Urgent action needed on Hunza lake

May 12, 2010

There is no good time for disasters but these are particularly worst times to have one. Pakistan’s biggest ever river-water blockage was created by a landslide on January 4 on the Hunza River. The Hunza is a tributary of the Indus which in turn is a lifeline of our country’s power and irrigation systems. The landslide caused a lake and that is increasing with the passage of everyday and it has the potential to do immense damage, should the lake breach its banks.

Already, water from the lake has inundated acres of irrigated land, orchards and meadows, left many homeless and threatened food supplies to over 25,000 people along the Chinese border. The lake is now over 18 kilometres long and 320 feet deep and has blocked a portion of the Karakoram Highway and its longest bridge.

The Frontier Works Organisation with help from Chinese engineers has managed to build a spillway but this has only partially helped. The reason is that the water level is rising fast with the advent of summer which increases the flow in the river because of the melting of the mountain snows.

The Wakhi speaking people of Gojal, who have been virtually cut-off from the rest of Pakistan for the last four months, have for years shared their pastures and the Silk Route (Karakoram Highway) with the people of lower Hunza. Today, they share a calamity. For the first time there is no road connection between the Wakhi speaking of Gojal and the Wakhi-speaking people of lower Hunza. This means taking a boat and paying a hefty amount as a fee.

The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and an NGO by the name of Focus Pakistan have been doing their best to help as well but they provide relief goods and related services and cannot build a spillway over a major river blockade. It is essentially the federal government’s job to do that and this needs to be done as soon as possible lest the situation get completely out of hand.

Clearly, the federal government needs to do more. It could seek technical help from friendly countries and send out emergency alerts to intentional agencies having the requisite expertise. The authorities need to focus on stabilising the debris, expediting work on spillways and also minimising potential risks downstream. Round the clock monitoring and a fool-proof, early warning mechanism are needed.

If the lake were to burst its banks, it could potentially damage several bridges on the KKH and cause a major setback to the region’s hard-earned development gains made over the years. In addition to this, one would like to remind the prime minister of his promise that he made during the recent Gilgit-Baltistan elections that Gilgit and Skardu airports would be upgraded to accommodate all-weather landing and that direct cargo flights to China’s neighbouring Xingiang province would also be started.

The writer is a development professional based in Islamabad (ismail.khan@tribune.com.pk)

Published in the Express Tribune, May 13th, 2010.