VIEW: The Sinking Paradise of Gojal —Dr Shahid Siddiqui
The government needs to act fast. Gojal should be declared a calamity-hit area, extending rightful facilities to its residents. The debris removal work should be expedited by extending the shifts to 24 hours and increasing the labour and number of machines
“But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity”
— Andrew Marvell: ‘To His Coy Mistress’.
The inhabitants of Gojal can hear, feel, and dread the nimble footfalls of water that is rising, extending, and seeping into newly found tracks, obliterating everything on its way. Their days are obsessed with the fear of fast approaching water. Their night’s sleep is marred by the nightmares of ferocious waves of the Hunza River. Will it catch us unawares? Is it a matter of weeks, or days or hours? Among them are also young girls and boys whose schools are either damaged or on the list of potential targets of brutal water, gushing out and gulping whatever comes in its way.
It started with the landslide at Atta Abad on January 4 this year when 20 people died and a number of houses caved in. The calamity did not stop here; rather it acted as a precursor to a tragedy of much greater magnitude. The debris, as a result of landslides, obstructed the flow of River Hunza and formed an artificial lake whose level is rising by the minute. The length of the barrier is 3,000 meters, width 550 meters, and height 135 meters. The artificial lake is around 11 km long. The reservoir is 171 million cubic meters. Until now (first week of March), the water has played havoc, damaging a three kilometre piece of Karakoram highway and is beginning to enter the low-lying areas of Kishkat, Gulmit, Hussaini and Passu. The longest bridge between Shishkat and Gulmit has already been submerged, severing Gojal’s link with the outer world.
Gojal (upper Hunza) borders China and Afghanistan and because of its picturesque beauty, fruit orchards, glistening glaciers and beautiful people is considered as heaven on earth. The most remarkable part of this distant part of our country is its literacy rate, i.e. 77 percent, which is higher than the national average. It is this same Gojal that is sinking. It is sinking each moment, hour, and day in front of our eyes. A large number of houses are either damaged or in the danger zone. These houses include 19 in Aeenabad, 62 in Shishkat, 60 in Gulmit, nine in Hussaini, and seven in Passu.
Besides houses, a number of schools are either damaged or potential targets. In Atta Abad, Diamond Jubilee (DJ) School was damaged, where 115 students were studying. The SAP school building was also affected, where 25 students were studying. In Aeenabad, the building of DJ School was affected, where 48 students were receiving education. In Shishkat, a primary school building has been vacated and students have been shifted to the middle school to receive education in a much more trying and challenging environment.
The calamity has hit the educational system of Gojal in multiple ways. Cultivated lands are affected as the lack of transportation has made it difficult to transport seeds and fertilisers. All this has resulted in an economic crunch for farmers. The principal of Al-Ameen School, one of the biggest community schools in Gulmit, shared that in his school there were about 242 children whose parents were farmers. These students are finding it difficult to pay the fees. A similar situation can be seen in other community and private schools.
The efforts to remove the debris are underway. The Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) has managed to remove 15,000 cubic metres of debris. The job is not easy keeping in view the slippery clay. Almost 100,000 cubic metres of debris is still to be removed. According to an estimate, work at this speed will take a couple of months to complete. Until that time, should we keep on waiting and watch the water rising, engulfing houses, people, cattle, and trees? Time is of great essence. In Gojal, the water level, as a result of melting of glaciers, rises after mid-March. This could further aggravate the crisis. The water-bound Gojal is hit with a number of problems including scarcity of gas, fuel, and other amenities of life. Prices have gone up. Schools are disturbed. Health centres are running out of medicine.
The government needs to act fast. Gojal should be declared a calamity-hit area, extending rightful facilities to its residents. The debris removal work should be expedited by extending the shifts to 24 hours and increasing the labour and number of machines. Food and medicine supply should be ensured for 25,000 stranded people of the valleys. Special arrangements should be made to facilitate the cultivation of crops.
The silver lining in this depressing situation, however, is the positive role of the community. The people of Gojal, especially the youth, came out enthusiastically to help the victims of the catastrophe. The role of FOCUS, a partner of the Aga Khan Development Network, is commendable. The Ismaili Local Council is also actively engaged in helping people to meet the challenge. The young boys and girls of Gojal, living in other cities of Pakistan, are trying hard to create awareness of the issue through peaceful rallies. Let us do our best to save our paradise that has started sinking beneath the water.
The writer is Director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org