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Tuesday May 21, 2024

Living off disaster

The cases of Attabad Lake and Gwadar simply highlight the many tragedies that exist around the country

By Kamila Hyat
April 20, 2024
View of houses seen collapsed due to heavy rains in Gwadar on April 18, 2024. — PPI
View of houses seen collapsed due to heavy rains in Gwadar on April 18, 2024. — PPI

The beautiful Attabad Lake, and the mix of hotels that have now crept up around it, create a new tourist spot in the country. For some people in Hunza, the emergence of this spot has been a boon. But as tourists from various areas ‘troop’ to these hotels and new different places on the holidays aimed at admiring the wondrous mountains of Hunza, Skardu and surrounding areas, they do not seem to realize that they are living off the blood of the persons killed when the landslide of 2010, which created the Attabad Lake, occurred.

The landslide led to deaths in the villages above the lake, notably in the village of Attabad, after which the lake is named, but also in surrounding villages. Around 6,000 persons were displaced. Other counts put the figure at around 10,000. Another 25,00 were temporarily forced to leave their homes. For some of these persons, food supplies were cut off due to the presence of the lake, cutting off the Karakoram Highway, which is of course the main artery in the region. The road has now been essentially restored, but those days and the disaster that ended in the creation of Attabad Lake, live on in the memories of the people of Gojal where the lake was created.

It will also live in the memories of the people of Attabad, now an abandoned village, who moved, in most cases, to Gilgit and other larger towns in the area, and in many cases live lives of extreme poverty because their lands and ability to grow agricultural materials has been taken away from them. The hotel owners who put up the establishments in the area, in some cases say or at least claim that they pay money to Attabad residents. There is no way of ascertaining how far this is true and the poverty of the people of Attabad, now living in other areas, puts into question the claims and projections of the hotel owners who in many cases are making large profits as a result of the beauty of a lake which came into place as a result of disaster.

In Gwadar, other tourists inhabit a world where posh hotels stand at the centre of the world. From these buildings, they look down on beautiful coastal areas and pristine beaches of Gwadar. But they do not appear to realize that there is another world in Gwadar, a world inhabited by impoverished fishing communities whose livelihood has been stolen from them by the permission granted to trawlers, many of them from another country, to fish the waters off Gwadar.

The result is that there's no catch left for the fishermen who go out in their tiny boats facing hostile waters each time there's a storm or rainfall. Ironically, despite the recent rains that hit the area, there is no safe natural water for people to drink in the Gwadar area – one of the main causes of the disease and the consequently poor quality of life of the people in the area.

The issue was raised most effectively by Maulana Hidayat Rahman of the Jamaat-e-Islami and his Haq Do Tehreek which continued over many months in the Gwadar area before his arrest just before the 2024 election. Maulana Hidayat was sensible enough to include women from fishing communities in his effort and ensured they participated in the protests and walks that followed his efforts. Today he has been elected an MPA in the Balochistan Assembly. However, there is a very real fear that no matter how much people like Rahman are able to achieve, there will always be two kinds of places in Gwadar – one inhabited by the tourists who visit the area and its pristine beaches, and the other lived in by impoverished people whose livelihood has been taken away and who seem not even to have the right to stage peaceful protests over what has happened.

This is true of much of Pakistan. There are two lives everywhere. Elaborate housing communities have been built on land stolen from poor villagers who were not able to protect their lands. The efforts to set up hotels and housing estates along the Ravi are just one example of this. There are many others in Karachi, Lahore, and elsewhere.

Even the best-known housing communities initially involved the theft of land from people who desperately needed this to meet their most basic needs. Even parts of the country's capital Islamabad are built essentially on land stolen from the people who originally lived there and who saw their villages as homes that will now never be returned to them.

This is a tragedy. The cases of Attabad Lake and Gwadar simply highlight the many tragedies that exist around the country. People have no qualms about living off disaster and what it brings. We need to encourage everyone to think twice about this. Essentially, disaster tourism, as it is called, should be banned. It indeed exists around the world. Regions with active volcanoes are one example of this, but in our context, there is a need to highlight the situation in which so many people live without adequate drinking water or perhaps no water at all and without livelihoods or the right to fish their own waters.

This is a problem that needs far more publicity and attention in the local media as well as by other forums. It is true that some, like the HRCP, have repeatedly taken up the situation in these areas but many more voices need to be raised if we are to see genuine change and a situation in which people can live in their own ancestral villages and earn through the means that they have known for years.


The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor. She can be reached at:kamilahyat@hotmail.com