x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Pakistanis flee 30-metre flood threat

Displaced villagers brave days of heavy rain to reach camps, only to find them already full.

GILGIT, PAKISTAN // Thousands of residents in northern Pakistan, threatened by the possibility of a catastrophic flood from the collapse of landslide dam, scrambled to the relative safety of mountainside camps, as authorities struggled to meet today's deadline for evacuation.

The 140km stretch of the Karakorum Highway downstream of the dam at Ata-abad was the scene of urgent preparations as authorities belatedly came to terms with the imminent threat. Tahir Basharat Cheema, the managing director of Pepco, Pakistan's state power utility, on Tuesday told a parliamentary committee in Islamabad that water from the 20km-long lake that formed after a January 4 landslide would start to overflow on May 23.

A tour of the valley on Tuesday revealed that the four villages, from north to south, of Ganish, Rahimabad, Juglot Guroo and Juttal were most at threat of being destroyed by flooding. However, the government's plans to temporarily house the displaced villagers in schools and health clinics above the 30-metre maximum flood height forecast by Nespak, the government's engineering consultancy, were proving to be poorly conceived.

With space in those facilities inadequate, 800 residents of Rahimabad were relocated to a mountainside tent camp that, from obvious evidence, sat in the pathway of earlier landslides. The villagers were digging sand from the mountainside to use as soft flooring in the tents, and to insulate them from freezing winds blowing off the neighbouring snow-capped slopes of the 7,788-metre Rakaposhi Mountain.

The displaced villagers were seemingly oblivious to their precarious position, despite days of unseasonal heavy rains that have triggered landslides at three locations upstream in the last week, and on Monday caused flash floods in glacial valleys to the south of Hunza, destroying farms and killing one resident. The displaced villagers said they were yet to receive any provisions from the authorities, who have promised to position 60 days worth of food, medicines and an army doctor at each of nine relief centres.

Many residents of Juttal, who had on Friday resisted a forced evacuation by the police, were encamped on a forested terrace on the verge of the river, a precarious position if the flood were to exceed the maximum height forecast by Nespak, a prediction disputed by international landslide experts and some Pakistani officials. Nadeem Ahmed, chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority, told a press conference on Tuesday in Islamabad that he hoped damage would be limited to the four villages in Hunza.

He also announced the release of 700 million rupees (Dh30.4 million) in extra funding for pre-emptory relief efforts, and said the United Nations had been asked to supply water purification and sanitation kits for 13,000 displaced residents, and an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 people stranded upstream of the lake. Officials were focused on the post-flood rehabilitation of the 1,300km Karakorum Highway, which is reputed to be the world's highest international motorway, and took 40,000 Chinese and Pakistanis nearly 12 years up to 1978 to blast and cut out of the Karakorum Mountains. The highway is Pakistan's only road link with key geostrategic ally China.

Some 892 workers fell victim to extreme weather conditions while working in the Karakorum, aptly named from the Turkish term for "crumbling mountain". Mr Ahmed said the restoration of the highway, 22km of which has been destroyed or submerged, "is our top priority". Army engineers, who had previously excavated a spillway at the landslide dam to reduce the chance of a sudden collapse and monster flash flood, were busy assembling and installing rudimentary aerial rope bridges at Ganish and Minapin, where key bridges in low-lying, narrow parts of the valley were at risk of being destroyed.

However, The National discovered that two population groups within Hunza had been excluded from relief efforts and were consequently at risk from the imminent flash flood. Shopkeepers in the roadside bazaar of Juglot Guroo, many of them long-standing residents who had migrated from upstream villages, said they had been refused assistance by local administrators and told they were responsible for their own well being.

The bazaar is ominously positioned one metre below painted 30-metre markings made by Focus, a non-governmental organisation sponsored by the Aga Khan, head of the Ismaili sect, which is the majority population group in Hunza. Similarly, migrant labourers from the Pakistani provinces of Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, working with Chinese contractors on the expansion of the Karakorum Highway, were ploughing ahead with the construction of a road tunnel at Chalt, meant to protect traffic from frequent landslides in the seismically active area.

They said they had moved their tents up the mountainside, and would evacuate when sirens placed along the valley wailed warnings of flooding, but had made no other preparations. Yousaf Raza Gilani, the prime minister, will visit the area tomorrow to assess the state of preparedness in the final countdown to Sunday, when nature will determine whether the landslide gradually crumbles, or collapses in devastating fashion.

@Email:thussain@thenational.ae For more pictures from Hunza, visit www.thenational.ae/multimedia