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New lake threatens havoc in Pakistan

Army engineers working tirelessly to prevent lake caused by landslide overflowing in Hunza.

Last modified: 14 May 2010 14:42

A little over two months ago, Al Jazeera's team in Islamabad, the Pakistan capital, was alerted by our contacts in the Northern Areas over a major landslide.

They told us that the village of Attabad, perched dangerously on the slopes of a mountainside, was no more.

The geological survey of Pakistan had warned about the impending disaster after they conducted a survey of the area before the slide took place so the village was evacuated.

But some chose to stay of their own accord and many of them became victims.

Significantly, the slide had blocked the River Hunza, posing a potential threat of submerging entire villages and the highway.

With travel by air subject to weather conditions the only available option was to take the long journey by road through the Karakorum highway, also dubbed by many as the "highway of death" because of frequent landslides.

On arrival, our team found military engineers from the Frontier Works Organisation tasked with digging a channel to cut a canal through the obstacle to ease the expected overflow of the new lake.

With a wall of more than 90 metres of water behind them, and active ongoing landslides that threatened life and limb below, they have worked for the past few months to clear as much debris as possible to reduce the risk of a major disaster.

The large earth-moving equipment looks more like matchbox toys in these towering mountains.

But depite the scale of their task, the army engineers have working tirelessly to complete the job by the end of this month before the lake overflows.

Lieutenant General Najeebullah, the head of team, said his men expect to meet that deadline.
 
He said the threat downstream had been reduced by 50 per cent, but warned that such occurrences in the past have led to an eventual dam burst.

As a result, the local government is taking every possible step to evacuate thousands of people living on the banks of the river to higher ground.

According to geologists, the frequent use of heavy explosives used in building the strategic Karakorum highway caused major fractures.

Coupled with frequent earthquakes, the problem became a virtual nightmare in keeping this vital corridor to China open for traffic and transportation.

Concern is growing that a lake formed by a massive landslide in Hunza may wreak havoc downstream amidst fear of a major flood downstream all the way from Hunza to Gilgit, the provincial capital of Gilgit-Baltistan, and as far away as Kohistan.

A major power generation unit built with Chinese help at Besham and infrastructure such as major link bridges on the Karakorum are also in the path of the flood.

The waters, thought to be rising at a rate of over a metre a day, have already grown to over 18km long and are said to be over 90 metres deep.

The Passu Glacier that also cuts the highway in early summer is also seen as a potential threat as it may cause a major disturbance when it slides down into the new lake.

Pakistan's vital road link with China is now blocked completely and with the waters now rising the key roadside town of Gulmit has become a virtual island, with local inhabitants evacuating to safer areas.

But the real question everyone here is asking is whether the dam will burst or not?