Pakistan’s Hunza Valley: Another Paradise Lost?

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.

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  1. Dear Doc, Thanks for reflecting on the disaster in a historical presespetive But I disagree with your opinion that NDMA worked hard. They mismanaged and due to their incompetency besides, parts of KKH and bridges villages in Gojal lost their physical assets including houses, farmland.


  2. NDMA in early days during reign of Gen Farooq messed up the entire situation. They did not comprehend the complexity of this mega landslide. There were loads of options that could have been explored in early days when water volume was not this large ( now the volume is over 500 million cubic meters as per some estimates). Does anyone realise that only land route with China is cut-off since 4th Jan?

    NDMA has changed under the leadership of Gen Nadeen; it has become more people friendly organisation and it is collaborating with NGOs like FOCUS.

    It is to be seen if this resilient landslide dam that has defied all predictions of experts will be able to stand increased glacial melt flows of July?

    We pray for safe people….

  3. I have forwarded a propopsal of using water cannons similar to the ones used in Hydraulic Mining, to gradually widen the spillway since it would be very risky to use explosives in the present state of pressure of water on the dam. During the 1973 Arab Isreal war, the Egyptians used giant water cannons to breach 18 Metres high and many metres thick sand walls of Barlev line with jets of water, and recaptured the Sani. I hope they consider this option seriously and avert a major disaster. I also request learned engineers to study and comment on the viability of this option.

  4. Professor Hermann Kreutzmann is a respected scholar from Germany who knows the region of Gilgit-Baltistan in details. that is why his writings every time shed light on new and unheard dimensions. I agree with Darjat that NDMA has done nothing to reduce the risk posed by sprawling lake to population in up and downstream. But to pass the buck solely on NDMA is not fair. It has exposed the failure of NGOs, local organisations, community institutions, FWO, local administration and politicians. I remember Dawn correspondent in Gilgit published a report in 2003 about fissures in Attabad village. He was rebuked by a responsible official of Focus for sensationalizing the issue. Couple with this local dynamics and weak administrative resulted in the disaster in Attabad. This is high time that we should rethink about role and responsibilities of institutions and devise a mechanism through which we can be able to pinpoint the culprits in any untoward situation in near future.

  5. Thanks Col, K.H Khan for your concerns and proposal of using water cannons- learning form Egyptian experience. Water syphonying option was shared with the concern people in the very early stages but no action was demonstated. I do agree with Col K.H Khan regarding getting relevent expertises together and looking for viable options which responds to the challenge would be most needed. Waiting and watching for nature to take its course for 6 month seems, perhapes unaccapetabe in todays time of technology and Knowlwdge. Heli services upstream Hunza river and putting people in tents downstream Hunza river for long term would not be sustainable.


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