Saturday, May 15, 2010

Hunza Landslide Lake: Of Lies and Lukewarm Disaster Response

By Ghulam Amin Beg

“Incompetence, sheer incompetence”, said a Chinese engineer, while looking at the pace of work and the resources pulled by the agencies at the Attabad landslide site to make spillway to open the Hunza River Lake, that is 17 kms long, and over 320 ft deep, a potential hydel bomb. Almost five months after the Attabad landslide that killed 19 people, made over 2500 people homeless in Sarat-Attabad and lower Gojal, the physical progress on making a spillway is seen as unsatisfactory and criminally slow. Independent sources say, against a target of 30 meter deep cut, the authorities are able to make a dent of less then 18 meter spillway, though officially claims are made of meeting almost 95% of the target. The contract was given to Frontier Works Organization or FWO in the last week of January, who claimed to open the barrier within 45 days. The Chinese were denied the contract.

China Road and Bridges Corporation known as CRBC is working on the widening of the Karakoram Highway for the last two years now, with field headquarter in Gulmit, the third village being submerged in the lake. CRBC provided machinery, technical advise and data on the disaster site to FWO during the work in progress on need basis.

In February this year, almost a month after the landslide blocked the Hunza River at Sarat-Attabad, we had a visit to the disaster site. With the help of a local translator the Chinese engineer looking at the four FWO drivers operating the Chinese excavation machines and one Havaldar deputed to supervise the gigantic work ahead, further observed; “What will happen to the work on the KKH upstream and downstream, when the soaring summer water flow increases exponentially into this Hunza River lake”? ‘It’s all gone. We have to redo it all again in this zone’.

We recently made a boat visit to Gojal and met the affected people and discussed with various stakeholders. In a private encounter with a senior military official, I mentioned about the lukewarm response from the top military leadership to keep the KKH open as an all weather road due to its ‘strategic importance’. I said, it was amazing to note that key bridges collapsed into the lake, almost 10-15 kms of KKH has submerged, Pakistan’s land link with its time tested friend China is gone, but we see the poorly equipped FWO workers working as if it was a routine maintenance of the KKH? He agreed and pointed out that when the disaster happened much of the critical intervention time was lost between January 4 and January 24th when the contract was finally given to FWO after intervention at highest level, due to lack of understanding and interagency coordination. NDMA, NHA, WAPDA, FWO and the PWD took time fixing the responsibility for the work.

“General Farooq, former Chairman NDMA did some good work initially by sending helicopters and later boats. But he criminally underestimated the enormity of the excavation work, rejecting calls for international technical assistance and at times bullying the GB government and administration” said one civil government official.

An ex-FWO staff said, “You know FWO is known as pioneer of the KKH along the Chinese army who constructed this highway back in the 60s and 70s. FWO was also for long responsible for maintenance of KKH. However during Musharraf regime the contract for widening KKH was given by NHA to CRBC, a Chinese company”. He further stated that FWO therefore reduced its strength and resources in the area and kept small resources of strategic military nature only.

“With this new contract on opening the dam barrier, it took time to redeploy the resources at the site, and most of its supervision remained with the FWO officials in Rawalpindi, that might have effected the pace of work on site, as, most of the time, it was only a JCO supervising the work, with occasional visits by officers, when there was VIP movement.” he opined.

Upon inquiry a local businessman frequently travelling across the lake standing nearby complained that these workers hardly work for 4-5 hours a day starting work at 9:00 in the morning and with a break at 12 for prayer and lunch and restart at 2 p.m. and close at 4 p.m. Even these five hours are spent like doing a normal road maintenance work with no sense of urgency visible. While the Chinese continue work on widening the KKH, day and night, especially working on the bridges and tunnels.

The Attabad landslide that happened on January 4, this year and blocked the Hunza river is continuously expanding upstream with over 16 kms and depth of 320 ft lake has so far submerged four villages, Ayeenabad, Shishkat Payeen, Goze-Gulmit, lower Ghulkin and reaching out to Hussaini upstream destroying over 120 houses, agricultural land, millions of fruit and non-fruit trees, barren land, schools, Mosques and critical infrastructure including roads, electricity, irrigation channels, water supply systems. Due to disruption of Karakoram Highway, the whole 25,000 population of Gojal is trapped beyond the lake.

