The Ticking Bomb


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The ‘ticking water bomb’ that is Attabad lake in Hunza has already exploded for many. Caused by a major landsline on January 4, the expanding lake has already killed 20, left about 25,000 people stranded, and blocked the Hunza river about 750 kilometres north of Islamabad. It has destroyed the Karakoram Highway, breaking the road link between Pakistan and China. But as is often the case with environmental disasters, this is a bomb that will just keep going off. Nadeem Ahmed, the Chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority has warned that as many as 40,000 may be affected.

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There has been much speculation in the media about how the government has handled the situation, given the recent political ‘empowerment’ of Gilgit-Baltistan. Others have in turn questioned the motives of the media. Zameer Abbas, the Assistant Commissioner of Hunza, a prolific twitterer poo-pooed the government’s efforts (if any, for there are none according to @zameerabbasGB). Subtle tweets such as ‘ministers and reporters have infested Hunza recently’  and ‘IDPs crisis up for politics…selling hot in the media…MQM, PML N and PPP made show of force here in Hunza today’ indicate that Abbas finds the media to be complicit in what appears to him as not much more than a dog and pony show.

But I believe what is more important is what set the whole thing off. Was it climate change, I asked. Before responding, Rafi ulHaq of IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) clarified that his employing organisation does not work extensively in that area of Pakistan. However, he could tell me with some confidence that the landslide was not due to climate change. “Seismic changes are constantly causing crevices that can lead to avalanches,” he argued. “Areas such as Hunza that are mountainous can see frequent activity of this sort.”

Okay, so it’s not climate change, but it is still man-caused. In the Express Tribune opinion pages, development sociologist, Nosheen Ali, drew a comparison with a past environmental disaster, attributing the original problem of the landslide to ill-planned development:

It is also important to note that in the case of the 2007 cyclone and flash floods in Balochistan, a key factor that aggravated the damage was the ill-planned Mirani dam. In the ongoing Gilgit-Baltistan disaster, a warning issued by the flood forecasting division has similarly pointed out that the massive landslide can potentially be traced to an earthquake that resulted from blasting done by KKH (Karakoram Highway) constructors (my italics). This needs serious attention, as development visions in Gilgit-Baltistan have increasingly promoted the widening of the KKH as well as the creation of dams without a thorough assessment of the social and ecological impact of such mega-projects.”

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Some years ago, my brother traveled to Hunza, and returned with stories fortified by images of paradise. He told me that as he walked uphill, he came across a man in his twenties, squatting, staring out at the glorious landscape. A few hours later as my brother descended, he found the young man exactly as he had left him. Being from the city, my brother was intrigued. He asked, “Bhai, have you been here all this time?” “Where is there to go?” asked the man. “But what are you doing?” said my brother. The young man swept his hand at the vista in front of him in silent explanation. I thought, how profound. My brother said it was quite ordinary in fact.

How sad if we in our quest for development have ruined that for the people of Hunza.

6 Responses to “The Ticking Bomb”

  1. 1 Irfan Afghan

    Interesting article.

  2. Naveen good thing that you have pointed out the fact that when man messes with nature, it somehow has a habit of striking back… yes, dams, roads and bridges are all important, but such projects need to be undertaken after proper impact assessments… not only on the natural environment but also on the humans inhabiting it.
    Good piece of writing:)

  3. 3 Rai M Azlan

    nature is something which gives you even when you do not care and you disgrace the gifts given by her, that is why it is called mother nature. when ever man try to fight with and change the nature, the result is somthing like we are facing now.
    a very nice article Naveen Ma’am and it is always pleasure reading you but the condition people of hunza are going through have made me sad again after reading this.

  4. 4 Zameer Abbas

    Hi Naveen
    Its good to have your views about the crisis. Well i was there when the village of Atta abad was sliding off the mountain at about 11 am on Jan 4 ,2010. From the day first , our administration brought the whole issue to the notice of the powers that be. The media either played it down or ignored the impact we were all forecasting at the initial stages of the crisis. On day first we evacuated 1700 people from their homes for fear of further damage.Wasn’t it a big story? Secondly , the first village at the upstream namely , Ayeenabad started to submerge in Feb 2010 , wasn’t that a Humanatarian Crisis? Politicians and media were equally busy in other important matters so chose not to raise voice. The burden of managing the IDPs and dealing day to day with their issues was left to the district administration.The only good change(at least temporariy) came in the form of whistle-blow visits of the then Governor Mr Kaira and our own CM Mr Mehdi Shah. My grudge about media is that if it had highlighted it the crisis in its early stages , things wouldn’t have been this much worse!!!
    I don’t know the excuse of politicians but many reporters have told me that a thing called “DSNG” costs a lot of money to be transported to a far-flung area like Hunza. That means they have come here because other channels are here and not because we have an unfolding crisis at hand.!!!

  5. 5 Helping hands

    Here is some guys working for relief support at

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