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Friday, May 14, 2010

Multiple Dimensions of the Hunza Disaster

By
Dr Shahid Siddiqui
The Daily Times: 15 May, 2010
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 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 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. Read more at: http://www.shahidksiddiqui.blogspot.com

16 comments:

  1. "Day after day, day after day,
    We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
    As idle as a painted ship
    Upon a painted ocean”

    very aptly quoted lines. sir eihter we are grown immuned of disasters, calamities, blasts; killing and threatening masses or we are senseless to respond to. our authorities and governments look forward for other various resources for development, whereas; a satisfied, educated and protected citizen is the best capital of a nation...an absoultely ignored, devalued human life we are leading here.

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  2. Really a multi-dimensional affect of the disaster sir.... But it helped in social cohesion among the people there and of course a mistrust on the leadership of Pakistan....because this was the first ever situation in which the mass there wanted something from the Pakistani Govt...

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  3. Reshma: yea, there is always a positive side of situation. Unity is the the order of the day. Through united stance we can achieve the results.

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  4. Dr. Shaib

    It is wonderful article, in terms; it encompassed different aspect of the disaster. It is very true that people are suffering in many aspect and Government always emphasis and says “Aal iz Well”, (I don’t know the film name). Such tactics of Government dishearten people, this result in then to challenges peoples patriotism as in the case of Mr. Kaira response to Zulfiqar, one month ago, on pamirtimes.net.
    Thanks for highlighting the actual issue of Hunza

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  5. Rahim: Thanks Rahim, yea people like Kaira tried to underplay the disaster and people like Zulfiiqar are engaged in serious community work. We must appreciate their efforts.

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  6. Wonderful article, thanks for your critical analysis and for letting know everyone about the current situation caused by the natural disaster in upper Hunza.

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  7. Khalida, thanks for your comments. Hope you are doing well.

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  8. First of all, on behalf of people of Hunza I would like to extend my cavernous gratitude for bringing on record the real impacts / scenarios of Hunza.
    I believe that this disaster would not go to at its maximum if our "beloved/very fair” FWO had engaged even 6 excavators along with couple of dozers or it would be more fruitful if it was given to Chinese firm which was already working there for the KKH extension job.
    This is the biggest dilemma of our country that we have formed NDM spending millions of our tax money over it but fruitless because this organization is simply a bunch of bureaucrats / ex. army men without any specialist expertise and above all they are not ready to listen to the internationally recognized specialist opinion.
    Above all derivatives has made it more disastrous, which has ultimately put its severe impact on long term basis as your goodselves said in the perspective of education, economy and social life.

    Engr.Farman Karim
    Project Planning Manager
    Dubai.

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  9. Dear Farman sahib, thanks for your positive feedback. I think your concern is valid. Unnecessary delay caused this serious situation. I wish there could be an effective system for accountability.

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  10. thanks Doc for your concerns and reflecting the real situation of Attaabad disaster. I am skaptical about concern departments attitude-- learning from mistakes! there could be other such disasters in those volunarable parts of the country. But do the concern department have the willingness to enhance their capacity to manage such situation? we did inform them about the intensity and scale of the disaster in the very first days but they think that they know more than anyone else. they should be ready to face the misic when the lake will brust!

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  11. Darjab sahib, Thanks for your feedback. The problem with such depts is not their incompetence but their arrogance. We should keep on raising our voice and showing their 'inaction'. Thanks again.

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  12. Gohar Shah RavianMay 19, 2010 at 5:59 AM

    I read the article and all the comments. And would like to thanks Dr Sir for your article on Hunza disaster. We-the students will learn from the wonderful discussion of you peoples.
    Regards

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  13. Gohar: thanks Gohar for your comments. Learning is always mutual.

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  14. Thanks to our Royal Federal Minister Mr.Watto (In-charge Minister for Gilgit -Baltistan) was delivering his comments as a funny matter to him ,,,,stating that it,s nothing,,,nothing will happen" He delivered his comments visiting 1st time after 4 Jan 10As a nation What can, we expect from such arrogant profiles. It’s very important that the profiles like this minister must make them realize about the high extent of criticality and for this indeed we need the pen of high caliber profiles like your good self and we, the people of Hunza, hope that you will contribute.

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  15. Thanks Farman sahib, The kind of people you are talking about are not not only incompetent but callous at heart. I heard the said minister taking about the money he has given to the government of GB and the act was considered as the height magnanimity. Its a shame that such people are in such high positions. This only suggests the decaying nature of our political system.

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  16. Sof: The situation is depressing but each one of us can play a part by contributing our bit to improve the situation. Share it with more people so that people can have the idea of the enormity of disaster in Hunza.

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