Articles / Essays

The Terrible Attabad Disaster of 2010: Recollection and Reflection

January 4, 2020

By Fazal Amin Beg
In contrast to the future happenings (based on imaginations or prospects), one of the positive aspects of the events of the past provide us enormous opportunities to look at them fairly and holistically from multiple angles such as voluntary, professional, social, cultural, communal, regional, political, economic, environmental, and the like. But it’s important that justice should be made to a greater extent with the narrations and analysis of the past when adequate data are available around any targeted topic.
The terrible and famous Attabad Disaster of January 4, 2010 within Gilgit-Baltistan Region remained not hidden from any sensible person in this period of globalization, particularly when the social, electronic and print media were so lively, on the one hand; and the scientific, research and scholarly community members were so active in the field, on the other.some people may argue that why to discuss about an event that had happened a decade earlier?and I think this is a valid question to be answered as well, which will certainly come under discussion gradually. But before coming to the catastrophic situation of 2010, let’s get an orientation with and an image of the area earlier than the disaster, which will provide us a clear picture to effectively analyze the situations in diferent domains before, during and after the dreadful event .
Hunza Valley remained a princely State and was governed by its hereditary rulers called Mirs (contraction of the Arabic Amir for the chief or leader) , though, earlier they were known by Khon (or Khan) embedded in the Turkic . Hunza was known by the name as Kanjud and this old name is still in practice among the Wakhi community of Hunza as Kũnjũdh and they won’t refer the name as Hunza while talking to themselves in Wakhi. The ruler of Hunza was thus also known as Khon-e Kanjud in the Persian context while Khan-e Kanjud in the Turkic realm.
for centuries, four indigenous language communities have been living side by side with each other in Hunza namely Burushaski, Wakhi, S̃hina and D̃umaaki . the S̃hina languge community are live mainly in lower Hunza called S̃hinaki; Burushaski speaking community lives mainly in Central Hunza (though also live in lower and upper Hunza); Wakhi speaking community lives predominantly in upper Hunza called Gojal); and D̃umaaki speakers live mainly in a village of Central Hunza called Mominabad, although they are also found in small number in upper and lower Hunza).There are over a hundred clan groups tied with dozens of tribes have been inhabiting the area. Although, religiously the entire population of Hunza belongs to Islam, the huge majority of them belongs to the Shia Isma’ili in addition to the Shia Ithna’asharia and Sunni faiths. How much such socio-cultural diversity had its positive effects on the communities, and how much such diversity was cashed by outsiders to divide the communities are still an interesting point of discussion, particulary when such mega level of disasters appear among the community.
Though, the inhabitants of Hunza had livestock and agriculture as part of their tradition, after end of their princely state and opening of the Karakoram Highway (KKH), the people diversified their livelihood approaches and began to shift towards enterprises and employment as well. Apart from other types of enterprises, most of the people had become so much dependent on agro-businesses, more particulary engaged with business of potatoes. In the same manner, tourism was one of the most lucrative domain for a significant part of the population. In addition to the food and other kinds of basic requirements, students were so much engaged with their educational pursuits at school, college and universities fed by such types of livelihood strategies before the monstrous disaster of January 2010.
Now, let’s observe the health facilities. Gulmit remained as the winter capital of the former Hunza State and presently is the headquarters of upper Hunza. It had the only hospital of 10 beds where a medical Officer would serve it while in other parts of the settlements in Gojal, there were some Basic Health Units (BHUs) and health posts. From the Aga Khan Health Services, Pakistan (AKHSP), there was the health centers at the main villages of Gojal such as Gulmit, Sost and Reshit. patients therefore strongly depended on the hospitals of Central Hunza but rather would take the referral cases to Gilgit (Center) and then to Islamabad or Karachi.imagine! what would have happened to the patients and expected mothers after blockage of the upper valley for over six years is a serious question to be explored?
