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Gilgit-Baltistan is the region under Pakistani control and was formerly known as the Northern Areas. It is the northernmost political entity within the Pakistani-controlled part. It borders Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province to the west, Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to the north, China to the northeast, the Pakistani-administered state of Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) to the south, and the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir to the southeast.
The territory became a single administrative unit in 1970 under the name “Northern Areas” and was formed by the amalgamation of the Gilgit Agency, the Baltistan District of the Ladakh Wazarat, and the states of Hunza and Nagar.
With its administrative center at the town of Gilgit, Gilgit-Baltistan covers an area of 72,971 square kilometers and has an estimated population approaching 3,000,000. Pakistan considers the territory separate from Kashmir, whereas India and the European Union consider the territory as a part of the larger disputed territory of Kashmir that has been in dispute between India and Pakistan since 1947.
Administratively the region comprises of seven districts namely Gilgit, Skardu, Diamer, Ghanchay, Ghazar, Hunza-Nagar, and Astor.
On January 4, a landslide knocked down houses, blocked the river and threatened the entire Hunza valley. The new year in the Hunza valley began with a catastrophe. On January 4, a crack in the sloped terrain of Attaabad in the Upper Hunza valley widened and gravity took its toll: houses in the village collapsed. A major landslide caused a wave of dust and gravel; subsequently, material from the moraine blocked and dammed the Hunza valley. Four months later, the villagers in the northwest of Karakoram still live in a state of uncertainty.
Attaabad is one of the younger villages in Hunza, inhabited by people from the central oasis five generations ago. The exposed location made irrigated agriculture difficult, favoured orchards and allowed easy access to the high pastures.
The crack in the slope had been discovered some time ago in the aftermath of the Astor earthquake. Humanitarian organisations such as Focus Humanitarian Assistance had assessed the likely danger and advised the villagers to leave their unstable abodes high above the Hunza river. Despite the timely warning, around 20 people lost their lives, 50 houses were destroyed and 1,500 people were displaced and forced to live in camps or with relatives and friends in neighbouring villages. The Karakoram Highway – while undergoing repairs by Chinese engineers – was damaged along a 1.5-km stretch. A lake formed upstream into Gojal where it submerged roads and bridges, lands and residences of Ainabad and Shishket. Recently it reached Gulmit, the largest village and tehsil headquarter of Gojal, however, the upper lake level has not been affected yet.
When the landslide occurred, the Hunza river released only 2% of its summer melt waters; day after day the run-off rate increases. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was assigned the task of mitigating the disaster by constructing a spill-over channel that stops the water level from rising and perhaps could support a controlled drainage. Time slipped away while politicians of Gilgit-Baltistan, development activists from NGOs, village representatives and council members, self-proclaimed experts and army engineers from the Frontier Works Organisation debated the future of the dam and lake. Some suggested utilising the lake water for power generation and/or tourism purposes; others discussed the stability of the dam without sound geological and geo-morphological evidence. There was also a call to bomb the dam.
Meanwhile, culprits were sought and demonstrations were staged against bureaucrats and politicians accused of inaction. The supply of basic foodstuffs and the transportation of ailing residents was initially enabled by army helicopters. As the crisis grew, a ferry service consisting of small boats was introduced that allowed some commuting and transportation of goods. On both sides of the lake, trucks meant to transport goods to and from Sost Dry Port, the hub of China-Pakistan trade across the Khunjerab Pass, became stuck. International trade along this one and only regularly functioning trade corridor between Central and South Asia has stopped for the time being.
Elders of Hunza society say the January landslide is the biggest natural disaster they have ever experienced. Hunza is a highly vulnerable environment and its extreme mountain valley system is characterised by the most extensive glaciation outside the polar regions as well as some of the steepest slopes on earth. Natural and man-made disasters are not unknown in the Karakoram; survival under these harsh environmental conditions has brought fame to the Hunzukuts for being capable and enduring mountain folk. To put the January disaster into perspective, its only necessary, to look back at history.
From 1830 to the 1990s, the details of 124 damaging events from the Hunza valley were preserved via archival sources, oral traditions, travelogues, reports, interviews and observations. The single most important destructive force has been the movement of glaciers. Glaciers have a role in nearly half of all recorded events. Glacial movements cause direct destruction when glacier advances cover cultivated lands, irrigation systems and roads. Glacier surges might be triggered by a variety of events, including landslides and rockfalls in the ablation zone, resulting in a significant deviation in glacier-surface velocities. In fact glacier advances and natural dams that cause lake formations can cause other disastrous effects.
