Melting Lake, Frozen Souls By Ghulam Amin Beg

As the spring is approaching, the thick ice sheet covering Attabad Lake might have started melting down, but enabling support to sustain life for the 25,000 souls in Gojal or upper Hunza continues to remain frozen.

The federal government through NDMA, the GB government, UN Agencies and agencies of the AKDN might have joined hands in mid July 2010 and came up with winter contingency plans and early recovery plan and might have foreseen the risks of a frozen lake and many other scary scenarios in paper, but the actual deployment of resources on ground including provision of all weather dedicated passenger boat or heli service for emergencies, provision of immediate and safe dwellings for IDPs and support to extend quality secondary health care and uninterrupted access to education-the first priority of the affected people, remained mere promise during the winter.

Though the flash floods in Gilgit Baltistan in late July 2010, and later flooding all over Pakistan, made things worse for the affectees of the Attabad landslide disaster, however harsh winter and strong winds multiplied sufferings for the stranded people of Gojal valley, upstream the lake.

Having said that nobody should discount the fact that lack of political will, weak implementation capacities and corruption of the government machinery, and indifference of and uncoordinated response and communication by humanitarian and development agencies also played its due role in downplaying the real sufferings of the people and failing to make a real humanitarian, strategic and business case for swift opening and draining of the lake water, and providing resources for implementation of the various contingency and early recovery plans.

For example, against a target of PKR 1.2 billion projected for 18 months early recovery activities in July last year, for areas like winter extended relief, health, education, livelihoods and agriculture, basic communication infrastructure and community restoration, the government was able to mobilize PKR 100 million and other agencies mobilized resources to the tune of PKR 200 million. Much of these funds related to relief and provision of food and non-food items-NFIs. Thanks to initial food aid to IDPs by FOCUS/AKDN, and later the swift response by the Chinese government and then the pre-planned but coincidental after response by WFP with support from donor countries including USAID that the food deficit and fuel problems were mitigated for six months now. What will happen after six months is anybody’s guess.

But as in one complaint letter addressed to the head of a regional institution and copied to ‘all concerned departments’, dated 5th February 2011, a rehabilitation management committee of the IDPs of Shishkat wrote:

Only food is not enough. Feed is given to animals, to beasts in the cages in a Zoo or to criminals in jails. But we are none of them. IDPs are human beings like non-IDPs. They have good or bad feelings in response to the circumstances. IDPs have also their social life. They have to join happy or unhappy occasions in society. They have to educate their children with dignity and need access to health facilities. Besides food is more then eating rice, tea and local bread for months? Our children are fed up of eating same food, they demand quality food, we are unable to provide, because we are cash drained.

Shelter was a key need. However the IDPs from Shishkat complained that they were forced by the government and the community institutions to leave the village and migrate to central Hunza. False promises were made that they will be provided rents to live in rented buildings, job opportunities shall be offered and that living allowance will be made available. Now they complain except for food, no promise was kept and over 150 households are facing problems as they don’t have cash to pay rents, utility bills, mobility costs, school fees and health costs. The temporary winter shelter could only be completed for half of the total IDPs and the winter is near ending.

Then, education was prioritized first by the suffering souls and IDPs. What they needed from the government and the long established non-governmental provider of education, to upgrade two of the existing schools, one for boys, other for girls into higher secondary or inter-colleges to reduce the pressures of young girls and young boys migrating across the lake to other regions in search of education. Annually over 200 students, over 70% girls pass 10th grade and leave the area, as there is no inter-college. That would have reduced costs, trauma and above all retained young people in the area. Providing fee remission to students in other educational institutions was another plan.50% students received from the government, six months remission. The rest are waiting for a promise unrealized. Government and large development agencies with governance structures away from the region, and politicians with myopic visions and party interests move only when there is public pressure, political clout, and institutional voice. The stranded people and the IDPs had none.

