Swelling Pakistani 'lake' threatens villages downstream

McClatchy NewspapersMay 27, 2010 

ISLAMABAD — An enormous lake, created in the far northeast of Pakistan this year by a freak landslide, is about to burst its banks, and experts fear that it could produce a wall of water that would wash away everything in its path.

Under the worst-case scenario, a 65-foot-high wave would gush from the lake in the mountainous district of Hunza all the way down to the Tarbela dam — a distance of some 500 miles — through a network of narrow river valleys, ending close to Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

The lake was created in January when a massive landslide came down on the village of Attabad, damming the Hunza River. Officials at the National Disaster Management Authority, a government body for tackling crises, said Thursday that the lake would reach the top of its dam by the weekend.

Army engineers frantically cut a channel through part of the lake dam and completed a "spillway" by the middle of May, which aims to provide a safe channel for the water to drain from the lake back into the path of the river. The lake was 4 feet below that channel late Thursday, but reports said the water was rising about 1 inch per hour.

"The chances of an outburst are very remote," said Sajid Naeem, a spokesman for the National Disaster Management Authority. "But we are ready if there is such a breach."

The government has been strongly criticized for not acting before the lake grew so large.

The azure-blue lake — fed by melting glaciers and rainfall, and now more than 12 miles long and some 360 feet deep — already has swallowed a number of villages. Thirty-six more villages that are in its path downstream have been evacuated, and more than 16,000 people have been moved to higher ground and put into temporary camps or have found shelter with friends and family.

The lake also has cut off the strategically important Karakoram Highway, which links Pakistan and China.

"Our village is just a few feet above the river, so in case the water comes, it would be a disaster," said Binyamin, a 28-year-old who goes by one name and is from the village of Rahimabad, some 50 miles downstream from the lake.

The entire 2,000-strong population of Rahimabad was moved to higher ground 10 days ago and housed in tents on the grounds of school buildings.

Anita Mustafa, a 12-year-old girl from Rahimabad who was evacuated along with seven family members, told McClatchy by phone: "There's a lot of heat here, and we can't study in the camps. It is so hot, people are getting skin diseases."

Averting disaster depends on the spillway, which is 80 feet deep, 150 feet wide and 1,500 feet long, according to officials.

David Petley, a specialist on landslides at Britain's Durham University, published a report in March that warned of a possible tsunami if the dam wall suddenly gave way.

If the spillway isn't big enough or its walls crumble, a catastrophic collapse of the dam could be triggered, sending a wall of water downstream.

(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

ON THE WEB

Updates on the lake in Hunza from British expert David Petley

Updates from Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority

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McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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