On Climate Week, revisit the Attabad Lake tragedy

The tragedy behind the lake is bigger than the landslide that created it.
Updated Sep 25, 2019 10:06pm

Franz Kafka wrote in The Metamorphosis, “But what if all the tranquility, all the comfort, all the contentment were now to come to a horrifying end?”

I kept thinking about what Kafka said while I was in Hunza last month. The picturesque, cascading glaciers in the region are melting rapidly due to climate change. Before we know it, life in Gilgit-Baltistan may not look like as it does today.

Attabad in Gojal Valley is also a metamorphosis, of sorts. On 4 January, 2010 a landslide, possibly induced by climate change, dammed the Hunza River. Villages were either entirely or partly submerged, nearly 20 people were killed, around 6,000 were displaced and several thousand more were affected in other ways. Another result of the calamity was the formation of the Attabad Lake.

Today, the lake serves as a prime tourist and Instagram photo spot. It stretches up to 22-25 kilometres and is several hundred feet deep. You can see some barren tree tops popping in the middle of the lake, giving you a teaser of what used to be. During the day, the sun illuminates the water, turning it into a deep shade of turquoise, and as the sun sets, a sharp burnt orange hue pierces through the lake that is surrounded by mighty mountains.

The veil of night over the expansive mountains and the lake takes this travesty to a whole different level when the moonlight ballets in the water. It is easy to get arrested in the tranquility that the lake may offer. During my trip, I discovered that the tragedy behind the popular Attabad Lake is bigger than the landslide that created it, and I would like to recount it as it's the Climate Week.

Related: 8 things Pakistanis taught us about climate change

On my way from Attabad to Aliabad, I ran into a protest and, out of curiosity, stopped there for a bit. People were protesting for the release of some prisoners, including a community and political leader by the name of Baba Jan. There was a sit-in that was guarded by the police, including a few women police officers, clad in black shalwar kameez. It was a hot mid-August day. The protestors were sitting under a makeshift tent and small crowds had gathered around. They were holding photos of the imprisoned and demanding justice.

Back in 2010, when the landslide hit and villages were submerged and people displaced, there were a lot of protests as people demanded the government for compensation. Baba Jan, along with some Labour Party Pakistan members, helped organise these protests. As a result, the government finally provided compensation for the families but left out 25 households, which spurred an outage amongst the people and more protests.

During one of these protests, the police used tear gas, batons and opened fire, which led to the deaths of two protestors, Sher Ullah Baig and his son Afzal Baig. In retaliation, protestors burnt a police station and, as a result, were imprisoned. Baba Jan was also arrested under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), even though according to reports, he was nowhere near the incident when it took place. He and 11 others were sentenced for life.

Naeem, a political activist from Altit, told me that when people talk about justice for these prisoners, they are not heard by the government. In fact, the police officer accused of opening fire on the father and the son is reported to have received a promotion. 


When I reached my destination in Aliabad, my hotel manager, who also happens to be an activist, Zahoor Elahi, recognised me from the protests and asked what I was doing there. Later in the evening, I sat down with him in the resort lobby overlooking the majestic Rakaposhi and had a long discussion – and discovered so much more about the region than I had read about in glossy travel blogs.

He told me that the rights of the people of GB are overlooked by the Pakistani government. Cases like that of Baba Jan didn't reach higher courts because the region isn’t recognised as a province of Pakistan. Their issues are always secondary. Elahi also expressed his outrage at the fact that Baba Jan was charged under the ATA when all he did was lobby for the distressed people whose houses drowned under the Attabad Lake, and that the issue doesn’t get enough mainstream media coverage.

Read next: What happens when the Indus doesn't reach the sea?

It was not until the 2009 Governance Order that the region was given its name that it has today. The order also allowed GB to have its own legislative assembly, but this reform has not even nearly solved its issues.

GB is part of the Kashmir dispute. Elahi explained that the people of GB are different than Kashmiris and have their own set of problems. Putting them both together in one category is not just neglecting their issues but also undermining their individuality. Interestingly, while Azad Jammu and Kashmir has a state setup, GB is run through ordinances.

As far as Baba Jan’s case is concerned, the situation is Kafkaesque. It is important to note that as of now, GB's appellate court doesn’t have a full bench of three judges. The case cannot go further till there is a full bench. Baba Jan continues to navigate the labyrinths of bureaucracy, like a Kafka character.

The Supreme Court gave an order earlier this year of granting fundamental rights to the people of GB and extending the top court’s power to the region. But the main caveat is still the Kashmir issue. As it stands, a final decision on the status of GB can only be reached once the plebiscite in Kashmir happens, or when Pakistan and India come to another settlement.

The recent events that have unfolded in India with the Article 370 being revoked and the hike in tensions between the two countries, there seems little hope of this happening anytime soon. In the meantime, the glaciers melt and people grieve.


Are you working for climate justice in Pakistan? Write to us at prism@dawn.com