“History is repeating itself”, said Ustad Ramat, an elderly school teacher. ‘Our forefathers used to tell us the tale of the 1858 landslide near the same place which blocked Hunza River for over six months and half of Gulmit, Hussaini and Pasu villages were submerged in the lake’. The lake stood for 6-7 years before the dam broke. British travellers in the region have recorded that it played havoc downstream destroying agricultural lands, orchards, houses and critical infrastructure of that time upto Attack Fort, almost pushing back the Kabul River 45kms.

“I am hopeful”, the FWO and the government will soon open this lake, he further said. When asked why he was so optimistic, he said, “firstly, this is PPP government and they are more sympathetic to the suffering of the Gilgit Baltistan people, secondly, thanks God, we have two elected representatives from Hunza this year, they will stand on their toes to make the work done and lastly, as compared to 1858 we now have more resources, technology and technical know-how and the media to project our cause.”

Another PPP sympathizer said; “look, we should be grateful, the Governor, the Chief Minister, the Speaker, our Technocrat Member GBLA, everybody visited the disaster site, met the affected people, listened to our problems. They have even delivered cheques to the families of those who lost their lives and those injured in Attabad, this was unprecedented timely response”. We should believe them and cooperate with the government. They have prepared compensation of over 2.5 billion and people will soon get their money. They are going to open the lake before summer starts.

During the initial days of the disaster, when the current Informaton Minister Qamar uz Zaman Qaira then acting Governor Gilgit Baltistan visited Gulmit, he addressed a public gathering and confidently lied to the people that the debris will be removed within one week. It was too much for the people. After his speech Ustad Rezo, a retired teacher and social activist rose to the rostrum and challenged him on what basis he was claiming to accomplish the task within one week? The Minister was furious, “Are you engineer?” “ No, but we live in this area with open eyes, you will not be able to open this before June. By that time all this area we are sitting might be submerged in the lake, don’t lie to people.” said Ustad Rezo in frustration.

The Minister returned to Altit IDP camp in helicopter. There he spoke of his encounter in Gulmit and termed Ustad Rezo and others ‘pessimists’ who prophesize about the disaster and want to make political capital out of it. He repeated that the lake will be opened within one or two weeks or it will take maximum 45 days, not more.

Day by day, people started worrying as the doomsday scenario was fast approaching.

The youth of Gojal were frustrated. Disturbing stories starting making vibes through internet blogs, SMS messages, local cable networks, local print media, protest rallies and occasionally getting coverage through mainstream media. A group of young students trapped in Gulmit due to lack of transportation facility, were furious. “They are liars. These corrupt FWO and administration officials have a nexus with private contractors. They are only concerned about making money out of this disaster; they are selling relief goods, taking commission from private contractors supplying fuel, food and other items. Nothing else.” The civil administration is responsible to provide fuel to the 4-5 boats provided by army. ‘We provide them 200 liters of petrol daily’ said the local magistrate in Gulmit. People say there is a mafia, a nexus here complaining that they sell it to the private boat operators and passengers have to wait daily for 5-6 hours on the lake site because there is shortage of fuel to operate the army boats.
‘Look at how they are behaving with the distressed people’ referring to the police scuffle with the people sitting in the boat at Sarat debris site.

The students and youth went out in hundreds to record their protests in Gojal, Hunza, Gilgit, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. They organized token hunger strikes, sit-ins, marches and conferences, seminars and press conferences. In Gilgit police baton charged the affected people twice. In Gulmit, when the peaceful youth protestors came out and announced to march towards the Chinese border, as there was no way to march towards Hunza due to the lake and collapse of the road system, the district administered boated 60 riot police to the area, termed the protestors ‘anti-Pakistan’, ‘anti-state’ and ‘agents of China’.

While the government functionaries and politicians were sending optimistic notes and were hopeful of the good and ‘effective work’ carried out by the FWO at the disaster site and new deadlines were announced, populations were displaced, fertile lands, millions of trees and houses in Ayeenabad, Shishkat Payeen, Shishkat Centre and the largest Chinese bridge submerged in the lake.