The legal and strategic nature of the whole region, particularly Hunza valley proved itself as a huge disaster (by humans) over the natural disaster. For being part of Gilgit-Baltistan Region, Hunza is administered politically and administratively by the Government of Pakistan, though the entire region is legally not yet part of the country due to the longstanding Jamu and Kashmir dispute between Pakistan and India on the one hand; and India and China on the other.
more particulary, the Upper Hunza valley or Gojal remained a separate but largets magistracy (tehsil), which is at present a sub-division of hunza in administrative term. It is this part of Hunza that connects Pakistan with China and Afghanistan via its highest passes like Khunzhrav, Mintika, Kilik, Yirs̃hodh and the Karakoram Highway (KKH) passes through this valley, and it consequently enters the Tashkurghan County of Xinjiang Region of China. The strategic status of the region and valley have thus provided niches and interests for the international players to play in the region, particularly in such situations when the area comes under natural or human-induced disaster like that of Attabad but that is cashed in political domains by various stakeholders at home and abroad more particularly, when in such situations when there comes up strong weaknesses in political domains, what could one expect for the peoples rights and exploitation is yet another point of discussion.
There are still other points to be highlighted before happening of the Attabad disaster but let me cut it short here and gradually move towards the catastrophic situations.
Although, the Focus Humanitarian Assistance Program within Aga Khan Development Network (now functional under the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat or shortly known as AKAH) had already warned the community of Attabad and the Government of Pakistan with regard to the prospective collapse of the Attabad village mountain in the first half of 2000s , the community on the one hand and more particuarly the Government on the other, took it not that much serious. Finally, the nature had to show its power over the human ignorance. The worst day came adn on January 4, 2010 the mountain rocks slid down horrifically that took the lives of 19 precious people of Attabad (locally this small village is termed as Gharayat) and a significant part of the settlement got burreid under the debris along with the livestocks, plants and other important resources. The entire human population thus got displaced and took refuge in two main settlments of Central Hunza namely Altit and Aliabad. Had the local community of Attabad and central Hunza thought for such type of displacement from their centurids long abode and get shelter in other villages? Although, in theory, as they had been already warned and informed by the related organizations, the practical but very bitter and unforgetable experiences the displaced people had to see, not for couples of days , weeks or months but ratehr for over the years to come.
Let’s focus our attention on the part of the horrific debris of the Attabad rockfall that produced the second phase of disasters right after its happening at a larger scale than Attabad. First and foremost , the international Karakoram Highway (KKH) vanished under the huge debri of hundreds of feet high and more or less two kilometers wide.the population of over 25,000 people of Gojal cut-off and the people had not thought for such type of catastrophe that would take their rehabilitation for such a long time that spans for more than five and a half years. The mobility of the community thus paralyzed incredibly.
It was not only the kkh now but rather at the same time, when the rockfall came down, it accompanied inconceivable disaster when the Hunza River along with the KKH got blocked at hundres of feet high. In couples of weeks, the Hunza River transformed into a natural lake as there was no outlet for the river to take its natural course downward.the Karakoram Highway along side Hunza River began to submerge in the lake and the hope of mobility of people remained just like a dream and no more a reality to them for couples of years. the first village of Gojal magistracy was Ayinabad (locally known as Ghawũs̃hben) inhabited by more than 30 households of Burushaski speakers (migrated from Central Hunza) inundated in the lake and the people were deprived of all of their houses and resources in the face of growing lake upward.
It was just a beginning and more areas and villages have to see their fates in front of the expanding and monstrous lake (which was politically promoted in the media as Attabad lake, although it wasn’t the tiny Attabad (that led towards blockage of the river) but rather the upper villages of the area that went into the lake. The next village of lower and Central Shishkat that had to test their fates when tributaries of dozens of glacial streams and side valleys will melt and appear gradually in the spring and intensify in summer with their utmost and strong force and flow to bring further disasters to them.
However, lower parts of Shishkat also submerged in the river lake and more particularly when a landmark bridge on the KKH between Gulmit and Shishkat flooded, it disconnected rest of the population of Shishkat and there was no way out. By April 2010, the lower and plain areas of Gulmit and Ghulkin were also rapidly lost in the river lake along with the KKH. The ferocious lake then proceeded upward towards hussaini and Passu. The experts of Focus Humanitairan Organization had aligned the areas to the extent the river lake will finally reach to its last resort at Kipg̃har of Passu by keeping in view the height of the Attabad debris unless the spillway is not constructed at the slided debris.
