Villagers in path of potentially devastating Hunza flood reluctant to move

Residents told to evacuate their homes are concerned about lost harvests and women's modesty being threatened in crowded refuges.

A displaced woman prepares food at the Aga Khan Diamond Jubilee School at Altit in the Hunza Valley.
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KARIMABAD // Thousands of residents in the northern Pakistan valley of Hunza, threatened by the imminent breakage of a massive landslide dam, face difficult choices this week. The dam, formed on January 4 by a devastating landslide that obliterated the village of Ata-abad and killed 19 riverside residents, stretches back 20km to the village of Husseini, about 750km north of Islamabad, the federal capital.

Contractors working with army engineers created a dam aimed at preventing a collapse. On Sunday they said the dam contained an estimated 1.2 million cusecs of water - potentially enough to send a 30 to 50-metre-high flash flood crashing down the valley, if the dam were to suddenly collapse. A cusec is a unit of water flow equal to one cubit foot per second. Contractors working with engineers of the army's Frontier Works Organisation said on Sunday the weight of the lake had shifted against the dam, and he water was rising faster than anticipated by the government, which has predicted May 25 as the earliest date waters would flow into the 25-metre dam. Shakoor Ali, a contractor, said: "It has risen by four feet since [Saturday]. It's now only a matter of four, maybe five, at the most six days before the dam starts giving way," he said.

The Frontier Works Organisation stopped work on Sunday and pulled back machinery and personnel to a hillside camp at Hassanabad, 20km downstream. The Pakistani authorities, who have declined offers of help from foreign governments and non-governmental organisations, have ordered 13,000 downstream residents to leave by Thursday to schools and health clinics more than 30 metres above the riverbed. However, many villagers are reluctant to evacuate because farming is their livelihood. The lake's rise has coincided with the start of the May-to-November agricultural season, when snows from the Karakorum mountain range recede.

Apricot, cherry and mulberry trees are close to harvest, while recently planted crops of carrot, cauliflower, potato and spinach need regular irrigation and tending. That reluctance, as well as concerns about the modesty of their womenfolk in a cramped communal setting, prompted residents of Juttal village, home to 400 households, on Friday to refuse to comply with orders from local police to evacuate. Their refusal led to an angry standoff and some scuffling.

The villagers are demanding the provision of tents at sites of their own choice, but the authorities have limited preparations to establishing nine relief centres - only one at Karimabad - where 45 to 60 days of food, medical provisions and army doctors are to be positioned. Ali Mohammed, a retired army sergeant and a resident of Juttal, said: "We are, without exception, poor people, and we've already been forced to cut our poplar trees so that they are not lost to the coming flood.

"We are appealing to the government to do what is needed before it is too late and we lose everything." More than 1,060 residents displaced from Ata-abad, and the subsequently submerged villages of Aaienabad and Sarat villages, are housed in schools at Altit, 5km uphill from Karimabad, and other neighbouring villages. Family matrons said each classroom, kept warm with government-provided carpet and underlay, and a rudimentary "Bukhara" stove, housed three families.

However, they complained that they had received little government assistance since being relocated, and supplies of food were intermittent. Khawaja Khan, a government doctor, said the displaced communities also needed specialist care to deal with pregnancies and childbirths. The imminent overflow of the lake at Ata-abad also threatens to isolate several thousand residents living upstream, where the Hunza Valley turns into a high-altitude desert in the summer, and the only alternative access is to China along a stretch of the Karakorum Highway, notorious for landslides and seismic activity.

Residents of Husseini, a village at the upstream end of the lake, said the half of the village located on the eastern bank of the Hunza River was on the verge of being cut off by the rising waters before the dam overflows. The dam is barely a metre below the suspension bridge connecting it to its sister settlement, but villagers, like their cousins downstream, are prepared to take the risk of being cut off because of their dependency on growing crops.