Since the last 6 years, Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) have been posing a serious threat to a number of villages in Gojal Valley besides damaging the Karakoram Highway (KKH) N35 and the bridges constructed on the highway near villages Hussaini and Ghulkin. The frequency of GLOFs at the site has increased over the last 2 years.
Gilgit-Baltistan is surrounded by gigantic mountains and glaciers and the glacier water always poses threat to the inhabitants. Many times the GLOF has destroyed the infrastructure and in particular the road access to the lower part of the province.
A glacier situated between Ghulkin and Hussain villages is the most dangerous GLOF site which poses threat to both the villages as well as destroyed the KKH due to which the people travelling through the area face serious difficulties. It is worst in case of emergencies.
Likewise another glacier which lies between Gulmit and Ghulkin is a serious threat for both villages. Many times the water has changed its flow towards the village and the villagers have take measures to divert the flow at its original position.
On May 25, 2014, an enormous GLOF caused havoc on the Northern side of the main bridge located at the site whereby the KKH, two bridges besides several culverts were inundated. The incident left commuters and locals of the area stranded on both sides of the flooded highway. No immediate response was taken by authorities; however, five days after the incident, authorities cleared the site and traffic resumed across the flooded highway. Officials of the National Highway Authority (NHA) and China Road and Bridge Construction Corporation (CRBC) eventually made an alternative way for vehicles to cross the GLOF site.
On June 14, 2014, another massive GLOF hit the KKH on the Southern side of the main bridge located at the site, inundating three culverts and consequently blocking the highway. The voluble water utterly demolished the KKH. Yet again, relevant authorities failed to initiate any prompt measure to resume transportation on the KKH. Hundreds of passengers were left stranded on both sides of the blocked highway. However, local volunteers and boy scouts were seen making way for the passengers to pass the blockade.
As this report is being posted, the highway remains severely damaged and flooded, bringing traffic to a standstill on the KKH. This has not only affected lives of people of the area, but also businessmen, tourists and travelers. Passengers, specifically vulnerable groups like the ailing, the elderly, women and children are most at risk. People are crossing the flood by foot and it is feared that any casualty resulting from the incident will compel locals of the area to point fingers to government authorities.
History of GLOFs in Hussaini Gojal
On condition that historic records have been on hand, facts have been showing that glaciers and glacial lakes have been a hazard to highways, bridges, people and property located downstream. Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) occur when glaciers condense and move forward and, in many instances, block side valleys causing river and meltwater to build up against an ice barrier. In some instances, as these glacial lakes grew, increasing hydrostatic pressure eventually causes the ice dam to lift or burst, resulting in heavy flooding towards downstream areas where it wreaks havoc by damaging highways, bridges and properties.
GLOFs and the resulting blockage of the KKH at the site between Hussaini and Ghulking villages in Gojal Valley are not new. Since the KKH has been constructed just over the Hussaini glacier, flooding has been witnesses at the site during the last 6 years. Local experts say that the last 2 GLOFs were comparatively powerful and damaging to public infrastructure and properties.
Moreover, discharge of water from the glacier near Ghulkin village has also prompted fear among the community. According to experts, unlike the previous flooding that took place in summer, extreme water flow was also noted in the winter of 2013 when the temperature remains in the negative.
According to FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance, the water in a lake formed on the Hussaini glacier has also increased to an alarming level. This could become a potential threat to the KKH, and bridges and culverts on the KKH in future. The GLOFs have damaged about two kilometers of the KKH so far.
Impact of KKH blockage on travelers, tourists and local community
The blockage of KKH has left hundreds of tourists, businessmen and travelers without any alternative route, forcing them to cancel their plans. This has adversely affected the local economy. It is pertinent to note that a majority of the local population of Gojal Valley is reliant on tourism for their income.
The KKH serves as the only land route between China and Pakistan and accounts for trade worth billions of rupees. Blockage of the KKH has had adverse impact over the trade between the two countries and businessmen have started rethinking their plans to carry their goods via the KKH.
The local community of Gojal Valley in general and residents of Ghulkin and Hussaini villages in particular have been suffering as a result of the blockage of the KKH and inaction on part of relevant authorities. Besides creating problems for local commuters, the KKH’s blockage has negatively affected the local economy.
Response of authorities
On June 18, 2014, officials of the NHA visited the flood site after locals threatened to go on strike if immediate action is not taken to contain the situation. The NHA team was led by the General Manager for N35.
The authorities took notice of the situation on ground besides meeting with the local population and taking note of their concerns. GM NHA assured the people that he would initiate immediate measure to provide them relief and resume traffic on the KKH.
Authorities have yet to initiate measures for transportation of patients, women, children and the elderly across the KKH which is still under flooding. Local volunteers and community members are currently helping people cross the gushing water. It is worth mentioning here that thousands of people travel on the KKH each day. Crossing the affected site to go to Pak-China border and vice versa has made life risky for travelers.
Flood damage repairs
Since the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) is responsible for improvement of the KKH in the area, the company has yet to initiate damage repairs. CRBC has been progressively repairing the damage caused by the floods and the progress to date, including bridge replacements, has exceeded millions of rupees. However, the repairs can’t withstand the powerful floods with gushing water and boulders.
People of Gulmit take precautionary measures
Regarding this problem the people of Gulmit took precautionary actions to build a safety wall on the edge of the flowing glacier water. This proposal was accepted by the FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance Pakistan and approved a grant for the building of the safety wall. This project is in progress under the supervision of Gulmit Organization for Local Development (GOLD) from March 2014. Digging of the foundation, which is 2km long, 5ft wide and 4ft deep, was done by the villagers on voluntary basis. The project has now been contracted out. The wall is still under construction and will be 10ft high.