Before the delayed and tactical construction and opening of the spillway by the Frontier Works Organization (FWO) by the end of may 2010, in thousands, human and animal habitats, business structures, domesticated plants, gardens, cultivable fields, uncultivable lands, meditational places, graveyards, and so on of the people of lower Gojal disappeared in the horrific lake of over 30 kilometers long.
Could the people of the disaster area in the upstream had imagined that there would be such critical situation and people would opt to initially travel in the air in helicopters and then sailing in the lake by diferent types of boats? The answer would certainly be in negative as they used to travel traditionally on foot and animals back (horses, yaks and donkeys) before construction of the vehicular roads; but after construction of the jeep road in the 1960s, and KKH opening in 1978 they would travel in different types of vehicles. Now, the disaster situation mirrored the local communities their past when they were cut off from all kinds of modern transportation mode.
However, the peoples mobility were encouragingly facilitated initially by the Government through the helicopter sorties of National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA, which proved itself as a mismanagement authority in many ways for over five and a half years disaster in the valley. The helicopters sorties were aimed at facilitating the stranded people in the downstream in Central Hunza and upstream in Upper Hunza but it was so aironic to observe that people were evidenced of the Government officials that they or their families would go for picnic and sight seeing (of the lake) where the indigenous people were in great trouble of the disaster and had got serious issues of mobility on the one hand, and loss of lives, houses and resources on the other. The patients, expected mothers, students, travellers and businesspersons faced critical challenges with regard to their mobility and the losses. But it was also so shocking to note that a few youth from the disaster area would travel in helicopter for the purpose of charging their mobile set balances where the deserving travllers sufferd not having spaces in the helicopter. .
In the later phases, boat services got started that were brought initially by the Government and later by the entrepreneurs that numbered more or less a hundred. They were used for transporting both the people and the goods across the lake. In the beginning, people were so scared to travel in them but later they got accustomed to travel in the boats of having high level of noise pollution. Sometimes, it seemed the instable rocks from both sides of the mountain would come down and strike the lake or the boats because of their strong vibration.
The volunteers of the local community played their utmost and vital role in takeing apart the roofs of the houses of disaster (submerging in the lake). They contributed significantly in helping the local community on the one hand; and the outsiders, particularly travellers or transproters or other people to the optimum level.It’s also so significant to note that the community of Hunza, more specifically Aliabad and Altit, played their critical role in providing spaces for the IDPs of the disaster villages speaking Burushaski. It’s a high time to acknowledge the support of the community of Central and lower Hunza, more particularly the community of Aliabad, who facilitated the travellers of the area with a high spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood.
Although, the flooding of relief was imperative in the early months of the disaster, particularly before opening of the spillway,in the later phases, it moved significantly and generally the local community towards idleness and thus towards begging, in a sense, as people started getting the food and other items for free at their doorsteps without any hardwork.the reliefs included from different countries and agencies such as of the Focus Humanitarian Assistance (of the AKDN), the World Food Program (WFP) of the United Nations, the Chinese Government, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the like. In addition, reliefs also were provided in line with health and rural development by different countries through Aga Khan Rural Support Program, Aga Khan Health Services, Pakistan (such as that of OCHA) and many more. But a lot of corruption were reported and observed on the subject matter.
Isn’t it a pity that in places like Hunza, where various types of organizations of the civil society existed already and had their roots in the community but those related organizations (run by the volunteers) were ignored in relation with provision of the relief. Instead, the political party workers of the PPP and others had become proactive. But why? Who pushed them for the purpose are crystal clear for the sake of political and bureaucratic meddling in the states of affairs around their vested intersts.
