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: firstname.lastname@example.org
Originally published by The Friday Times.