Landslide cuts crucial China-Pak road link, hits military supplies

In A major setback to Pakistan, the strategic Karakoram Highway that connects China with Pakistan has been closed for over three months now after parts of it were submerged by an artificial lake following a massive landslide in Hunza valley in January. With reports suggesting that the damage could take more than a year or two to repair, the highway may stay closed for a while.

The landslide has led to the creation of a huge artificial lake in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, better known as the Northern Areas in India, along the Hunza river. The lake, which is said to have spread over 24 km and is now over 100 metres deep at certain points, is expected to breach very soon.

The closure of the Karakoram Highway has badly affected the high-volume trade between Pakistan and China as well as military supplies. The highway connects the Gilgit-Baltistan area with Xinjiang province in China and has remained a source of military and strategic concern for India since it was built as a Sino-Pak "friendship highway". Four years back, the two countries had agreed to further broaden the 1,300 km-highway.

The massive landslide in January, coupled with melting of glaciers in the last month or so, has posed the biggest challenge to Pakistani authorities since the highway was constructed. Engaged in campaigns against terrorist outfits on its western border, the Pakistan army has been on high alert over the past few days over a possible breach in the lake.

Pakistan Army engineers are looking at building a bypass on the Karakoram Highway to re-establish connectivity. Reports indicate that boats are being sent across submerged sections to ferry goods.

With the closure affecting military supplies from Beijing to Islamabad, a Chinese defence delegation recently visited Pakistan to discuss alternative arrangements.

It's believed that two bridges on the highway, at Gulmit and Shiskat — the former an engineering marvel — are now submerged. The extent of damage and the possibility of building a bypass quickly can only be explored once there is a breach in the lake and the water drains out. By Pakistan's own estimates, outflow currently is less than 200 cusecs while the inflow is 2400 cusecs. There is little over 100,000 acre feet water in the lake and Pakistan's estimate is that the lake cannot hold more than 112,000 acre feet. So the breach is imminent any day.

As and when the breach occurs, Pakistan's disaster management authorities have estimated that 35-40 villages may be washed away. Some 40,000 people have apparently been evacuated to avert major loss of life.

Chinese engineers, along with Pakistan's Frontier Works Organisation, have constructed a spillway, but work on that too has been affected because of fear of more landslides.

The entire highway has always been viewed as an environmentally dangerous project given that it was built through an ecologically sensitive area and Pakistan, in fact, lost over 800 workers during the construction phase largely due to landslides.

Thereafter too, landslides have continuously disrupted movement on the road. But special arrangements have been made by the Pakistan army to ensure that the road is not blocked for a long time. Pakistan is also concerned about the possible collection of silt in the Tarbela dam, where the water from the lake would flow.

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