EJAZ Ali, a tour boat operator, sits on a rock on the edge of the scenic Attabad Lake. “See that building coming up on the other side of the embankment,” he points towards an under-construction structure a kilometre or so away.
“That is the resort project a wealthy businessman from Lahore is developing here. It will be complete when you come here next year. Or at least they will be renting rooms to tourists from next summer,” he says.
His sudden diversion from our conversation about the story of the landslide that had created the Attabad Lake almost eight years ago puzzled me. He laughs before he explains. “We lost our homes, our agricultural land and our cherry orchards in that landslide. It stole our livelihood from us and it has taken us years to rebuild and stand on our feet again and build this tour boat business.
“Now this investor could bring his boats and water scooters and make us jobless once again.”
They say hazards turn into disasters and disasters into opportunities. But whatever “opportunities” were created after the mountains sent large rocks hurtling into a valley in Attabad benefited what Ejaz Ali described as outsiders rather than the local communities. The disaster blocked the flow of the Hunza River and created a new lake that buried two villages, Shishkat and Ainabad, in upper Hunza.
The landslide killed at least 20 people and left hundreds displaced as the river submerged scores of houses, flooded large tracts of cultivated land, orchards and forest. Last but not the least, it swallowed a big slice of the Karakoram Highway.
The inundation of Karakoram Highway cut off upper Hunza from the rest of Gilgit-Baltistan and disrupted trade between Pakistan and China, offering an opportunity to a businessman from Rawalpindi to make money by bringing boats to carry passengers, goods, cars and food grain from one side of the newly formed idyllic lake to the other.
Once the lake started attracting tourists, motorboats followed suit.
“The investor who came with his boats from Rawalpindi minted money for over five years until the highway was reconstructed by the Chinese and opened to traffic in 2016. It also created jobs for the affected villagers who had no other means of income at that time because of loss of their livelihood after the landslide,” says Riaz Kareem, a resident of the submerged Shishkat village.
He runs a fleet of motorboats and water scooters at the Attabad Lake in partnership.
“When he (the boat operator) left after reopening of the Karakoram Highway, we, the villagers, pooled our savings and bought his fleet. Now this is the main source of income for more than 300 families which lost everything after the burial of Shishkat and Ainabad,” he adds.
The net profits are disbursed among the shareholders proportionately.
According to the boat operators, tourists from across the country flock to the region during summer holidays to soak up the beauty of the place and to enjoy a boat ride of the lake. “Last year we pooled more money among ourselves to add water scooters to our fleet. These scooters have proved to be a major attraction for younger tourists. Although we don’t earn as much money as (the investor from Rawalpindi) when boats were the only means of travel, we still make enough money to sustain us for a few months after the tourist season ends,” Riaz Kareem says.
However, the community feels that the under-construction resort being built by Zoraiz Lashari, a Lahore-based businessman, may steal their livelihood yet again. “He has money and backing of the high-ups of the Gilgit-Baltistan government. What if he brings in his own fleet. That will ruin us. We are feeling apprehensive,” Ejaz Ali observes.
“So many households with no other source of income have invested all their savings in this business. Some have even borrowed money to invest in it. Where will they go if another wealthy businessman steals their livelihood?” he asks.
Talking to Dawn, Zoraiz Lashari, who has developed amusement parks in Lahore and other cities, tried to assuage the locals’ concern. “We are investing our money to develop the area and create jobs for the local population. It is going to be an iconic project and will create roughly 200 jobs once it becomes fully operational.
“We also plan to build a ‘souvenir’ factory in the area that will employ 1,000 local men and women.”
He goes on: “As far as the boatmen from the area are concerned we will try to collaborate with them and create new business opportunities for them rather than acting as their competitor. We don’t plan to displace them or steal their business. We will work within their system,” he assures the people of Gilgit.
But the potential competition and loss of livelihood isn’t the only worry for locals. They are also worried about the environmental impact of the project on the blue-green lake. “The resort is going to generate a lot of solid waste and waste water. We don’t know if and how are the sponsors going to take care of it. I hope they have a plan,” says an official of the Aga Khan Foundation in Karimabad, 14km downstream from Attabad. Zoraiz Lashari claims he has a plan. “We won’t damage the environment. How can we? We are not going there to make quick bucks. Our business will be dependent on the picturesque lake and the cleanliness of the area.”
His promises notwithstanding, the boatmen want the GB administration to ensure protection of their livelihood and the pristine beauty of the lake. “We have lost everything once and we don’t want to lose our livelihood again even if we have to fight the resort owner for our rights,” warns Riaz Kareem.
Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2018