However, the Government and bureaucracy played one of their worst roles with regard to de-politicization of the political forces and voices of the civil society organizations; and on the other, politicized and polluted the sanctity of the religious institutions against their social governance mandates to curb the voices of the indigenous and suffered community for the sake of its plans of anti-political forces and social pressures. The Government of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), through its related members of the constituency, played one of its atrocious role in suppressing the genuine voices of the civil society organizations as well as those of their opponent parties such as those of the Pakistan Muslim League, Mutahida Qomi Movement (MQM) and Workers Party of Pakistan who were observed in an alliance in the form of Gojal Coordination Committee. Pakistan Tehrak-e Insaf (PTI) had not its intervention in the early yers of Attabad disaster. Many activists were blamed for being anti-Pakistan and tried to bring legislation in the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative Assembly (GBLA). But they became unsuccessful keeping in the disputed legal status of the region with Pakistan. The related GBLA Members of the constituency were seen proving themselves more of their political party and less to do with their indigenous people, their genuine rights and demands . many activists and vocal individuals of the community were thus tried in the courts of law and many of them were imprisoned.
On the other, the religious insitutions like the Ismaili Council also didn’t focused on its mandate of social governance as the leaders were public servants serving these insitutions on voluntary basis. They were thus scared of their job security in many ways when they were influenced by the political forces, bureaucracies or other agencies of the Government.
There were series of demonstrations, protests, conferences and gatherings by the indigenous people of the area with regard to their just rights and more particularly by those of the Internally Displaced People (IDPs). A notorious incidence was witnessed before all people around and the media representatives when on August 11, 2012 the then Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan was on his visit to Hunza. At Aliabad IDPs of Ayinabad were on the KKH and they wanted to move their genuine demands to him (after suffering of more than two and a half year). But unfortunately two of the IDPs, who were father and his son, were openly fired and killed by his security personnel. Ironically, till today the there came up no justice for the deceased family and paradoxically the criminal police personnel was promoted to a higher rank in the aftermath of the incident. Those who were proactive or leading the demonstration, whether or not belonging to any political party , were imprisoned and many of them are still facing the brutalities though some of them are still in the prisons such as Baba Jan of Hunza belonging to the Workers Party of Pakistan (who advocated for and was on the forefront of the just rights of the IDPs) and some others.
Besides, travel on the KKH had become so much painful after the Attabad disaster for all the travellers. It was so miserable that when a person would start his or her travel from Gilgit to Central Hunza, it’d involve over six hours drive in public transport in a sharp contrast to the earlier two or two and a half hours drive (110 kilometers in an average) because road expansion had also began and the metal had been broken for the purpose of making it asphalted. From Aliabad (Central Hunza) to the Spillway it’d take one and a half hours drive (while earlier it’d take maximum half an hour). In the boat, it’d take initially more than two hours to reach to the ending point. Then from there onward to Sost (the bordering place with china), it’d involve further two hours. For those who wee from Chipursan valley, it’d further take two hours drive in an average; to misgar valley, it’d get almost an hour drive; while from Passu to Shimshal, it’d get more than two hours drive. Just imagine, travel itself had become a highest level of disaster upon the disaster in addition to the highest level of fare charges. When a person would began to travel from the farflung side valleys of Hunza to Gilgit, it’d take an average 15 hours in a sharp contrast to the earlier six hours drive. Otherwise, the travellers had to stay at Sost, Passu or Gulmit and then resume ahead for Central Hunza or Gilgit. Technically, it needs to be noted that from the Attabad disaster debris to the last edge of the river lake, the sitance could be roughly calculated over 30 kilometers in an average where the vehicles on the KKH could not drive, though the link roads within Shishkaat and between Gulmit and Ghulkin were used to supplement to an extent in the initial years with a great pain and highest level of cost.
