The 16 kilometres-long lake formed on the Hunza river, following a devastating landslide in January this year, is proving to be a major public hazard. Villages in the upper Hunza, the area known as Gojal, have already been flooded with houses submerged under roof-high water. People have begun moving away. NGOs working in the area estimate that around 13,000 people face displacement. There is an immense sense of panic across the area. Warnings have been issued that villages located downstream of the dammed river could also be flooded and that the impact of an overflow may reach all the way to Tarbela.
What we are seeing unfold before our very eyes is nothing short of a humanitarian disaster. And it has been aggravated by the allegedly inadequate shelter provided to those who have moved away and are housed at makeshift camps set up, for most parts, in government schools. People in Gojal complain of an acute shortage of fuel and food and the only means of transport for them is to use boats. Despite efforts by the Frontier Works Organisation, a spillway to drain off the rising water (the lake is rising roughly three feet every day) has not been made.
Given that the situation is reaching a critical point, with experts saying that the water may burst the banks, a contingency plan needs to be put into place immediately. It should focus on ensuring that no further lives are lost and hence involve evacuation of the population that could be affected downstream.
Of course, given the altitude and remoteness of the location, this may be a hard task but should not be beyond the capabilities of the government, the military and the NGOs working in the region. This may sound very clichéd but time really is of the essence. The plan needs to be formulated quickly and publicised to the local population to gain their cooperation for effective implementation.
Published in the Express Tribune, May 14th, 2010.