by Professor Hermann Kreutzmann
The new year in the Hunza valley began with a catastrophe. On January 4, a crack in the sloped terrain of Attaabad in the Upper Hunza valley widened and gravity took its toll: houses in the village collapsed. A major landslide caused a wave of dust and gravel; subsequently, material from the moraine blocked and dammed the Hunza valley. Four months later, the villagers in the northwest of Karakoram still live in a state of uncertainty.
Attaabad is one of the younger villages in Hunza, inhabited by people from the central oasis five generations ago. The exposed location made irrigated agriculture difficult, favoured orchards and allowed easy access to the high pastures.
The crack in the slope had been discovered some time ago in the aftermath of the Astor earthquake. Humanitarian organisations such as Focus Humanitarian Assistance had assessed the likely danger and advised the villagers to leave their unstable abodes high above the Hunza river. Despite the timely warning, around 20 people lost their lives, 50 houses were destroyed and 1,500 people were displaced and forced to live in camps or with relatives and friends in neighbouring villages. The Karakoram Highway – while undergoing repairs by Chinese engineers – was damaged along a 1.5-km stretch. A lake formed upstream into Gojal where it submerged roads and bridges, lands and residences of Ainabad and Shishket. Recently it reached Gulmit, the largest village and tehsil headquarter of Gojal, however, the upper lake level has not been affected yet.
When the landslide occurred, the Hunza river released only 2% of its summer melt waters; day after day the run-off rate increases. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was assigned the task of mitigating the disaster by constructing a spill-over channel that stops the water level from rising and perhaps could support a controlled drainage. Time slipped away while politicians of Gilgit-Baltistan, development activists from NGOs, village representatives and council members, self-proclaimed experts and army engineers from the Frontier Works Organisation debated the future of the dam and lake. Some suggested utilising the lake water for power generation and/or tourism purposes; others discussed the stability of the dam without sound geological and geo-morphological evidence. There was also a call to bomb the dam.
Meanwhile, culprits were sought and demonstrations were staged against bureaucrats and politicians accused of inaction. The supply of basic foodstuffs and the transportation of ailing residents was initially enabled by army helicopters. As the crisis grew, a ferry service consisting of small boats was introduced that allowed some commuting and transportation of goods. On both sides of the lake, trucks meant to transport goods to and from Sost Dry Port, the hub of China-Pakistan trade across the Khunjerab Pass, became stuck. International trade along this one and only regularly functioning trade corridor between Central and South Asia has stopped for the time being.
Elders of Hunza society say the January landslide is the biggest natural disaster they have ever experienced. Hunza is a highly vulnerable environment and its extreme mountain valley system is characterised by the most extensive glaciation outside the polar regions as well as some of the steepest slopes on earth. Natural and man-made disasters are not unknown in the Karakoram; survival under these harsh environmental conditions has brought fame to the Hunzukuts for being capable and enduring mountain folk. To put the January disaster into perspective, its only necessary, to look back at history.
Complete at SOURCE