Some questions about the proposed 54MW Attabad Lake Power Project

By Noor Pamiri

WAPDA is holding public consultations to start construction of a 54MW power project which will use the dammed Hunza River (aka Atta Abad/Shishkat Lake) as a reservoir.

When (and if) built, the “High Head Run of the River Peaking” project will take around 5 years to complete, if every thing goes according to plan, which is unlikely, if the pace of past power projects in the region is any evidence.

In view of the power crisis in Gilgit-Baltistan, and particularly in Hunza, the project appears to be a panacea for the power-starved region’s many woes. However, the locals, including myself, have our questions, suspicions and apprehensions that need to be addressed fully before any such work can be started.
Let’s also pause and acknowledge that the Attabad Lake, a lethal beauty, is a reminder of many traumas for us locals. Inside this lake are hundreds of homes, places of worship, orchards, graveyards of our elders, and other memories and symbols of the past that are irreplaceable.
While writing this note, I remember all the people who lost their lives on January 4, 2010, and in the months and years after, and also those who suffered, continue to suffer, because of the miseries and hardships the Attabad landslide and the blockade of River Hunza inflicted on us.

I also remember Sher Ullah Baig and his young son, Sher Afzal, residents of Shishkat, who were shot dead at point blank by Hunza Police in Aliabad, while those affected by the flooding of their houses were protesting for their rights. They are yet to receive justice. But we have not, will never, forget them. I would like to remind Governor Mehdi Shah that it was during his government these two people were shot dead to clear the road in Aliabad for his visit.

I will try to sum up some of the questions/points that need to be clarified. These are my thoughts as a concerned son of the soil. I am sure others will put forward better questions and recommendations:
1. Does Hunza need a 54MW power project? Can smaller power projects address the power shortage? The total annual demand is not more than 20MW. With the construction of Diamer-Bhasha Dam and Dassu Dam going on, the region’s power shortage can be adequately addressed in a few years, especially when a regional grid is already being constructed to connect GB with the rest of Pakistan!
2. Is the area around Attabad Lake stable? Are there any seismic risks that could be compounded by the construction activity or the weight of the reservoir itself? Around 37000 tons of concrete will be used to build the reservoir. How will that impact the region?
Locals have been experiencing massive tremors in Ayeenabad, Shishkat, Chamangul, Gulmit and also Ghulkin. At times the impact of the tremors can be felt miles away in Passu. Will this massive power project deteriorate the situation for the locals who have lived in this area for centuries?
3. Will the water level in the river rise after the project is constructed? How high will the water rise? How many more homes and properties will be destroyed if the water level goes up? What is in the pipeline for those that are likely to get affected?
4. What will be the impact of the reservoir on the area’s climate patterns? Will there be more landslides? Will precipitation increase? Will rainfall increase? Snowfall? How will that affect the infrastructure and the region’s farmlands?
5. Around 800 acres of land, according to the Environmental Impact Assessment Report embedded above, developed by “Attabad Hydropower Management Consultants”, will be acquired for the project, on temporary or permanent basis. The proposal says that there’s government land in the area. Which land exactly belongs to the government? In my understanding, and according to the local historical memory, there’s no government land in the area. Everything belongs to the locals. How does the govt plan to compensate the communities/families whose land will be acquired? Moreover, the government had failed, 13 years after the Attabad Landslide disaster, to compensate the locals who lost their lands and means of livelihood due to the damming of the Hunza River. How does the government plan to compensate them? What alternative lands will be made available for the affected, uprooted, families?
6. The report erroneously mentions that ‘flooding is not a common feature’ in the Hunza River. They probably don’t know about the 1974 flooding in Baltbar that sank a massive bridge on the Karakoram Highway. They also seem to be unaware of multiple devastating floods that have originated in Shimshal Valley and inundated large swathes of land, per the region’s historical memory. What impact could another flood of that scale have on the locals living upstream, the reservoir itself, and the downstream populations, after the project is built?
7. The report says that the powerhouse will be built on the left side of the Hunza River, because the right side is volatile/vulnerable, as that is where the Attabad landslide occurred. There are historical records of a massive landslide happening on the left bank in the mid-19th century, which is not very far in the past, as long as geological events are concerned. Has the left side mountain been studied for stability?
8. The EIA report mentions that 175.5 kilograms of solid waste will be generated per day of the construction phase (which equals to almost 300,000 kilograms of waste in 55 months). Moreover, around 28,000 liters/day of waste-water will be generated for a workforce of 350 people, which amounts to almost 50million liters of wastewater generated by the time the project is completed (55 months.)
How will the issue of industrial-scale solid/liquid-waste and other forms of environmental pollution be tackled? How will Hunza River be kept clean?
9. Such large scale projects, contextually speaking, create numerous social, economic and political issues. What policies and frameworks will be built to address these issues. Social and economic environment and the ethics and principles of climate justice are equally important, along with natural and built environment.
10. If the project commences, what mechanisms will be put in place to protect interests and rights of the local laborers and others professionals? How will local entrepreneurs, already systematically marginalized by big money from outside the region, be protected?
These are some of the points that came to my mind.
Note: Maps in the EIA report are not properly labeled. Names of villages are missing from the maps and some are wrongly labeled. Locals have also started complaining that the consultation process is not inclusive.
It is important that the public consultation is not treated as “Khana-Puri“. Taking locals onboard and addressing their issues, and anticipating and mitigating the negative impacts of the project, is vital to avoid political and social complications down the road.
I would also urge the region’s youth and professionals, and other members of the civil society, not to stay silent and docile. Read the proposal (embedded above) in detail and ask questions and be ready to advocate for safeguarding the region’s rights and interests.
For the government and the project planners, it is just another project, but for our region it is going to have long-lasting implications if we fail to understand the impact and work hard and smart to keep our homeland livable for ourselves and for the coming generations.

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