The media (electronic, print and social) had its critical role in presenting the issue at various scales. Among them, the national level electronic mediapersons and representatives reached on the spot at such juncture of time, more particuarly when the warning had been released time and again with regard to the outburst of the Attabad lake, which would consequently destroy the downstream areas at a highest magnitude and reach Punjab and Sind with its destruction of the Tarbella Dam. Such fears attractid the electronic media to a greater extent and many media channel reps and reportes had reached Hunza. Here came up an internal but a negative politics within Hunza itself. The focus of the media was made more on the tiny Attabad village within central Hunza and the IDPs at Altit (from Attabad) and Aliabad (from Ayinabad/Shishkat) . Unfortunately, the huge disastrous area of upper Hunza was not given the due coverage. The DSNGs of the media channels would report live from Central Hunza but on Gojal (River Lake Disaster Area) no deserving coverage was made live. For this purpose, the media reporters would go to Shishkat and Gulmit and some of them would dare go upward to cover the situations in recorded form and then telecast them from Central Hunza.
As a case, for instance, I myself am one of the witnesses and remember when there was phone call from Dunya Television , Islamabad and I was request to lead the team in the whole disaster area, particuarly in upper part, where reporter (Shahid) would coverage the situation live. I was contacted on the basis of my articles on the Attabad disaster that I had contributed to the renowned Daily Dawn ( After arrival of the Dunya TV team at midnight in Gilgit, along with my nephew (Muiz) we left for Hunza in May. We reached at an ever sliding place called Chikas (between Hindi and Murtazabad), the KKH was blocked unfortunately. After the dawn of the day came and Shahid reported it live (as we had the DSNG with us). Our plan was to drive straight to the Attabad spillway and then reach across the lake so to have appropriate coverage of the situations live that had lacked by then. However, we crossed the sliding site and change a car toward Aliabad (after twenty minutes). Here the mind of Shahid was changed and briefed that there is a high risk to take the DSNG across the lake. Well, we were thus compelled and moved ahead in a rented car and he tried to cover the disaster situation in Shishkat, Gulmit and lower part of Ghulkin in his camera in recorded form and then did the telecaste on the channel. It was here in Gulmit, I also came in contact and friendship with Syed Faisal Shakil of Express Television and I’d report voluntarily and update both reps of Express TV and Dunya TV from the field.
Although, the Attabad disaster brought series of disasters within itself, it also paved the way for innumerable number of people to get maximum benefit out of it. The beneficiaries could be categorized in line with IDPs (who lost their homes); relief takers; rentees of the businesses;political representatives and activists of the time; adminstration, bureaucracy and establishment; daily wagers on the road, spillways and small entrepreneurs on the way; and others not mentioned.
The loosers could be identified gernrally as the whole community of the disaster as the income generating opportunities ceased for the a greater proportion of the community of upper Hunza. However, more specifically what we could observe they were those who broadly lost their income resource bases such as business structures, orchards, gardens, other plants, cultivable fields, uncultivable pieces of land, and the like. More particuarly, what we could evidence that during the disaster period, many patients lost their precious lives initially in Attabad (Central Hunza)but later patients and the accident victims lost their invaluable lives in Gojal when the lake was a great barier to shift the wounded people to the hospitals of Central Hunza and Gilgit on August 22, 2012.
Though, after completion of the expansion of the KKH and opening of the marvelous Chinese tunnels along side Attabad lake in September 2015, the commuters and travllers forgot their earlier painful travel, one of the severe issues and controversies the indigenous community members of Gojal can never forget, which is with regard to the compensation of their lands that were used in expansion of the highway by the National Highway Authority of Pakistan. It’s a pity that the the just rights of the indigenous people of the disaster area are denied and the compensation is yet not given to them by now (in January 2020 where the KKH expansion resumed its course formally five years ago), despite the fact the land owners of other areas of the region have already received the compensation earlier than the construction of the road. Could we get any example anywhere where such type of discrimations are made with the indigenous people living on international borders the international highway crosses from their area, their land areas used for the road but their rights usurped so brutally through various tactics by the related public sector organizations?
It’s also so serious to note that after departure of the lake water from the occupied lands of the settlements, the lands and other structures are seen on the surface today in Shishkat, Gulmit and Ghulkin that appears like the deserts or archeological sites of the antiquity. But it’s miserable that no government or other related NGOs pay attention towards them to recover and revitalize the land as huge sedimentation has covered the people’s fields and their land borders . The farmers or indigenous people have not that much capacity to recover them appropriately unless the Government and related organizations of the civil society joins hand with the indigenous community members who have los their lands, orchards, business structures and the like.
