After the flood

By Danial Shah

7 May 2013

The new realities of life for villagers in Hunza Valley who lost their homes and lands to a natural lake following a 2010 landslide.
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On 4 January 2010, a massive landslide near Attabad village in northern Pakistan blocked the flow of the Hunza River. As a lake formed behind the natural dam, it flooded five villages, including over 200 houses, and displaced more than 6000 people. It also submerged a 19 km stretch of the Karakoram Highway, cutting off road access to the surrounding area. Attabad had been evacuated beforehand, following forecasts of a massive landside by Focus Humanitarian Assistance Pakistan, an international emergency relief group that had been monitoring cracks in the nearby mountain for ten years; the village itself largely disappeared.

Three years later, the village and the highway are still underwater and the new lake is now a major tourist attraction. This is little consolation to the majority of locals, who continue to face difficulties in their daily lives. Trade with China via the Karakoram Highway and was a significant source of local revenue, and has been severely affected.

Attabad Lake is situated19 km east of the nearest town, Karimabad (Baltit) in Gilgit-Baltistan. The area’s main hospital is in Gilgit
City, around 100 km further south of Karimabad. An enormous pile of dust has blocked the main Karakoram highway, and vehicles struggle to ascend the road to the lake. There, colourful wooden boats stand lined-up, waiting to take passengers and goods across to the villages on the other side.

The locals have no alternative but to use the boats, which have no safety measures, life jackets, or cover against the cold air and spray.
The lakewater here is frigid even in summer. There aren’t enough boats to meet demand and so passengers often have to wait long hours to make the crossing for work and everyday errands. Vehicles are also transported across the lake by boat.

The Frontier Works Organization (FWO), a construction and military-engineering branch of the Pakistan Army, has been constructing spillways to drain the lake in a controlled manner without causing further damage, but progress has been slow. Since the lake is considered temporary, no proper pier has been constructed yet, and people have to use an uneven and arduous path to get to the boats.

The whole of Attabad village is still submerged, as are major portions of other villages such as Shishkat and Gulmit. Villagers who have lost their land and houses have been living near the lake for the last three years in small shelters provided by various NGOs. While FWO workers continue trying to lower the water level, many locals have given up hope of recovering their flooded properties and have started building new houses on whatever land is now available. Life here has been changed irreversibly. Gulmit town, once a major tourist attraction for both European and Pakistani tourists, now lies deserted, its hotels half underwater. But amid all the changes, people still hope to see prosperity return to the region, with new tourists, restored road access and new homes bringing back some sense of normality and the old way of life.

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