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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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  • although 3 Villages of Hunza are under the water this time and people of effected areas are living without any help. Now after overflow of water from the lake about 40,000 People of Hunza Nagar Valley & surrounding areas of Gilgit city becme homeless. People of Hunza Nagar Valley hd more expects from govt., but “Khoda Pahar Nikla Choha”. Prime minister announced only food for the effectives.
    May ALLAH pak help all effecties and save others from upcoming disaster in Nagar, Hunza and in Gilgit.

  • Government unveils Hunza aid package

    * PM announces Rs 200,000 for those who have lost their land, Rs 400,000 for completely damaged houses
    * Each family to get Rs 5,000 monthly for 6 months

    By Tahir Niaz

    ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani unveiled a package on Wednesday to provide compensation to the people affected by the Attaabad lake in Hunza.

    Announcing the package at a news conference, the prime minister said Rs 200,000 each would be given to all those who had lost their land, Rs 400,000 for completely damaged houses and Rs 160,000 for partially damaged houses.

    Gilani said each family affected would get a monthly cash grant of Rs 5,000 for six months. The prime minister said the wheat and flour stocked in Upper Hunza by the government of Gilgit-Baltistan would be distributed free of cost to the victims for two months in accordance with the existing scales.

    He said the Pakistan Baitul Maal will provide an additional Rs 100,000 to owners of the 171 submerged houses of Ainabad, Shishkat and Gulmit. The Utility Stores Corporation will also establish sales points at Gulmit and Sust immediately. Free food would be provided for three months to those who have been cut off from the rest of the population due to damaged roads, he added.

    Gilani said necessary funds will be immediately provided to the Gilgit-Baltistan government for implementation of the package, while the National Disaster Management Authority will also provide necessary support in this regard.

    The prime minister directed the Gilgit-Baltistan government to establish an education assistance fund to finance students studying outside Gilgit-Baltistan for two semesters. He also said the 22-kilometre portion of the Karakoram Highway submerged in the lake would be constructed when the situation stabilises. Necessary instructions had been issued to the Communication Ministry for the purpose, he added.

    Responding to criticism that he did not announce the package during his recent visit to Hunza, Gilani said that would have been premature before a need and damage assessment. He said the NDMA chairman remained in Hunza for about a week and prepared recommendations in consultations with all stakeholders.

    He said the government was focusing on the situation in Attaabad and had taken necessary measures to mitigate sufferings of the victims.

    Gilani said compensation worth Rs 10.7 million had been paid to the dead and injured, while the federal government has allocated Rs 100 million for relief efforts to the Gilgit-Baltistan government. He said a 24-metre deep and 45-metre wide spillway was completed by the Frontier Works Organisations by May 15 for Rs 80 million, substantially reducing the risk for the downstream population.

    The prime minister informed that an early warning system has been put in place and food supplies worth Rs 50 million have already been provided and an additional supply worth Rs 55 million is in the pipeline.

    He said food and non-food support worth Rs 45 million has been provided by the Pakistan Red Crescent Society, UN agencies, the Agha Khan Foundation and non-governmental organisations.\27\story_27-5-2010_pg1_1

  • HUNZA has been a role model for the rest of Pakistan in terms of its high literacy rate and school enrolment figures. According to one estimate, the literacy rate of Hunza is around 90 per cent, which becomes even more impressive when we consider the geographical location and complex terrain of the area.

    Despite the fact that schools are difficult to approach and meagre resources are available, it is remarkable that the literacy rate is far higher than the national literacy rate which, according to the Pakistan Social and Living Standards Survey 2007-8, is 56 per cent.

    One of the primary reasons for this is people’s tremendous interest in education. The education of children is considered a prime investment by the people of Hunza. That is why, instead of spending money on better living, they prefer to spend on educating their children. There is equal emphasis on the education of girls and parents encourage their daughter to go to schools, colleges and universities.

    In the Hunza region there are 53 primary schools, 37 middle schools, 35 high schools, seven higher secondary schools and four degree colleges. Given the limited chances of higher education, the boys and girls of Hunza go to main cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Islamabad for higher education.The educational structure of Hunza-Nagar and Gilgit is a blend of public schools, non-formal schools, Social Action Programme (SAP) schools, Aga Khan Education Services-Pakistan (AKES-P) schools, AKES-P supported schools, private schools and madressahs. There are 344 primary schools of which 96 are public-sector schools. There are an estimated 141 middle schools of which 53 are public-sector schools, and 113 high schools of which 47 are in the public sector.

    The total number of higher secondary schools is six of which one is public. There are 598 schools in total in Gilgit and Hunza-Nagar of which 196 are public schools. The current enrolment of boys is 36,086 while for girls it is 36,017. The Aga Khan network has done exemplary work in terms of providing quality education and setting up an educational structure that is a successful model for other regions of Pakistan.

    Unfortunately, this educational scenario has been badly disturbed by the disaster that started in January with the landslide in Attaabad, a village of upper Hunza, and that is worsening with every passing day. As the lake expanded, it engulfed a number of buildings including houses and schools. Four upstream villages — Attaabad, Shishkat, Aeenaba and Gulmit — are badly affected by the artificially created Hunza lake. A number of schools have been either destroyed or identified as potentially dangerous buildings.

    Many school buildings have been evacuated. The latest update from Hunza and Gilgit is that all the public schools and colleges have been closed for an indefinite period, although another purpose of closing them might be to use the school buildings to house internally displaced persons.

    The closure of schools started on May 15 and may continue for an indefinite period. It is important to keep in mind that these schools had already remained closed for one to two months for the winter vacations. Currently the 72,103 students that are enrolled in schools and colleges of different systems are out of school. Such a long closure will without doubt have a negative impact on their educational performance.

    The disaster has also thrown up another problem that has a direct bearing on education. The majority of the parents in the region, whose main source of earning is farming and who rely mainly on the cash crop of potatoes, were unable to cultivate their lands and were deprived of their livelihoods. Other parents who were involved in small-scale business are now idle because the submersion of parts of the Karakoram Highway has meant that trade with China is no longer possible.

    This situation is aggravated further since the shortage of goods has pushed prices up. Most people have lost their lands, fruit orchards and means of living, and are finding it difficult to pay the fees and school-related expenditures of their children.A large number of boys and girls from Hunza are acquiring higher education in the large cities of Pakistan. Their parents suddenly find themselves in a difficult position in terms of continuing to bear the children’s educational expenses. Students studying far from their homes are upset: they cannot go back to their homes since the only method of travel — by boat — has also been suspended. In some cases they have been advised by their parents to stay away from the danger zone.

    The ordeal that started with the landslide has entered its fifth month now. Twenty-five thousand people of Gojal (upper Hunza) have been stranded, cut off from the rest of the country since there is no land connection and the boat service has been suspended. The educational price of the Hunza disaster can have serious consequences for the local inhabitants whose top priority is the provision of the best possible education for their children.A number of analysts believe that the large-scale disaster could have been averted had there been faster rescues. The authorities either did not realise the enormity of the challenge and its potential repercussions or deliberately downplayed the magnitude of the calamity. The result, however, is an uncertain situation that can lead to huge losses.

    The writer is the director of the Centre for Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore School of Economics and the author of Rethinking Education in Pakistan.