Well, it’s not so easy to complete the whole lot and stories in this article pertaining to the longest disaster of of the region that sustained for more than five and a half year that started from January 4, 2010 to September 15, 2015 after opening of the landmark tunnel construction of more orr less 7 kilometers long carried out by the Chinese Construction companies. The real stories will carry themselves in sereies or volumes of books to see them from various perspectives. So, let me cut it short here and let’s look at the situations after the end of the formal disaster in September 2015.
The end of Attabad disaster after opening of the tunnels brought many opportunities to the people and the region but let me specify few of them here.
1. The Attabad lake tunnel proved as landmark that reduced the distance of travel dramatically and at present it takes only half an hour’s drive from Aliabad to Gulmit, though the KKH expansion also had got completed and on the asphalted road it takes only two hours drive in average in private cars from Gilgit to Gulmit (the headquarters of Gojal Sub-division) within Hunza district. .
2. Although, the previous Chinese bridge between Gulmit and Shishkat submerged in the lake, two spectacular and long bridges the Chinese companies have constructed that have also reduced the distance incredibly.
3. Along with The Attabad lake, the tunnels have become a touristic resort and the tourists from various parts of Pakistan and abroad come to see both the tunnels and the lake.
4. The Attabad lake itself has become a source of income generation for the local and non-local entrepreneurs including owners of boats, hotels, shops, cafes, restaurants and the like.
Although, enormous opportunities emerged after end of the attabad disaster, various challenges have also appeared on the rador of societal development of the area. Let me describe a couple of them here.
1. The Attabad lake area has attracted a lot of non-local people that has led to selling of the land to them against the customary laws in practice, and on the other the region is not legally part of Pakistan.
2. Due to sale of land to the non-indigenous people around Attabad and other parts of Hunza, serious challenges are seen in the near future with regard to demographic shift of the local community.

In conclusion, let me describe here that as part of the Nature, series of disasters could be anticipated in the mountain areas like that of Gilgit-Baltistan Region. We cannot escape the disasters but can prepare ourselves first through awareness, sensitization and knowledge of them and then practically becoming ready to develop effective coping strategies.
The lessons we could derive out of the long lasting disaster are many but few of them could be in the follwoing realms:
1. The natural disasters should be accepted as natural but when involvement of nagative human politics meddle in the middle , it brings series of disasters upon the main disaster as the post-Attabad disasters showed clearly the evidence before all the indigenous community
2. . The people of Hunza in general and upper Hunza in particular need to learn that they should become as a community as they were evidence scattered around their vested interests and the diversity was used not for the strenght and unity rather negatively utilized for the weaknesses and divide in the hands of various players and forces (interally and externally).
3. The people of Hunza need to understand that their valley is so strategic in diferent realms, particuarly in the context of South and Central Asia at broader level; and in the context of Pakistan, China and Afghanistan at a specific level . In such scenario, as compared to natural catastrophe, more human-led disasters could emerge on the surface and for that purpose, the indigenous communities of the valley and the whole region need to be concious and develop their effective and sustaining strategies in advance to cope with them effectively. Otherwise, there are chances of losing even more than the Attabad disasters.
4. Visionary political leadership is the need of the time and they need to be brought up and supported robustly without any discrimination based on language, ethnicities, gender or otherwise, if Hunza claims for its education not for their vested interests, familial interests, tribal or party affiliations.
It should be noted critically that when the whole region of Gilgit-Baltistan Region legally becomes part of Pakistan, then the people amy choose to join the parties of their choice; otherwise, such national level parties are illegally functional in the region when they cannot have the power to provide spaces to the communities of Gilgit-Baltistan in the parliments and consitution of Pakistan. Conversely, these national lvel parties are utilized for the negative politics and disunity of the indigenous communities of the entire region .

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1 Comment

  • Reply khuda bakhsh tojik January 6, 2020 at 3:38 pm

    gafach khushruiii sir ameen baig yo would drive to explained the catastrophic at aliabad huzna,obviously it was ahuge disaster from your side

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