Crisis Mismanagement: A man-made disaster

by Aziz Ali Dad

The region of Gilgit-Baltistan is gifted with snow-clad mountains, glaciers, lakes, lush green valley, and rivers. The culture, language, rituals, economy and social set up of the region is inextricably related to its geography. With its rough terrain and harsh climatic conditions, human settlements alongside mighty mountainous ranges are examples of people living in harmony with nature. However, nature in the region of Gilgit-Baltistan still remains a power to reckon with.

The power of nature manifested itself on a chilly morning on January 4, 2010 in the Hunza valley when a massive landslide wiped out the village of Attabad and buried it under the debris. In the tragic event of the disaster 19 people lost their life, not to mention injuries and the loss of property. The magnitude of the landslide was such that it blocked the flow of Hunza River, resulting in the formation of an artificial lake.

The phenomenon of a land slide in Attabad was natural, but the destruction wrought by the artificial lake is man made because the government’s negligence resulted in the expansion of the river, from a small stream to a 19 kilometer wide monster. Until now the Hunza lake has devoured 15 kilometers of the Karakoram Highway, 4 villages and displaced thousands of people. The fear of a lake-burst has resulted in the evacuation of thousands of people in the villages downstream.

This disaster could have been averted by timely, concerted efforts of different departments and organizations. There is a litany of blunders, negligence and apathy on the part of government that has created resentment among the masses. The history of negligence of government goes back to 2003 when a study declared the Attabad village highly vulnerable to massive landslides. Such warnings were again issued in 2007 and 2009. But the government did not take any steps to vacate the area. Eventually, when the mountain of Attabad slid it devoured the whole village.

From day one the government response to the miseries of the affected people was lukewarm. Local people and volunteers carried out search and rescue operations by digging through the debris of a mountain in harsh weather conditions with the temperature plummeting below freezing point. Bereft of any assistance from the government the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) of Attabad were left at the mercy of the elements. Government only started to act forty eight hours after the tragic event. After the completion of search and rescue operations, the people faced another potential disaster when the blocked Hunza River started to turn into a giant lake. Unfortunately, the government did not realize the gravity of the situation.

According to Dr Kenneth Hewitt at the Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, Attabad existed at a location where pre-historic mega slides had once occurred but the area had remained stable for centuries. He argues that this is ‘a serious geotechnical problem’; it requires experienced engineers to determine whether a spillway should be constructed or a dam be built. Unfortunately, neither the government nor Frontier Works Organisation has that capacity.

The Chinese have expertise in dealing with such situations. They offered their services but their offer was rejected by the government of Pakistan. Marvi Memon in her recent press release has demanded judicial inquiry ‘to determine which ministries due to kickback dreams didn’t allow Chinese technical assistance and delayed physical work.’ The comedy of errors does not end here. The governor of Gilgit-Baltistan at the time, Qamar Zaman Kaira, accused some elements of sensationalising the issue saying that the lake was not going to do any harm. Lieutenant General (r) Farooq Ahmad, former Chairman NDMA, was not able to give the deadline for the completion of spillway. The small amount of machinery and meagre hours of work did nothing to reduce threat of the lake.

The apathy of the Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, Syed Mehdi Shah, is evident by the fact that he was busy fraternising with the business community of Lahore when tragedy struck Attabad. Instead of commiserating with the bereaved families of Attabad, he went to Garhi Khuda Baksh to offer his prayers while people were burying the dead, and was inviting Sania Mirza and Sohaib Malik to Gilgit- Baltistan for a honeymoon when the whole region was in a panic over the lake. In addition, local administration proved incapable of dealing with the disaster. The available resources were squandered because of a lack of proper planning and vision. After Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani’s visit, the relief packages offered severely disappointed the affected people. There were protests against the government and the former chairman of NDMA. These developments do not augur well for the current government. Pakistan People’s Party won the seat of Hunza but it has left the people in lurch.

Because of the government’s negligence thousands of people in upstream and downstream have been rendered IDPs. If a quick decision had been taken regarding the spillway much pain could have been avoided. The repercussions of the inundation of several villages under icy waters and the displacement of thousands of people highlights the flaws in the governance mechanism and reveals the apathy of the ruling class. Those who are responsible for this criminal negligence should be held accountable for the great deluge of the Hunza River.

The writer is associated with a rights based organization in Islamabad and hails from Hunza. Email:

Originally published by The Friday Times.

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  1. A talented mind that felt the pain and articulated it reasonably and devotedly.