Glacier dams can break, releasing the water stored in the temporary reservoirs and causing huge floods. The next biggest threat comes from snow and ice avalanches, which are as consequential as the combined phenomena of mud flows and rockslides. And while weather-related action from wind and thunderstorms has been of minor importance here, the heavy rains of September 1992 and 2001 caused substantial destruction to local infrastructure and agricultural resources. All these events have affected habitats, farmland, roads and bridges to varying degrees.
The present cultural landscape of the Hunza valley is the result of coping with these disasters. Direct earthquake-triggered mass movements have not been registered although 42 earthquakes occurred in the Hindukush-Karakoram region between 1876 and 1911. This run of seismic activity damaged roads and buildings, mainly in Chitral and the Gilgit valley. Out of 102 earthquake events with epicentres in Northern Pakistan between 1912 and 1971, no direct destruction to habitations could be established for the Hunza valley. The Attaabad disaster falls into this category: an earthquake contributed to the destabilisation of the slope, the slope collapsed years later causing the blockage of the Hunza valley and the formation of the Gojal lake.
Within the period of recorded observation there have been only four events that led to the complete abandonment of settlement sites in the Hunza valley. The 1830 mudflow and glacier advances in the Chupursan valley were the most dramatic events as a whole tributary valley of the Hunza river had to be sacrificed; all villages were destroyed and covered under a thick layer of fluvial deposits. Only within the last century has systematic resettlement resumed and continued until today – more than 330 households have built hamlets there.
Less than three decades later, in 1858, the severe rockfall at Sarat and the damming of the Hunza river caused flooding of all villages from Sarat to Pasu. In addition to the loss of village lands due to the undercutting of terraces, the juvenile village of Sarat was abandoned and resettlement took place after 1931. Both areas had been newly developed filial settlements of settlers from Central Hunza and of migrants and refugees from Wakhan who had superseded Kirghiz nomads and converted seasonally utilised pasture areas into permanent habitations with mixed mountain agriculture.
The case of Sarat holds an important lesson for the present Attaabad crisis. Sarat’s ground zero is within two kilometres from Attaabad’s danger zone and acts as a historical reminder of the scope of a disaster to be expected. In 1858 a lake was formed in a similar manner as now. When the lake had reached a length of more than 20 kilometres the dam collapsed and the lake released a flood wave that followed the course of the Hunza river into Gilgit and the Indus. The contribution from the Hunza river to the Indus was of such force that close to Attock, where the Indus leaves the mountainous terrain into its floodplain, the water level rose in virtually no time.
To quote a contemporary report: “At 5 a.m. on August 10, 1858, the Indus at Atak (Attock) was very low; at 7 a.m. it had risen 10 feet; by half an hour after noon it had risen 50 feet, and it continued to rise until it stood 90 feet higher than in the morning.” The speed of the rising flood waters drowned a colonial army that was camping on the bank of the Indus. The event took place when British dominance in South Asia was at stake and their supremacy was challenged. Because of the political significance the records of the 1858 Indus flood are well known.
What is likely to happen one and a half centuries later? If the Attaabad dam collapses and the Gojal lake empties at a high speed, the effects will be significantly more dramatic. During the 20th century the Karakoram Highway changed the infrastructure and livelihoods of people on the Indus and Hunza valleys in a manner that caused the expansion of follow-up construction of link roads, extension of village lands and settlements closer to the river banks. Nowadays every tributary river to the big rivers is connected by a jeep or truck friendly suspension bridge or concrete viaduct.
Development agencies, the Public Works Department – sometimes labelled the public’s worst department – and international donors have contributed to bridge construction and road building. The Tarbela Dam on the Indus claims to be the world’s largest earth-filled dam and is both the major regulator for Punjab’s irrigation and Pakistan’s prime hydro-electric power generation station. Above Tarbela, Basha Dam is under construction. Feasibility was attested despite high probabilities of earthquakes and flood releases. Damage caused by the Attaabad flood wave would be a mega disaster in every sense of the term.
