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July 7, 2010

Lake Wreaks Havoc on Fragile Mountain Economy

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Published on: Dawn News
The disaster that struck Attabad in Hunza early this year wreaked havoc on the economy of the Hunza-Nagar District, in particular, and GilgitBaltistan, ingeneral.The disruption of Karakoram Highway (KKH) has literally brought all economic activities including trade and tourism, of the region famous for picturesque tourist spots, to a grinding halt because of the lake formed at Attabad.
The blockage of Hunza River and creation of a lake which has now swollen into a surging reservoir with its length spreading over an area of 25 kilometres submerging three villages – Ayeenabad, Shishkat, Gulmit, Ghulkin — in Gojal Tehsil and damaging houses, property and business.
The lake is now heading towards Passu. The inhabitants of Ghulkin overlooking Gulmit, headquarter of Gojal, which is the largest and strategically important tehsil of HunzaNagar District, are feeling its impact. The lake has submerged over 165 houses, 120 shops, 10 hotels, three community centres, three schools, two wood factories and crop fields, fruit trees, displacing over 2,000 people. According to available statistics, 25,766 passengers, both domestic and foreigners, travelled through KKH via Khunjerab pass during 2009. This however, excludes a great many others who exclusively visited Gojal for treks.
The calamity caused heavy losses to the mountain agriculture. Cash crop and fruits entirely went down the drain. The cumulative losses incurred both in terms of agricultural and fruit yield was over Rs1 billion.To top them all is the hampering of the SinoPakistan trade that literally pushed the region into an economic backwater.
It is pertinent to point out that the total trade volume during the preceding year was around Rs2.6 billion (imports Rs2587.596 and exports worth Rs13.291 million).
The overtopping of water through the spillway has allayed the fears of the downstream populace. Still if things go out of hand, there will be colossal loss in terms of Gilgit-Baltistan’s fragile economy.
This certainly calls for evolving a prudent strategy to come to grips with any such full-blown nightmare.The suspense has been creating fears and rumours despite all arrangements made by the government to allay such fears. The ominous suspense is like the stillness before the storm. Prospects of a breach are not ruled out given the enormous size of the water body. But the river basin downstream has apparently the capacity to absorb the flows from a breach if it is not in the shape of a tidal wave. However as many as 36 villages on the low-lying areas may be wholly or partially inundated.
The local government has so far moved residents of the low-lying areas to safer places in the downstream accommodating them in tents all along the danger-prone area. It is said that about 15,000 people would be affected in the event of a sudden burst of the lake.Thus, the inevitable will have taken place by the time this piece appears in print.
If the Karakoram Highway (KKH) is damaged on a large scale downstream, the entire area would plunge into what may be called an economic backwater.
The lake scenario has now come to centre-stage in both national and international media. The satellite images of the mountain range where Attabad is nestled in upper Hunza val ley released sometime back by NASA brought to the fore the impending threat the geographic location of the lake poses. Zoomed to close view, the lake has swollen to the size of a dam with the summer snow and glacial melt. Not very far is Khunjerab bordering China and the Wakhan Corridor via Chipursan valley, again converging on the Chinese frontiers at Kilik-Minteka pass.
It is said that the region has suffered instability since the extensive dynamiting for the construction of the KKH. A report in the press way back in March 2003 said that mild tremors had been shaking Attabad since November 2002 when the hamlet was first rocked. It triggered periodic soil erosions causing clefts and chasms.
Smaller but similar lakes were also formed in the past at Gulmit, Khalti in Ghizer and Gashoo in Sai of Gilgit District. They have become a permanent feature.
The administration has made ar rangements to tide over any eventuality ranging from food security to other allied measures. It is part of these precautionary measures that the arterial Bailey bridge linking Danyore with Gilgit city too has been removed temporarily. With this, the pressure on the existing suspension bridge has increased enormously while heavy vehicles like buses meant for carrying schoolchildren, which were earlier plied between Gilgit, and Danyore now stand parked at Karakoram International University (KIU) to ensure pick and drop facility from Gilgit until that point. While traffic meant for Hunza and Nagar has been halted by the administration clamping an emergency to avoid any untoward incident when the flow starts.
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