A catastrophe of epic proportions

Arif Belgaumi May 21, 2010

On January 4 a massive landslide wiped out a portion of the village of Attabad in Hunza and completely blocked the Hunza river. For the last four months we have been watching a major natural disaster in the making while government agencies, local as well as federal, have failed to understand the seriousness of the situation. Today we are confronted with an impending natural calamity of Biblical proportions and the authorities are still making statements based on conjecture and false assumptions. On May 18 the chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) Lt Gen (Retd) Nadeem Ahmed said that there “were remote chances of the bursting of Hunza lake”. This assessment is contrary to the facts on the ground and the prediction of experts. Throughout the last four months similar baseless statements have been made by various representatives of the government.

Landslides are not uncommon in the Karakoram and every few years a big one strikes a village or destroys a road. Several active landslides exist along the Karakoram Highway and signs advise drivers to drive carefully and not honk. But a landslide that blocks the entire flow of the Hunza river is an event that should have made the authorities sit up and take note. The Hunza is the only river that traverses the entire Karakoram ranges and drains huge quantities of melted snow from some of the largest glaciers outside the Arctic region via the Gilgit river into the Indus. It was only in March that the government began to respond to the plight of the affected residents of Gojal, as well as to the growing danger of the rapidly expanding lake.

The decision, taken early in the crisis, to build a spillway to conduct water over the top of the dam was a correct one. As the water level in the lake rises the pressure on the dam could be reduced by releasing water to the downstream side. Unfortunately, it appears that the resources necessary for doing an effective job were either not provided or were never there. In fact, the agencies entrusted with the task — the army, FWO or the NDMA — grossly underestimated its enormity. Perhaps this disaster was always beyond the capacity of the government even if they did realise the scale of the undertaking. The affected area is remote and inaccessible; there are severe logistical constraints to the movement of men and machinery to the landslide site. However, an honest and accurate assessment of the situation would have at least prompted the government to appeal for foreign assistance. After the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province, Chinese authorities were confronted with over 30 such dammed lakes which were referred to in the press as ‘quake lakes’. The Chinese have been successful in draining the water from some of these lakes. Even the Pakistan Army and the NDMA have prior experience in dealing with the landslide dams caused by the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir. (To be continued)

Published in the Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2010.


Arif Belgaumi | 11 years ago | Reply The reader is right that this has nothing to do with urban planning experience. This only requires common sense and a little experience managing construction projects to match effort to task at hand. A lot of landslides in the Karakoram, including this one, consist of compacted sediment that has been deposited over the centuries in huge layers at the base of the peaks. On day 1, any one with foresight would have noted that if nothing is done and the water fills up to the top of this dam there would be a huge lake upstream from the barrier and when that lake overtopped that barrier the loose sediment it consists of would offer little resistance to the rapid flow of the water. Historical records exist of similar landslides and the massive floods that have followed the eventual destruction of the barrier dam. In fact an event like this happened in 1858 at this very same location. An experienced disaster manager would have also calculated, from river flow data available, the amount of time it would take for the lake to overtop the barrier. That would be the time available to build a spillway to reduce the pressure on the barrier and to gradually drain the lake. That time period would give one a clear idea of the effort, in terms of manpower and machinery, required to build the spillway. Secondly, the experienced disaster manager would design the spillway to at least handle the peak inflow of water into the lake at the time of year when the lake reaches the top of the barrier, i.e. now. The spillway would also be lined with boulders and other compacted material to resist erosion. The current inflow into the lake, according to NDMA’s website is 2600 cusec (cubic feet/sec or over 16,000 gal/sec) which adds up to a daily flow of a whopping 1,399,245,597 gals. The current spillway, perhaps the product of “real hard work” is neither sized for this kind of flow nor lined to resist erosion. Erosion of the spillway will cause more water to flow through causing more erosion. This will create a feedback loop which will result in the rapid disintegration of the barrier, perhaps in only a few hours, releasing a huge volume of water (a few billion gals) on the valleys below.
Altaf Hussain | 11 years ago | Reply @ Being a citizen of Karakorum and native of the Hunza Attabad, I am totally convinced and would like to add some correct information regarding Chinese Engineers initial assessment and the time period of the possibility of the removal of debris and landslide cause the WATER BOMB on the Hunza river.Chinese Engineers initial reports confirm that it will not take more than two week if they would have been offered the contact but unfortunately corrupted Army and corrupted politician worship bribe and commission which is totally unacceptable for the Chinese Engineers who were already working on the Karakorum Highway (KKH). Pathetic Government and its representatives in Gilgit and Hunza always contradict and still making statements based on conjecture and false assumptions. their assessments are contrary to the facts on the ground and the prediction of experts. Throughout the last four months similar baseless statements have been made by various representatives of the government. @ Farhan, I wish, it would have happened to your home than, we see how you would have been reacted on media and Government negligence. Karakorum Students Organisation. Gilgit
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