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Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Paradize Forgotten

Dr Shahid Siddiqui
Pakistan Today, 29 May,2011
Seventeen months before, on January 4, 2010, the Hunza river flow got blocked by massive landsliding at Ataabad, a small village of Gojal, Upper Hunza. The cracking mountain gave way to large stones that came down with lightning speed and destroyed whatever came in their way. It was night time and the dwellers of the village were sleeping after day’s hard work. Some of them could never wake up to see their paradise again- the paradise of Gojal (Upper Hunza) known for natural beauty of shimmering glaciers, fruit orchards, wild flowers, water springs, and mighty river Hunza. Nineteen people died. But this was not all; it was just the beginning of a long and tiring phase of miseries that was to transforms the economic, social, and educational fabric of this locality.
There is an urgent need to confront the issue on an emergency basis as the delay is adding to the gravity of problems.
As a result of the landsliding, river Hunza’s flow was obstructed by the debris that led to the formation of a lake that swelled and expanded and covered an area of almost twenty seven kilometers. The rising water of the lake devoured fields, houses, animals, and fruit orchards. A long portion of Karakoram highways was submerged and so were some important bridges between Aaeenabad and Hussaini. According to an estimate, 47 houses were damaged and a number of fruit orchards were destroyed. Three hundred animals were killed and the cash crop of potato was ruined. This was a heavy blow to the economic structure of the area and people over night turned from haves to have-nots.

The landsliding was not just an event but an unending process of mental torture, loss, fear, frustration, and helplessness. The impact of the lake was felt at multiple levels. The immediate outcome of the submersion of Karakoram Highway was that the whole area of Gojal, containing 25,000 thousand people, got cut off from the rest of the country. After the lapse of 17 months, they are still surrounded by water.

There is only one hospital available in the locality and even that is without sufficient resources. In the absence of roads, people have to use boats for communication. The private boats, however, are quite expensive. Besides the expenditure, the catch is that the boats ply only in fair weather and in smooth waters. If there is some emergency and the weather is rough, there is no way that one could get out of the confines of Gojal and reach some hospital in Gilgit.

What has happened since January 4, 2010? During the long period of 17 months, the people of Gojal suffered economically, socially, physically, and psychologically. Nothing much has happened that brought any tangible improvement in the lives of the people of this paradise. Have we forgotten the 417 families that were internally displaced? What happened to the promises made by the government to these people? The rehabilitation process that required prompt action has been going through the mazes of bureaucratic steps. The IDPs needed the money urgently to construct their own houses and leave the temporary abodes. A number of parents are unable to pay the school fees of their children. Hunza, that boasted an exemplary literacy rate, was struck badly by the Ataabad disaster. Seven schools were damaged and the alternative arrangements are not ideal at all.

Seventeen months after the incident, we are still facing an uncertain situation about the artificially formed lake. Initial promises, that the obstruction would be removed in a couple of months, evaporated in the air. The FWO despite their long engagement with the lake could dig only 15 feet. Their biggest success could be the creation of spillway which equaled the magnitude of inflow and outflow. This is certainly not the ultimate solution. The lake is still there and so are the problems related to it. The most recent happening is melting of Ghulkin glacier that has increased the level of water in the lake. With summer setting in, the glaciers have started melting which would certainly mean increased inflow of water that could prove dangerous to the population living in the area.

There is an urgent need to confront the issue on an emergency basis as the delay is adding to the gravity of problems. There is a growing realisation on the part of the local people that the work on the lake, which has been underway for the last one and a half years, is slow in pace and needs to be accelerated. If there is an issue of lack of resources, we should seek help from the neighboring country China that has superior technological capacity to deal with the challenge more effectively and efficiently. Meanwhile, the announced money for the IDPs needs to be dispersed as soon as possible as it is already too late and the anxiety is building up in the local community. There are protests on the streets to highlight their demands and the government cannot afford further delay. Let’s not forget our beautiful paradise of Upper Hunza and the stranded people there who deserve a better and quicker response from the local and federal governments.

The writer is Professor & 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

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