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PAKISTAN: Lake Disaster Triggers New Displacements

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Pakistan, May 30 2010 (IPS) - Up until Saturday the Attabad Lake in northern Pakistan had been rising one metre every day and was thus on the verge of breaking its banks, observed Lieutenant General Nadeem Ahmed, chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA).

In the last four months, the water level had been rising in the lake due to glacial melting, swelling it to 18.5 kilometres long and 107 metres deep, he explained.

Then what he had feared all along happened over the weekend when the Attabad Lake in the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan broke its banks, which were overtopped with water flowing into the spillway.

Ahmed fears massive flooding could ensue although at the moment, he said, the water pressure is low.

On Jan. 4, following a snowstorm, a massive landslide hit the village of Attabad, in Pakistan-controlled Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B), an autonomous territory in the northern part of the South Asian country with an estimated population of one million. Initially, it forced some 1,200 people to evacuate their homes. The resulting debris blocked Hunza River, located in the G-B region, creating a lake now known as Attabad Lake.

As the lake swelled, another village, Sarat, was also submerged while two others were inundated by floodwaters.

“As a result of the formation of the lake, four bridges that linked 16 villages upstream and the 22-kilometre Karakoram Highway linking Pakistan to China have been submerged in water,” said Asif Hussain, spokesperson of the Pakistan Red Crescent Society (PRCS) in G-B.

With another disaster looming and to preempt a “worst case scenario” – a lake outburst flooding – the NDMA had as of May 24 evacuated close to 17,000 people from 34 villages downstream, including Attabad and Sarat villages, and along the spillway to safer locations, said Brigadier Sajid Naeem, NDMA’s spokesperson, in a phone interview with IPS from Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan.

“This has been done to avert human casualty (and) as a precautionary measure in case breaches are created in the hurriedly dug up 450 metre-long drainage channel and it (the spillway) collapses,” said Naeem.

Landslides and flash floods are a seasonal occurrence in the G-B region, which is surrounded by the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges.

Simi Kamal, a geographer and a water expert, said while the direct cause of the lake disaster was a landslide that blocked the water’s path, the impact of climate change, which are believed to have triggered extreme weather conditions, could not be ruled out.

“Indirectly, it is linked to climate change, because the whole water balance and ecology of the Himalayan region is changing, causing instability,” she pointed out.

A United Nations-backed report released in December 2009 said climate change was posing serious threats – one of which is catastrophic flooding – to the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region. The report was the result of a two-year pilot assessment jointly conducted by the U.N. Environment Programme, the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research and the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

The PRCS, an affiliate of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, is assisting the NDMA in the construction and management of camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in schools and health centres around the mountainous Hunza Valley in G-B.

Gulfam Jaffar, 23, and her family of six have been living in a primary school- turned relief camp in Altit village in Hunza Valley since Jan. 6, two days after water flooded their village near Attabad, killing 19 of her kin.

According to Jaffar each classroom has between four to five families. “It’s very crowded,” she said.

Five months since they lost everything and ran to safety “with nothing but the clothes on our backs,” Jaffar, a village schoolteacher, sees little hope of returning to her village soon. “My village is now many feet under water,” she said desolately.

Unlike Jaffar, some 800 residents of Rahimabad village near Attabad, who have been displaced by the landslide, have had to move into tents set up by the PRCS because of the limited space in public evacuation centres.

“Arrangements have also been made to ensure provision of relief goods to the 16 villages with a population of about 25,000 that have been cut off from the rest of Gilgit-Baltistan due to the lake,” said Naeem.

With all roads closed, bridges submerged, the only way to extend assistance to the IDPs is through helicopters, he said. The NDMA has deployed seven helicopters in Gilgit to transport people and goods.

The United Nations Children Fund said it had already sent 750 sanitation facilities to the IDP camps and pledged a continuous supply of potable water supply for up to 30,000 persons.

In anticipation of catastrophic flooding and widespread displacement of the affected villages, the NDMA has set up at least 31 more IPD camps in two of the seven districts of the Gilgit-Baltistan region.

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