Then there was priority for secondary and tertiary health care. The government has a very good building in Gulmit, equipments are in place, but there were no doctors, technicians and paramedics. The government and again largest provider of private health were unable to provide incentives and packages for doctors to stay in the affected area. They only moved in and out for a week or ten days. When the harsh winter came, the doctors were first to fly, as there were no insulated rooms for them, no fuel to cook and no electricity to light. Bharia Foundation provided team of doctors and nurses for three months, and they equipped the hospital, provided a system, but they were giggled and they left. The government wanted the largest provider of health service in the area to take over, but their decision making processes normally followed normal peace time protocols, and went beyond emergency response, and it was too late. Now there is another talk of the town, that Bharia Foundation has been requested to come again. Meanwhile the whole winter passed, and during the last three months, probably twice doctors were mad available for seven days each.

And now snail pace work on the spillway. While the now notorious FWO, is again digging and blasting, this time for 670 million PKR, and promising to lower the lake by 30 meter by 15th May 2011. The first time this contractor, promised to open the lake initially in two weeks, then in 45 days 250 million, but later provided a bill of 800 PKR, and later is history, how settlement upon settlement were inundated and billions worth of trade with China were lost, billion worth livelihoods and assets submerged in the lake, and over 25 kilometres of Karakoram Highway-KKH and vital bridges were destroyed. People complain that in broad day light the FWO officials are selling the fuel oil to boat operators and vehicles on a daily basis. The joke is that the only benefit people have in Hunza from FWO is cheaper diesel which they are blamed they sell in black market.

At one stage, people took a sign of relief when the news came that the President, PM and COAS have agreed to request the Chinese to do the work. Rumours also came out of traders visiting China that even fleet of engineering corp of PLA are ready and on the move. But suddenly, they saw the same workforce at work who ditched them a year ago!

And now, dedicated passenger boat service provided by the army/NDMA remained off the lake for many reasons; high winds, frozen lake and more so lack of transparency and absence of a standing operating procedure or SOP in place. For example no timetables for boat operations were ever displayed, so that passengers, the old, sick and children and women who wish to travel in emergencies know when to leave their home, and when to reach their destiny. So uncertain, humiliating and crooked were the operations that people would wait for 2-4 hours to actually see a boat operator coming and boating at will. If a passenger or group of young people start complaining on late start, they will switch off their motors and float alone. The cargo boats, operated by businesspeople have obvious profit maximization in mind, they are providing the services, and remain the only hope, but people also blame the operators of treating the stranded people like prisoners or criminals.

There is no choice for the people, but to live a prisoner’s life.

In conclusion, the lake is melting down, the actual deployment of resources on ground including provision of all weather dedicated passenger boat or heli service for emergencies, provision of immediate and safe dwellings for IDPs and support to extend quality secondary health care and uninterrupted access to education-the first priority of the affected people,remained mere promise.

One reason for this inaction being, the souls of the 25,000 people are frozen. They have lost their voice under the roaring winds over the lake. They have lost their sense of being free human souls, but living a prisoner’s life. Some youth and literati may be raising voice on this injustice and inhuman treatment, but majority are tranquilized by dozes of divisive petty politics, administrative religious verdicts and stick and carrot policies of the administration.

Currently the Mafiosi, a nexus of corrupt officials, border traders and petty local political opportunists, rule the souls and minds of the suffering people.

The rest of the so-called responsible agencies both governmental and others,with a mandate to respond and deliver, are living in comfort zones in five start office complexes in Islamabad and other places, playing with figures and doing PowerPoint presentations, and flying in helicopters with donors to ‘untroubled’ areas, or making areas ‘trouble-free’ when high officials plan to visit an affected area.

Let’s end this on a positive note. After every winter, there comes a spring. Could the youth find its voice back, as they did in Egypt and the larger middle east?

The only ray of hope for the future. Engage Chinese expertise and technology and engage the army higher command directly advocating that vital national interests and interests of the local affected people converge. Only the youth and the retired servicemen from the area could make a strong case for it.

As one elected representative said, ‘This is the last chance for FWO. If the spillway was not lowered by the target date this time, the peoples faith in the ability of the army to deliver shall be badly shaken, and we will not be able to stop the people for whatever decisions they make as a result of this failing’.

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