Hunza: Paradise being lost? – by Shamshad Ahmad

This could happen only in a hapless country where NRO-created rulers are too busy fighting the judiciary to bother about people, leaving them to suffer every imaginable hardships ranging from chronic shortages of food, electricity and gas to lawlessness and violence. As if these products of bad governance were not enough, a landslide in Hunza Valley has been allowed to build up into a crisis of unimaginable magnitude.

On Jan 4, a landslide dammed the Hunza River, with a small-scale overflow flooding local downstream communities. With every passing day, the river continued to turn into a lake. By now, it has expanded into a massive body of water. The glaciers to the north melting in the warmer temperatures are increasing the rate of inflow into the lake. The dam threatens to burst anytime, with calamitous consequences. The “paradise on earth” might be lost if remedial action is not undertaken immediately.

Last week, Prime Minister Yusuf Reza Gilani paid a high-profile photo-op visit to the affected area. He was shown by television cameras gleefully having an aerial view of the artificial lake, with a designer picnic cap on his head. His VIP companions also seemed to be enjoying the helicopter ride.

The affected people of the Ataabad lake have been protesting against the government’s failure to announce a relief package for the victims of the disaster. Women and children blocked the road for several hours. It is five months since this crisis started, and the minister in charge of the Northern Areas is seen on television only now to explain how relief measures could not be undertaken without proper assessment of damage.

Disasters such as this one come unannounced. But states all over the world have in place systems of disaster-management and -control, to minimise destruction from these calamities, and avert destruction where that is possible. Today, Bangladesh is more secure against cyclones than it was as East Pakistan. Storms have not ceased, but their wrath has been contained with the country’s greater state of preparedness.

Landslides or flooded rivers are manageable crises. Even if the Hunza landslide caused Pakistan’s biggest-ever river-water blockage, there was no justification for the state to allow the river to swell into a rimless water mass. More so because the Hunza River is a tributary of the Indus, a lifeline of our country’s power and irrigation systems.

While the civilian government in Islamabad slept, the military-run Frontier Works Organisation did make efforts with the help of Chinese engineers and managed to build a spillway. But this has helped only partially. Meanwhile, the water level has been rising rapidly because, with the advent of summer, the flow in the river has increased as a result of the melting of glaciers. Already, water from the lake has inundated thousands of acres of irrigated land, orchards and meadows, left many people homeless and threatened food supplies to over 25,000 people along the Chinese border.

The lake now occupies vast areas and has also blocked a portion of the Karakoram Highway and its longest bridge. The possible outburst is expected to displace many more people. Since access by road has been impossible during the last couple of months, relief goods were being transported by boats. With every passing day, the danger of an outburst is increasing. Keeping in view the volume and speed of water it will create, a number of villages located downstream will either be flooded or experience landslides.

The only non-governmental organisations now working in the area are the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and its affiliates, but they cannot go beyond providing relief goods and related services. They certainly cannot be expected to build a spillway over a major river blockade. It is essentially the responsibility of the federal government, which apparently has no time to find solutions to people’s problems. It is tied up in its preoccupations related to the judiciary.

A round-the-clock monitoring and a foolproof early-warning mechanism should have been installed from the earlier stages of the river-blockage. If the lake were to burst its banks, it could potentially damage several bridges on the Karakoram Highway and cause a major setback to the region’s hard-earned development gains made over the years. The government must realise its responsibility and take appropriate measures to deal with this worsening crisis before it is too late.

But despite the imminent threat of a flood outburst producing water rushing downstream, submerging numerous bridges and villages and probably also hitting Tarbela Dam, there is no sense of urgency or concern in Islamabad. By now, the federal government should have been handling this crisis on an emergency basis by mobilising the needed resources and technical know-how from within the country and abroad. We should have also been exploring the possibility of securing Chinese help in controlling the extent of damage, stabilising the debris, expediting work on spillways and minimising potential risks downstream.

Ironically, it is not the government alone that is showing criminal insensitivity to this calamitous situation. This time civil society too has remained indifferent. There are some wide-eyed people within our gullible ranks who welcomed this river blockage, irrespective of its disastrous implications, as a Godsend to a water-starved country. They look at the creation of this lake as a natural water reservoir that we so badly need to generate electricity in our country. To them this is a blessing in disguise.

But if nature was really so kind to this benighted nation as to bless it with a huge water reservoir sufficient to build two dams with a combined hydro-electric generation capacity of 13,660 MW, why doesn’t the government undertake immediate feasibility studies and technical evaluations to determine the reality? Based on common knowledge, even earthen dams need to be properly stabilised with concrete structures and boulders. Can this stabilisation be done to this increasing water mass even at this late stage?

No country is completely ready for natural disasters. It is understandable for some aspects of a relief effort, particularly those related to rehabilitation of displaced people, not to be addressed expeditiously because of difficulties of terrain. But no government in the world can justify being without basic infrastructure or elementary systemic orientation for managing and mitigating the main thrust of a natural disaster or humanitarian emergency.

What happened to the Federal Relief Agency, with its huge budget, established in the aftermath of the 2005 earthquake? Once the government had some idea about the unfolding nature and gravity of the crisis, it should have reactivated this agency, without any loss of time, to undertake the basic measures for rapid damage assessment through all possible means. At least a good part of the ensuing confusion and delay could have been avoided if some basic rules and procedures of crisis-management had been followed by the government.

Both military and civil machineries should also have been mobilised to work out on a priority basis the broad field logistics as well as modalities for coordination with other relevant national and international agencies to overcome the crisis in all its aspects. In the absence of any initiative or direction from the government during those early days to keep the crisis within controllable limits, we now have a huge catastrophe in the making.

Thousands of families have already been displaced, with no shelter and no relief in sight. This is already a grim humanitarian crisis which has put the lives of thousands of people at risk, a risk which is going to increase in the coming days and weeks. We have wasted nearly five months, and there is still no hope of early action. What else can we expect from a system embedded in corruption?

The writer is a former foreign secretary
Source: The News, May 26, 2010



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