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.
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