M. Ismail Khan
Over four months of labour, the use of heavy excavating machinery and bulldozers and the assistance of Chinese engineers working on widening the KKH to build a spillway through the wall of boulder and mud stretching nearly three kilometres has brought partial success for the Frontier Works Organisation (FWO). But even before the FWO has been able to dig down to the water level, the latter is rising to the level of the FWO cranes. The water build-up is becoming more rapid with rising temperatures and snowmelt.
The emergence of the new lake has received a mixed response across the country. Despite its dangerous implications, it is seen by some as a naturally formed dam, a gift from God, to a people who have failed to build one in decades. Even many local tour operators were excited at the prospect of a new lake being added to the list of Hunza’s tourist attractions — until an increasing number of geologists started waving red flags.
The Wakhi-speaking people of Gojal, who have been virtually cut off from the rest of Pakistan for the last four months, have for years shared their pastures, the silk route (KKH) and their belief in Ismaili Islam with the more visible Broshuski-speaking people of lower Hunza. Today, they share a calamity. For the first time there is no road connection between them and the poverty-stricken people are being fleeced by boatmen taking advantage of their despair.
The people in Gojal and Hunza are lucky to have the world’s leading philanthropist Prince Karim Aga Khan as their spiritual leader. In dealing with this tragedy, the institutions of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) including FOCUS Pakistan teamed up with government agencies and the army, just as they did during the 2005 earthquake, to rush relief goods and services to people living in the affected sites.
AKDN may be good at helping the people but it can’t really build a spillway over a major river blockage. It is essentially the federal government’s job to do so. Meeting this challenge is beyond the capacity of NGOs or the nascent political set-up of Gilgit-Baltistan. Clearly, the federal government needs to do a lot more to prevent disaster. In view of the nature of the crisis, it could seek technical help from friendly countries and send out emergency alerts to international agencies that are equipped to handle the situation.
The authorities need to focus on stabilising the debris, expediting work on spillways and also minimising potential risks downstream. Round-the-clock monitoring and a foolproof early warning mechanism are needed. Since the army has always played a dominant role in disaster management, it should monitor inter-agency coordination and supervise the functioning of all agencies. In the meantime, the Gilgit-Baltistan government in coordination with the federal authorities should continue to help out displaced villagers by providing them with shelter, food and medicines besides ensuring that their children continue to receive schooling. They should immediately embark on identifying suitable land to relocate the affected people and draw plans to rebuild the necessary infrastructure and restore lost livelihood opportunities.
Complete at DAWN