  2. 120% agreed with what Aziz wrote all about apathy on part of so called democratically elected CM. (Careless & Mindless)

  3. It seems to me there was an inexpensive solution to prevent the formation of a lake in case of a landslide. It was to put large diameter cement or metal pipes in the bottom of river on the length that was likely to receive the landslide that had been threatening at Attabad since 2003 or 2004.

    If these pipes had been in place the water would have continued flowing downstream under the debris. At least that would have prevented the disaster caused by the flooding, which is far worse than the landslide itself.

  4. This crisis was indeed mismanaged by NDMA in early months. They provided insufficient equipment to create spillway, they engaged NESPAK which was not the most qualified entity to understand this complex landslide;they should have awarded contract to Chinese contractors who could have deployed more machines. NDMA wanted to keep this disaster as “local” event without realising that KKH is blocked. Progressive nations learn from mistakes, I feel a detail inquiry needs to be initiated against Gen Farooq and NDMA.
    With new Chairman Gen Nadeem, NDMA has become a dynamic organisation, he consults,he listens and he cares.
    FOCUS has been doing wonderful work ; even before the landslide, they had warned the government of potential disaster ( they gave their report to local govt,nDMA etc), they evacuated persons months before the landslide, the casulties happened not because of landslide mass path destroying people, but because of back splash. They have invited consultants like Dr Dave Petley, Dr Allesandro, team of Italian consultants etc
    FOCUS after disaster has been very active in providing relief and disaster mitigation measures like Early Warning Centers, evacuation drills. They have built camps, toilets, provided doctors through their sister organisation, education through sister organisation.

    Let us learn from this disaster and address the larger problem of large number of other landslides, avalanches and GLOF in the area.

  5. Agree, it was/is men-made, mismanagement, negligence, blunder, apathy, lake of skills, lake of seriousness, subjugation, exploitation but what next… for how will this spell continue … the NDMA guy nadeem says, “nothing could be done with Attaabad lake except waiting and watching” my question is for how long and at the cost of what? do we have alternative(s) or choice(s)? the govt, m sure, will not do anything, nor will anyone else do for us, can we do something for ourselves?

    1. Agreed with Ms Parveen Roy, the people of Gojal tasted the bitter experiences of the Pakistani administration.Let bygones and be bygones, instead of accusing the ill governed system of the down country, we should now focus on alternatives and different choices.
      I don’t think that the Pakistani establishment really bothers about the people of GB, all it want is to have grip on this disputed territory, using it for its strategic interests.

  6. Thanks Aziz Ali Dad for sharing insight on the disaster. my first article publishe in frontier post reflectd all these pontential implictions but NDMA did viewed the issue of a very small scale. Now they are facing the music.

  7. Syed Mehd shah and his entire GB cabinet must be brought to JUSTICE for this Issues Without Failure..

    Where is the Chief Justice of Pakistan, is he sleeping Why arent they Taking notice of our Gojal.Hunza blunders created by the so called dummy GB.Cabinets.?????

    Justice Must be made to the people of GB

  8. Wonderful articulation Aziz. It is a pity that people in Gojal are left at the mercy of nature where living is now becoming difficult for people mainly because their economic activities are almost defunct. A belated announcement of monetary relief to the population of Gojal is still a ‘project in pipeline’. People are living between hope and despair. Purchasing power of masses has exhausted but still tactics are being used to divulge the ground realities. Thanks to media and prolific writers like Aziz for bringing realities to limelight.

    Sultan Ahmed

  9. Thank you Aziz for this detailed article on the event and its legacy which is now about six months long days and nights of misery for the people of Attabad, the entire population living upstream and the downstream population who are living in a constant state of fear and risk.

    The Government and its functionaries are less bothered by the miseries and sufferings as they have a golden opportunity of looting and plundering due to this event and will always wish that this continues for longer time so that they are able to fill their pockets. it is a general practice of the corrupt politicians and administration officials to take the utmost benefit from such situations.

    What I noticed out of this whole episode was a total failure of leadership at any level, It is literally non existent. What to do with the high literacy rate when its fruits are not available to the civil society. Where we stand politically, what is our strategic geographical location of any us to the population where the government do not respect its people. It sometimes make me think, are we really citizen of this country? So far the actions of this government towards its people are strange, the Afghan refugees living in this country are enjoying much liberty and respect then the people of Gilgit Baltistan. What to say for this??????

    I hope many of my colleagues may have noticed this for the last six months.

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