This summer has seen a cooling of US-Pakistan relations due to both the imminent withdrawal of allied forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban backlash witnessed across the region. In response, Beijing has assured Islamabad of its support for stability and development in the country. An interesting element of this reaffirmation involves the dilemma of the Attabad Lake, the area of the Hunza River that has been dammed since a series of massive landslides in Gilgit-Baltistan in January 2010 blocked the river and large sections of the highway went under water (see Himal June 2010, ‘An inevitable disaster’). In July, Pakistan’s ambassador to China, Masood Khan, stated at a bilateral business forum in Kashgar that ‘we have a grand vision for creating multiple, trade-transport-energy corridors between Pakistan and China so that this region can be connected to South, West and Central Asia. But first things first: We must drain the lake and realign the road.’
This ‘road’ is the Karakoram Highway, the sole overland connection between Pakistan and China. On the face of it, the highway would seem to be little more than a conduit for border trade of basic commodities between Pakistan and China, forming a small fraction of the overall trade volume between the two countries. Currently, bilateral trade consists of some USD 8.7 billion, with Pakistan exports increasing by about 37 percent annually and China exports by about 25 percent. Even though the emergence of the Attabad Lake has reduced crossborder trade, the larger significance of the overland connection emerges in the geopolitical prospects for regional trade.
The Karakoram Highway is the shortest road connection from China to the Arabian Sea, at Gwadar Port on the Balochistan coast. Constructed with Chinese funding starting in 2002, the port is thought to be ideally situated for receipt and dispatch of fuels and commodities to West Asia. Against this backdrop, the Karakoram Highway has been deemed an essential element in the Chinese export strategy of the near future. In 2007, the Islamabad government awarded a contract to the Port of Singapore Authority to operate Gwadar for the next 40 years; but with Chinese interests at the fore, the Singapore contract is currently under reconsideration in the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
In the meantime, in December 2010 an agreement worth USD 275 million was signed between China and Pakistan to repair the section of the Karakoram Highway damaged by the Attabad Lake. The current plan is to lower the lake’s surface and restore the 19 km submerged by the disaster. While this draining of the water body and restoration of the land link are indeed necessary for geopolitical reasons, many local problems persist that are not being addressed.
In an area famed for its high literacy rates and the peace that prevailed, in August an incident of violence erupted in the Hunza administrative headquarters of Aliabad. Ahead of a visit by a senior government functionary, individuals displaced by the lake protested over the ongoing lack of rehabilitation services and incomplete compensation provided by the regional government. Two men were shot dead during police attempts to control the situation, and consequently small protest rallies erupted in Gilgit and as far away as Islamabad and Karachi.
Some 450 families were displaced from their homes and villages as a result of the formation of the lake at Attabad. Initially, 60 percent of these were relocated to special relief camps elsewhere in Gilgit, while others stayed with extended families. Today, some remain in shelters provided by the UN and the Aga Khan Foundation, but clearly prolonged stays under such circumstances are not possible in an area of extreme climatic conditions. Eventually, families have moved either to Lower Hunza or to Gilgit and its outlying areas, thus creating a significant demographic shift away from Upper Hunza, an area also known as Gojal.
The Islamabad government promised nearly USD 7000 for each family whose house went under water. From the subsequent phased disbursement scheme, after 17 months most families have received about 65 percent of the promised grant. No compensation, meanwhile, has been allocated for lost arable lands or orchards, so income from agriculture has almost completely dried up in an area once famed for its apricots, cherries and potatoes. Before the flooding, individual families were able to earn an average of USD 1000 annually from apricots and potatoes alone, not an insubstantial sum. Meanwhile, Gojal is experiencing a much broader economic setback as well; 300 small shops have closed because supplies have dried up from southern Pakistan, and some 225 taxi and public-transport services have been closed down due to the road blockage. Community cash reserves have also dwindled, as collective savings were used up during the emergency phases. Cognisant of the lack of collateral, local banks have also stopped lending schemes for small borrowers.