While the NDMA predicted the lake to overflow by May 29, no significant damage was reported when Newsline went into print on June 2. Although the lake’s water levels are steadily on the rise, Assistant Commissioner Hunza Nagar Zameer Abbas commented that the breach was unlikely for another three days. The NDMA has worked hard to enable a controlled overflow: they completed the planned spillway within the soft top layer of the dam. The spillway seems to be working as it is discharging the water building up in the lake, but the outflow to inflow ratio of 1000:3000 cusecs paints an unpromising picture. In addition, one news report suggested that the water leakage level had reached 350 cusecs on June 1. Other emergency measures have also been taken in the form of standby helicopters and early warning sirens placed at vulnerable locations to facilitate evacuation. But the glacier melt is increasing day by day, and as the lake exceeds a length of 14 kms, more terraced fields and orchards are inundated along with surrounding villages. No potato crop will be harvested this year; thus the only cash crop of the valley fades. The scope of the upcoming disaster seems to be grossly underestimated and in the meantime, residents wait with bated breath for the looming catastrophe and what could be Hunza’s worst natural disaster to date.
Source: This article appeared in the print version of Newsline under the title “Another Paradise Lost?”. The writer (Hermann Kreutzmann) currently holds the Chair of Human Geography at the Center for Development Studies in the Institute of Geography, Freie Universitat Berlin.
The Gilgit-Baltistan is one of the most spectacular regions of Pakistan. Here the world’s three mightiest mountain ranges – the Karakorams, the Hindukush and the Himalayas – meet. The entire region is like a paradise for mountaineers, climbers, trekkers, hikers, anglers and nature lovers. The region has a rich cultural heritage and variety of rare flora and fauna.
Historically, the area has remained a flash point of political and military rivalries amongst the Russian, British and Chinese empires. Immediately after the end of British rule in the sub-continent in 1947, the people of this region decided to join Pakistan through a popular local revolt against the government of Maharaja of Kashmir.
The Gilgit-Baltistan has always been at the crossroads of conquerors, raiders and travelers. Therefore, its history has been deeply influenced by the various incidences of history. The region has a very rich history which can be understood through periodizations made by historians. It is said that small chieftains ruled Gilgit and Baltistan, until the beginning of the 19th century. They had to grapple with trivial issues amongst each other taking advantage of their weaknesses and mutual rivalries, the Dogra regime of Kashmir annexed these territories around the middle of the 19th century even though they found the control of the area difficult. Baltistan was administered directly by the Kashmir Government as a part of District Laddakh with Headquarters at Leh. The British Indian Government got attraction in the region following the political developments in Russian and Chinese Turkistan during the late 19th century.
The history of Gilgit-Baltistan can be divided into the following periods:
Pre-History: The earliest inhabitants of the Region can be traced back to 5th millennium BC they were known as Rock Art People as they started the tradition of rock carving which was continued by their successors. They were hunters and lived in rocks. There is a general perception that they had religion having faith in mountains.
Megalith Builders: These people came from Chitral and Swat and had the tradition of building large megaliths. They used to have a ceremonial carved stone in the middle which was worshiped. They used metals like copper, bronze, iron, gold and silver. They developed irrigated fields and also depended on livestock like goat, sheep and other cattle. They lived in mud houses as temporary settlement.
Dardic People: According to some historians, the Dardics lived in the present Gilgit-Baltistan during the Achaemenian Empire (4th century B.C). Their economic activities included mining and trading gold. This led to the establishment of a trade route with Central Asia and China.
Scytho Parthians: Various rock inscriptions around Chilas suggest that the Scythians from Central Asia had established their rule in this area around the first century BC The rule of Scythians resulted in the introduction of Kharoshti script and Taxila style stupas and establishment of close trade relations with Taxila. The Scythian rule lasted only two generations between 1 B.C and 1 A.D. This was followed by the Gondophares branch of Parthians. The influence of the Parthians on local culture is evident from the rock carvings of this era which depict some new themes other than those of the earliest inhabitants.
The Kushans: The Khushans moved to Regionbetween 1 B.C and 1 A.D who had already established their rule in Central Asia and China. They used gold for trade purposes and a route passed through Northern Area which was perhaps the Silk Route on which the current Karakoram Highway has been constructed.
The Post Kushans: After the Khushans, the Sassanis from Persia controlled the area in the beginning of 3rd century AD. During that period, Budhism continued to flourish and this area remained a famous crossing point for travel to and from India, China and Central Asia.
The Huns: These were tribes from Central Asia who were warriors. They ruled through several Shina and Brushaski kings called ‘Rajas’. By that time, Budhism was still on its way of spreading.