Now the water dragon has engulfed the pillars of the ongoing newly contracted Chinese bridge in Gulmit and the first village of Gulmit, the tehsil headquarter and the bazzar area is under water.

The government was still claiming everything was fine and business as usual. But Gen Kayani, the Chief of Army Staff visited the site and met affected people in Gulmit. After this visit the ice was broken. He said people should lower their expectations as there was no money with the government. Media reported that he was not satisfied with the pace of work. He sympathized with the affected people that there was difficult days ahead as before the overtopping starts by the end of this month, more areas may come under the lake upstream.

People were stunned. What about all the claims of the Ministers, Governors, CM, civilian officials, FWO briefings and the like? Whether everybody was dishonest and lying or they were not properly briefed? At least people felt that the COAS was frank and truthful; of what was going to happen and what they should expect from the state and the government, to protect their life, property and honor, which is the prime responsibility of the state.

The creeping disaster is not over. It might submerge more villages upstream; create more vulnerability for the 25,000 people of Gojal in the next days and weeks including issues of selling their cash crops, scarcity of cash income, education, and health and food security, besides posing challenges for early recovery, rehabilitation, reconstruction and revival of the economy and social fabrics of the society. But more so, there is a potential and probability that the water dragon will soon be showering downstream and going to play havoc with the lives, property and critical infrastructure of Gilgit Baltistan in the final round, affecting over 20,000 lives and damaging billions worth of public and private property and assets.

500 kms downstream, Tarbela may be far away, but the silt and sedimentation that the mighty Indus and the soaring Hunza river would carry down with the breaking of this over 16 kms long and would be 384ft deep lake, has the potential to disrupt the major water reservoir of Pakistan with destruction to some of the key dam sites from Bunji, Diamer-Basha to Dasu in Kohistan and more damages done to the bridges, roads and other medium to small hydel stations.

More so, while the landslide lake might be moving, the Islamabad government’s landslide lies and lukewarm response to mitigate the risks is also exponentially flowing upstream in the reverse direction.

“Incompetence, immaturity and lack of political will of the government will drown us all”, said a political activist with known-anti PPP sentiments. “Their very arrival on the scene was a bad omen for the people. Each time the PPP is in office in Gilgit-Baltistan, the people suffer one way or the other”, he further added.

But there were those who carry the guilt within and continue to invoke God;

“Our sins, our moral dilapidation and disunity and lack of gratefulness to the bounty of God brought the wrath of God, said one elderly men in Shishkat.

A development practitioner reflected that it was, “our careless attitude to our natural environment, our failure to choose honest, dedicated and courageous leadership and the directionless attitude of the so-called educated class and the youth who are responsible for this state of affair”.

Anything is possible.

However, the key question remains, if the contract was given to the Chinese at the first instance or if international technical assistance was commissioned, whether the situation would have been different from what we are facing now?

Secondly, compared to the event of 1858, the lake shall be only 100 ft below the previous mark in Gulmit village. Does this mean that in over 150 years, our science, engineering, government and technology was only able to progress 100ft in Pakistan?

Third, the central government-periphery relation, marginality of mountain areas and lack of accountability of central government agencies to local populations and local governments remain a key challenge, especially in colonial administrations like that of Gilgit-Baltistan where due to disputed status of the region, the bargaining power of the local political elite and puppet governments vis-à-vis the power of the establishment of Pakistan is quite weak.

Summing up, on thing is for sure. Once the water spills out of the lake, and it has already destroyed life and livelihood in Gojal, and might cause damages downstream, but life will restart all again. There is no way of looking back and stopping breathe.

The mountain people, everywhere, and especially in this part of the world have always lived with risks. They are tough and have the resilience to standup and continue their struggle; fighting nature on its own turf.

Move on, shake and shape the mountains once again!

Ghulam Amin Beg


Anonymous said...

Dear All

It is hoped that the upstream nightmare is going to be over , except the downstream disaster.. I rest assure that there would be booming opprtunites for Gojal.. it was a birth pain... ... let us trap that opprtunity... and also let us do not be demoralised ourselves for the movement.

Sajjad Hyder

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