Discussions with affected families have indicated that psycho-social problems are also manifest in displaced communities, and remain an unaddressed problem. Locals report the displaced as being very edgy generally and prone to anger and physical fighting. ‘They used to sing and dance together, but now they seem to get on each other’s nerves,’ one said. Women have especially suffered in the aftermath of the disaster. Many today report being burdened by depression, haunted by having seen their homes underwater and without clarity on what the future will bring. Children’s education has inevitably been affected, not only due to the loss of family income but also due to the exodus of teachers from the affected region. In the village of Shishkat, for instance, only three out of 10 teachers remain at the local school. Health facilities are in poor condition in this village; one person reported prescribed medication being available but also noted that there was no syringe for its administration at the local dispensary. People have died due to delays in getting to the nearest hospital across the lake.
Although the government and the World Food Programme did initially supply food aid to Gojal, major donations came from China – including flour, sugar, rice, milk powder and cooking oil – for the first year after the event. The regional government has now requested an extension of this supply. One effect of this has been a shift in the customary staple diet of the hardy mountain families to commodities such as rice and sugar, previously consumed only in small quantities. Interestingly, this has already resulted in some reports of overweight people in the displaced communities.
While many continue to cope under difficult circumstances, some have made gains from the lake disaster. Transport down the length of the lake is now done by boat, a business that has become extremely lucrative. In the early months of 2010, locals noted fortunes being made by enterprising outsiders who operated boats to ferry people and goods across Attabad Lake, from local communities back towards the roadhead. Where a road trip from Gojal to Gilgit used to cost USD 3 per person, or USD 22 to book a vehicle, a boat hire can now cost up to USD 175. Prices of commodities across the lake can vary by a factor of three on either end of the lake, and eventually this will lead to impoverishment of upstream residents.
Notwithstanding trans-border priorities to drain the lake, the local administration lags behind in providing a clear option in terms of work programme and plans for rebuilding the road. Geologists have reservations about the safety of this part of the Hunza Valley in the long run. A recent study by FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance Pakistan suggests that the mountainside above the Attabad Lake remains vulnerable to another large landslide, potentially brought on by an earthquake or even something as simple as rock-blasting required for the reconstruction work on the Karakoram Highway.
In response, an agreement was recently made between the Islamabad government and a Chinese construction company to include a six-kilometre tunnel to penetrate the hazardous site. However, this will only be possible after the lake’s water level is lowered by around 100 feet. The engineering work to lower the water level has been tardy, however, with only 30 percent of the target achieved so far as the national government struggles with competing budgetary demands arising from climate related floods in the south of Pakistan for two successive years. Meanwhile, local communities on the other side of the lake are suffering, while border-trade and tourism-related business remains at a near-standstill.
Currently, the future of the affected families remains unclear, as local government communications are vague. Compensation money provided in small irregular instalments impedes long-term planning of family lives. With the recent police crackdown on demonstrators in Hunza, locals’ hope of reclaiming their land from the lake is dwindling. As such, many have already started to move out of the relief camps in search of alternate livelihoods, and a profound and unplanned shift is underway in the populace of the once-prosperous region of Gojal.
No matter what the operational difficulties of managing the Attabad Lake disaster in a landscape prone to such events, for the sake of local communities as well as in the larger geopolitical perspective, the Karakoram Highway must be cleared and traffic made to flow once again. This is a link, after all, with much future significance for China and Pakistan. There are a number of influences that will impact the future of the Attabad Lake, each operating at different scales and with differing stakes, including the local community concerns for reclaiming submerged homes and lands, the government’s technical and financial challenges of road reconstruction, and longer-term transboundary economic interests with China. It is these push and pull factors that are shaping the societal response to the natural disaster in Hunza.
~ Mehjabeen Abidi-Habib, Humaira Khan, MuzaffarUddin & Babar Khan are founding members of the forthcoming Karakoram Research Institute, aimed at understanding social and ecological changes in Gilgit.