or less 10km of the Karakoram Highway, and in coming days the longest bridge on the KKH known as Gulmit-Shishkat bridge is going to sink. Besides, due to insensitiveness of the related public sector organizations, the local community of the submerging villages, for the sake of meeting their abrupt financial needs, cut more than 8,000 of their domesticated plants which were the natural carbon-sinks. The second phase of the natural catastrophe is heading towards Gulmit (the headquarters of Gojal magistracy, the latter as the only corridor between China and Pakistan) spanning so far as more than 12km. The experts estimate that a significant part of Gulmit would submerge in the natural lake, and may reach the historical touching point.
As soon as the Gulmit-Shishkat bridge sinks, the settlements of Shishakat and Ayeenabad will become lake islands; and this situation would also hold true for Gulmit and Ghulkin settlements when the KKH would submerge near the Seghez-e Kor on the south of Ghulkin-Hussaini glacier.
It is being reported that the lake would reach Kipghar of Passu and would submerge several houses. But, if the upstream movement continued beyond the Kipghar, the lake would certainly cut the KKH before the Batura Inn: the villages of Passu, Khuramabod, Zarabod, Hussain and Borith would be other lake-islands among the glaciers and glacial streams from the air-view. At present, due to the winter season, the glaciers are frozen and there is little water in the Hunza River. From the outset of spring next month, more than 30 glaciers of Gojal will start melting and will fill the lake to its optimum level, which will certainly force the lake to spill soon.
From here onwards, the third and worst phase of natural catastrophe would begin by wiping out and destroying the settlements, humans and other biodiversities along with the basins of Hunza and Indus Rivers besides destruction of the KKH and the bridges, reaching and damaging the Tarbela Dam and possibly reversing the wave of Kabul River at a significant distance as was witnessed historically up to 50km in 1858.
What can be done to avoid such a scenario?
In the current circumstances of the second phase of catastrophe, the community of Gojal through different approaches is crying for help but little is being done about it. The second phase of catastrophe is now heading towards the third phase of worst calamity. It is therefore not just a deadlock for Gojal but also spells doomsday for the entire communities dwelling along the basins of the Hunza and Indus Rivers, even Kabul River.
Interestingly, it seems as if there is no serious action being taken by the federal government and the newly elected members of the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA). Rather they seem entrapped (after taking oath on December 10, 2009) in lobbying in Islamabad for getting political positions the cabinet. There seems no seriousness among the key leaders in the bureaucracy (local administration), despite the fact that they have been told about such anticipated calamities in the near future. There is no awareness or seriousness among the community of the civil society organizations in Gilgit-Baltistan either. The entire population of their region could get isolated from communications and the development activities, enterprises and so on for a long period if and when the bridges on the KKH are destroyed.
The federal and local governments need to take this monster of the Hunza River as top priority. GBLA should convene its emergency meetings and opt for immediate and concrete steps by consulting all the stakeholders through emergency workshops. The government needs to at least double the number of machines and increase the labor forces. If the FWO has not the required and desired capacity to adequately address the deadlock, it is advisable to get full assistance from the Chinese government. It has become imperative to seek for effective and efficient ways and mechanisms to save Pakistan and its citizens from the upcoming doomsdays in the near future in the third phase of natural disaster. DAWN