This New Year brought with it a catastrophe to the Hunza Valley, in Gilgit-Baltistan. On 4 January, a crack in the slope of the village lands of Attabad, in the Upper Hunza Valley, widened, causing terraces and houses to collapse. A major landslide subsequently led to a wave of dust and gravel, which eventually blocked and dammed the Hunza River. Since then, that water has been collecting into a massive lake, which by mid-May was threatening to overflow its banks, inundating dozens of villages.
The crack in the slope was actually discovered more than a decade ago, in the aftermath of the Astor earthquake of 1998. At that time, humanitarian organisations such as Focus, an Aga Khan-funded NGO, advised nearby villagers to begin moving their homes, warning that the area was highly unstable. Government authorities refrained from designing a proper resettlement scheme, and villagers hesitated in leaving. As a result, some 19 people recently lost their lives, nearly 50 houses were completely destroyed, and more than 1500 people have been displaced. Nearly two kilometres of the Karakoram Highway, Chinese-engineered work on which was taking place, was damaged and left covered by debris; other roads and bridges have been submerged in the Gojal area of Upper Hunza, including Gulmit, the administrative tehsil headquarters of Gojal. The lake level, meanwhile, continued to rise.
Mitigating the disaster fell to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), which in recent weeks has been constructing a spill-over channel. This is meant to stop the water level from rising, and could eventually allow for a controlled drainage. When the landslide occurred, the Hunza River was releasing only two percent of its summer melt waters; since then, of course, that run-off rate has increased day by day, even as politicians, activists and engineers have debated how to proceed. While some have suggested utilising the lake water for power generation or tourism purposes, others have wondered at the stability of the dam, though often without sound geological and geo-morphological evidence. Another faction wanted to destabilise the dam by bombing it, to get rid of the potential problem once and for all.
Inevitably, culprits have also been sought, with demonstrations being staged against bureaucrats and politicians, mainly accusing them of inaction. Initially, the supply of basic foodstuffs and the transport of ailing people were enabled by army helicopters. As the crisis grew, a ferry service allowing the transportation of people and goods was implemented. By 21 May, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani, on a visit to the area, pledged compensation of PKR 100,000 for each affected family, as well as the expedition of a PKR 15 billion previously announced for Gilgit-Baltistan. Still, on both sides of the lake, trucks ready to transport goods to and from the Sost Dry Port, the hub for China-Pakistan trade across the Kunjerab Pass, were stuck. International trade along the only functional corridor between Central and South Asia has thus been forced to a grinding and undetermined halt.
Culture of reaction
A vulnerable high-mountain valley system, Hunza is characterised by the most extensive glaciation outside the polar regions, as well as some of the steepest slopes on Earth. Natural and manmade disasters are not unknown in the Karakoram, and survival under these harsh conditions has brought fame to the local Hunzukuts, contributing to their reputation as capable and hardy mountain folk. Even so, the elders in Hunza term the January landslide the most significant natural disaster their area has experienced to date.
From 1830 to the 1990s, a total of 124 damaging events, as recorded from a range of sources, occurred in the Hunza Valley. The single greatest destructive force has been the movement of glaciers, accounting for almost half of all recorded disasters. In addition to the slow destruction that glaciers can cause to cultivated lands, irrigation systems and roads, glacial surges can be triggered by landslides. More seriously, advancing glaciers often lead to the formation of lakes and natural dams, posing the potential for dangerous glacial dam bursts and the sudden massive release of temporary reservoirs. The second most destructive natural disasters are avalanches, followed by weather-related action from wind and thunderstorms.
To a significant extent, the cultural landscape of the Hunza Valley is the result of coping with these disasters. Within the period of recorded observation, there have only been four events leading to the complete abandonment of settlements in the Hunza Valley. A mudflow in 1830 and various glacier advances in the Chupursan Valley have been the most dramatic, as a consequence of which the whole tributary valley of the Hunza River had to be given up for habitation for decades. It was only within the last century that systematic resettlement resumed, with more than 330 households living there today.
Less than two decades later, in 1858, a severe rockfall at Sarat, and the subsequent damming of the Hunza River, caused the flooding of all villages from Sarat to Pasu. That site is within two kilometres of the present dam, though the exact number of victims could not be established at the time. Before their destruction, both of these areas had been newly inhabited by settlers from central Hunza and by migrants and refugees from Wakhan. After the rockfall, the young village of Sarat was abandoned and only resettled after 1931.
In general though all of these years, direct earthquake-triggered mass movements have not been registered, although 42 earthquakes did occur in the Hindukush-Karakoram region between 1876 and 1911. Out of 102 earthquakes with epicentres in northern Pakistan between 1912 and 1971, no direct destruction of habitations is recorded for the Hunza Valley. The January 2010 disaster is thus a significant addition to this data: an earthquake contributed to the destabilisation of the slope, the slope collapsed years later, causing the blockage of the Hunza Valley and the formation of the Gojal lake.
16 km and growing
Just two kilometres from Attabad, Sarat is an important historical reminder of the immense potential for destruction that exists in the former today. In 1858, a lake similar to today’s was formed in Sarat. After reaching a length of more than 20 km, the dam collapsed and the lake released a flood that followed the course of the Hunza River into the Gilgit and the Indus.
At that time, the waters entering the Indus flowed with such force that the river levels rose alarmingly around Attock, where the Indus leaves the mountainous terrain to enter its floodplain. To quote a colonial report from the time: ‘At 5 A.M. on the 10th August, 1858, the Indus at [Attock] was very low; at 7 A.M. it had risen ten feet; by half an hour after noon it had risen 50 feet, and it continued to rise until it stood ninety feet higher than in the morning.’ Among its many other acts of destruction, the flood drowned a colonial army unit camping on the banks of the Indus. As the event took place at a time when British dominance in Southasia was at stake, the political significance of the Indus floods of 1858 has been well documented.
What is likely to happen today, a century and a half later? If the Attabad dam collapses and the Gojal lake empties rapidly, the damage will be far more dramatic than it was in 1858. During the 20th century, the Karakoram Highway has changed the infrastructure and livelihoods of both the Indus and Hunza valleys, leading to an expansion of follow-up construction of link roads, and extension of village lands and settlements closer to the riverbanks. Today, every tributary river is connected to the larger water bodies by a jeepable suspension bridge or concrete viaduct. Development agencies, the Public Works Department – in Pakistan sometimes labelled the ‘public’s worst department’ – and international donors have contributed to bridge construction and road building. The Tarbela Dam on the Indus, which claims to be the world’s largest earth-filled dam, is the major regulator for Punjab province’s irrigation, and houses the country’s prime hydro-electric power-generation station. Above Tarbela, the Basha Dam is currently under construction, deemed a feasible plan despite high probabilities of earthquakes and flood releases. Considering the scope of the settlement, flooding resulting from the Attabad landslide would be a disaster of massive proportions.
As Himal goes to press, the ‘spill-over’ date for the Gojal lake is calculated to be just prior to the end of May. In an attempt to minimise damages, the NDMA is continuing efforts to enable a controlled overflow, digging a spillway within the dam’s soft top layer. Meanwhile, glacial melt is increasing quickly as the season warms, and the lake has reached a length of 16 km. Yet the potential of an upcoming disaster seems to be grossly underestimated, and people continue to resort to prayer to avert catastrophe.
~ Hermann Kreutzmann is professor at the Centre for Development Studies (Geographic Sciences) at Freie Universitaet, Berlin.