On January 4, 2010, a devastating landslide near Attabad in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) blocked the Hunza River creating a threatening artificial lake. The blockade of the river has resulted in rising water levels, submerging villages and threatening more devastation in the event of a breach in the banks of the Hunza River. Till now, at least 20 people have been killed and 25,000 left stranded and these are conservative estimates. However, the tale does not end there. In fact, as we speak, the artificial lake is said to be increasing in depth at an alarming rate, with some cautious estimates indicating by as much as three feet a day. As of May 15, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the lake is 318.79 feet deep and stretches nearly 15.5 kilometres.
The same NDMA also states that a number of villages have been submerged by the artificial lake, including Aainabad. The trade route between Pakistan and China has also been blocked as a 30 km portion of the Karakoram Highway has been affected. Furthermore, it is feared that an additional 13,000 people may face displacement if the rising water levels are not controlled via the building of spillways, which in itself may take another two weeks.
Considering the widespread anticipated ramifications of the landslide, one would have expected the authorities to have reacted earlier. However, clearly oblivious to the pains of the local population, most political parties and other relevant officials in Pakistan highlighted the issue at a belated stage, as an afterthought more than anything else. However deplorable, for me, the most alarming aspect was the apparent apathy of the Gilgit-Baltistan government.
It is interesting to note that relief efforts are being spearheaded by the army, as are efforts to build the spillway and restore the Karakoram Highway. Financial assistance and disbursement of compensation is also being undertaken mainly by the army in collaboration with the federal government. Although commendable, nowhere in any of these activities can one see the provincial government actually performing efficiently and in a visible capacity.
As such, the provincial government seems ambivalent to the miseries of its masses, if not downright clueless. In fact, whilst many in the rest of the country are hitting the panic button and seemingly attempting to minimise any potential damage that may arise from any breach in the lake, the government of Gilgit-Baltistan is on record as stating that the situation is not as bad as being portrayed in the media. Although the confidence with which the statements were expressed is admirable, it certainly isn’t reassuring, especially if one takes note of the recent protests in front of the legislative assembly building in Gilgit, in which citizens were seen registering their dissatisfaction at the work being done by the government for those affected.
However, the reason for stating all these facts isn’t to belittle the relatively young government, which was established pursuant to the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self Governance) Order, 2009. Instead, it is to force oneself to contemplate as to why the provincial government has been so ineffective, or perhaps irrelevant, when it comes to protecting the citizens of the area and asserting itself in the relief efforts for the same, despite enjoying autonomy in governance, at least on the face of it.
In my next article, I will sift through the provisions of the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self Governance) Order, 2009 and attempt to illustrate the capacity and powers of the Gilgit- Baltistan government under the present institutional framework. Perhaps that will help in answering as to why the government seems so helpless in comparison to the other stakeholders in the region.