Multiple dimensions of the Hunza disaster — by Dr Shahid Siddiqui

The most painful part of the issue was the downplaying of the disaster by the federal and local authorities. They tried to create the impression that everything was either all right or under control. The reality, however, was just the opposite

“Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Twenty five thousand people have been stranded in the valley of Gojal (Upper Hunza) for approximately the last four months when the small village of Attabad, situated in Gojal, was hit by a landslide, killing a number of inhabitants and damaging houses, schools and dispensaries. The debris, as a result of the landslide, obstructed the flow of the Hunza river, creating a lake which is rising, expanding and extending with each passing day, threatening the submersion of low lying areas in the nearby villages, e.g. Aeenabad, Shishkat, Gulmit, Hussaini and Passu. The tehsil headquarter, Gulmit, has already been turned into an island with no land connections with neighbouring villages. There is no electricity in Shiskit and Gulmit.

Promises were made that the situation would be normalised within three weeks. But it has now been more than four months and the situation is moving from bad to worse. As a result, the length of the artificially created lake has risen to 17 kilometres. The average water rise is about three feet per day and the average water inflow is 2,300 cusecs. The maximum height of the water in the lake is currently at 320 feet. The ever-rising and expanding lake has already started sending ominous signals of more dire events. The monstrous waves have already submerged 90 homes, two jama’at khanas and one school.

The danger of the outburst of the artificial lake is increasing. Keeping in view the volume and speed of water it will create, a number of villages, situated downstream, will either be flooded or will experience landslides. According to a report by FOCUS, an affiliated organisation of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), the villages that run a high risk of flooding in case of the outburst of the lake include Ahmadabad, Faizabad, Ganish, Mayun, Joglot, Gowachi, Rahimabad, Rahimabad Pain, Nomal, Chilmisdas, Juta Pain, Jagoat, Majokal, Danyore and Oshkandas. The worst scenario could be the flood rushing downstream, submerging 15 bridges and 20 villages and finally hitting the Tarbela Dam.

The Gojal disaster has multiple dimensions: economic, educational, health, and psychological. The lack of communication, with the exception of obsolete and risky boats, has led to a number of economic problems. The submersion of 15 kilometres of the Karakoram Highway has brought to a halt trade activities through this route. The estimated volume of border trade ranges from Rs 4 to 5 billion. There is a serious dearth of food, fuel, gas and wood. The supply of necessary commodities is limited and insufficient. Approximately 15,000 kanals of land in Aeenabad, Shishkat, and Gulmit are underwater now. Most of this land was cultivatable. Thousands of domestic trees have been uprooted lending a hard blow to the economic means of the local inhabitants where 90 percent rely on farming. The buying power of the common people has gone down, as the prices have been hiked up and economic resources are dwindling. The sowing of the potato cash crop, which is the major source of subsistence for local farmers, has been jeopardised in the wake of flooded fields, broken communication means, shortage of seeds and fertilisers and highly uncertain future prospects.

The disaster has an educational dimension as well. Hunza is known for its very high literacy rate — about 80 percent — as parents consider the education of their children to be their biggest investment. A number of schools have now been destroyed or declared unsafe, leading to the displacement of a large number of students. Quite a few parents, because of the economic crunch, are unable to pay the fees for their children. The schools have been closed down, as they would be used as potential camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Associated with education is the vital dimension of health. Besides the initial human loss at Attabad, where 19 inhabitants died, there was one more casualty during the rescue operation. Shehzad Sher, a young boy of grade 12, laid down his life on February 5, 2010 while doingrescue work. The painful fact is that there is no proper hospital in Gojal. There is no laboratory, no X-ray machine and no ultrasound apparatus. There is no lady doctor and no permanent physician in the area. Patients, in normal times, are referred to the hospital in Gilgit. Since the collapse of the bridge and the Karakoram Highway, even critical patients are deprived of hospital facilities.

Besides economic, educational, and health dimensions, there is a psychological dimension to this disaster. A number of stranded inhabitants have developed a feeling of helplessness, frustration and depression. Their lives are now riddled with anxiety and fear; fear of the fast-approaching water, fear of losing their property and fear of getting displaced. A large number of girls and boys from Gojal are studying away from their homes, in the major cities of Pakistan. They are deeply concerned and worried about their families. Their families are far away and their dear ones are in a vulnerable state. There is a marked change in their lives, adversely affecting their academic performance.

The most painful part of the issue was the downplaying of the disaster by the federal and local authorities. They tried to create the impression that everything was either all right or under control. The reality, however, was just the opposite. The local inhabitants, in their protest rallies in Gilgit and Hunza, accused the authorities of sheer negligence by underestimating the threat and applying insufficient machinery, labour and daily working hours. There was no help sought from China to meet the challenge. Was that a deliberate attempt to “cash in on chaos”, as Nomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine would interpret? Summer is setting in. The glaciers have started melting. The clock is ticking away.

The writer is Director of Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at Lahore School of Economics and author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan\05\15\story_15-5-2010_pg3_5



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