Rina Saeed Khan
Engineers are racing to build a channel at the top of the natural dam, formed by a landslide in early January which killed 19 people and blocked the Hunza River. This would let the water drain from the lake gradually. But they do not have much time. The water, which only a week or so ago was rising at a rate of 45cm a day, is now going up by a daily 30cm. Its growth is sure to accelerate as glaciers and snow caps in the nearby mountains start to melt.
Professor David Petley, of the International Landslide Centre at Durham University, warns there is “substantive risk of an outburst” as the water level approaches the top of the dam, with “the potential for a large flood wave to travel downstream as far as Tarbela Dam”, 50km northwest of Islamabad.
He says: “When the water reaches the top there are two scenarios. One, water goes into the channel that the army are cutting and there’s no flood. It sounds like an attractive prospect but you have a huge body of water behind a landslide dam. Two, if the water goes, it would be caught by the Tarbela dam downstream ? and the reservoir there is low because of the drought in Pakistan ? but as many as 45,000 people are in danger of a flood wave. A wave could be 40 metres high, or even more, as it goes down the valley.”
The dammed river, from which the lake has formed, runs through the fertile Hunza Valley, the former mountain kingdom renowned as the fabled Shangri-La, and feeds into the mighty Indus river on which the Tarbela dam lies. The expanding lake has already displaced more than 1,600 people in surrounding villages and the waters are encroaching on several more villages.
People now watch helplessly as the waters rise. Shah Makeen, a fruit seller from Shiskat, a village a few kilometres east of the landslide, closer to the Chinese border, said at the end of March, when I visited the area, that his home is slowly being engulfed by the massive lake.
At that point, the waters were lapping at the village of Gulmit, and had already flooded the orchards of tourist hotels located near the river. Makeen said: “I would say that in another two weeks most of Ayeenabad will be flooded. The water has even reached Gulmit now. People are very upset.”
Focus Humanitarian Assistance, a charity affiliated with the Aga Khan Development Network, is setting up an early-warning system to alert villagers downstream in case the dam shows signs of collapse. They have built a monitoring camp above the lake to check for cracks and have installed CCTV and night lights to monitor seepage or any unusual activity in the dam.
Professor Petley says more needs to be done. In his report he writes: “While constructing the spillway is undoubtedly an appropriate first step, a great deal more work is urgently required in terms of management of the hazard… The downstream communities are facing a risk that is not tolerable ? immediate action is required at a national level to protect the population between Attabad and Tarbela Dam.”
Complete at The Independent