Medieval to Modern Time
With the decline of Huns, the Rajas became independent. From 612 to 750 AD, the areas were ruled by Patoal Shahi Dynasty who were Budhists and had close ties with Chinese empire. Between 7th Century and early 19th century, parts of the Regionwere ruled by succession of various dynasties including: Tarkhans of Gilgit, the Maghlots of Nagar, the Ayasho of Hunza, the Burshai of Punyal, the Maqpoons of Skardu, the Anchans of Shigar and the Yabgos of Khaplu. In the beginning of 8th century AD the Tarkhan rulers embraced Islam. In the medieval times, Regionremained outside Mughal control although Akber conquered Kashmir and parts of Baltistan while Gilgit retained its independent status until the Regioncame under the control of Dogra rulers of Kashmir in the middle of 18th century. By the end of 19th century, the British Government created the Gilgit agency and appointed a political agent, under a lease agreement with Maharaja Harising of Kashmir. In 1947, the people of Gilgit Baltistan fought against the Maharaja and got independence. Since then, it is being administered under the Federal Government of Pakistan as Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA).
Courtesy: State of Environment and Development- in Northern Areas- IUCN/GoP NAs 2003
The Gilgit – Baltistan have the unique distinction of being the converging point of three of the mightiest mountain ranges in the world, namely, the Himalaya, Karakorum and Hindukush. These ranges have many of the world’s highest peaks and the world’s largest concentration of glaciers outside the Polar Regions. In the Karakorum’s alone 30 peaks soar over 24,000 feet (7,500 m) and culminate in the 28,250 feet (8,612 m) high K-2, second only to Mt. Everest in elevation. Sheer rock walls and ravines, plunging thousands of vertical feet down to the rivers flowing below, mark the scenery.
This astounding landscape is the result of the collision of the Indian tectonic plate with the Eurasian plate in this region about 40 million years ago; which is quite recent in geological history. The youth of the Gilgit-Baltistan is reflected in their jagged peaks and continually rising elevations. Nanga Parbat is rising at a geologically dizzying rate of 7 mm per year, which is one of the highest in the world.
These lofty mountains and valleys boast a spectrum of wildlife such as the snow leopard, brown bear, Marco Polo sheep, Himalayan ibex, Astore markhor, golden marmot, woolly flying squirrel and other species, some of which are rare or endangered. Substantial deposits of various minerals and semi-precious stones add to the natural wealth of the region.
Glacial and snow melts are the source of fresh water in this arid region. Water flows into the valleys in the form of nullahs (streams) and makes human existence possible.
The remoteness and limited accessibility of the Gilgit-Baltistan until now have meant that people here have had a high dependence on the natural environment, without access to many modern facilities. Traditional modes of living ensured harmony between the natural environment and human beings. But growing population, greater communication links and infrastructural and developmental interventions are changing traditional lifestyles and increasing the pressure on natural resources.
Amazingly, one of the wonders of modern infrastructure is found precisely in this very tough terrain. The 800 km long Karakoram Highway (KKH) or Shahrah-e-Resham, completed in 1980, starts in the federal capital Islamabad and runs through Kohistan and the Gilgit-Baltistan, past all the way north to the Chinese border at the Khunjerab Top. Most of the way it follows the ancient Silk Route to China and Central Asia. This highway has dramatically opened up the Gilgit – Baltistan, not only facilitating trade and commerce with both down-country Pakistan and China, but also bringing in a greater number of outsiders. The uniqueness of the region still remains, but its inaccessibility is no more.
In addition to the trading importance of Gilgit and its environs, its location at the doorstep of China and Central Asia, with Afghanistan and India also close by, makes it a very strategic area culturally and geopolitically. The people of this area not only share the mountainous terrain with their neighbors to the north and west, but also ethnicity, history, religion, culture and languages. Faces in Gilgit reflect the kaleidoscope of ethnic groups that make up the population of the entire Gilgit-Baltistan. Its geopolitical importance was evident during the British era when the Gilgit Agency was a vital arena in the Great Game politics between Britain and Russia. Today it is still an important strategic link between Pakistan and China and the Muslim countries of Central Asia. The valleys and mountains of the Gilgit-Baltistan present exceptional challenges and opportunities.
Welcome to Gilgit-Baltistan Bulletin. This is an effort to create awareness among masses of the region as well as the world.
we will warmly welcome people from all walks of life for their contributions, knowledge and time.
Gilgit Baltistan Bulletin Team