Climate Crisis: Hassanabad Bridge Collapse Hunza

(Damaged Hassanabad Bridge Hunza on KKH due to glacial outburst on Saturday, May 07, 2022)

Author: Haider Nazir Chatta

Extreme weather conditions and abrupt temperature rise in northern areas of Pakistan, A Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) has destroyed and swept away the strategically important Hassanabad Bridge on the karakoram highway in Hunza, district in Gilgit Baltistan Pakistan.

Hassanabad is among one of the villages of Hunza Valley, it comes under Hunza district and Tehsil Aliabad. It is renowned for its power generation as maximum hydro-power projects of Hunza are located here. The village is located at the height of 2100 meters between Aliabad and Murtazabad villages having total area of 2.1 sq/km.

The location of the Hassanabad Bridge was very important and it was a vital link between the northern areas of Pakistan and the rest of the country. This bridge was first constructed in 1972 and it connects Shinaki Hunza with Karimabad Hunza. This bridge was the only main source which connects Gilgit Baltistan with China via karakoram highway. In Hassanabad, Karakoram Highway passes over a side stream of the Hunza River which is fed from the Shishpar Glacier, located about 10km above Hassanabad. It was over the Hunza River’s tributary, between Aliabad and Murtazabad. The local authorities have started rehabilitation work and a temporary bridge will be installed soon.

GLOF is basically a glacial lake outburst flood caused by the sudden emptying of a glacial lake in the high topography regions like karakoram and Himalayas and has the power to destroy everything coming in its way. It can happen due to the erosion, a buildup of water pressure, an avalanche of rock or heavy snow, or massive displacement of water in a glacial lake when a large portion of an adjacent glacier collapses into it, and increase in temperature in the form of heatwaves also become serious reason for the GLOF.

“Shishper glacier started to move and surge towards an adjacent glacier three years ago and the GLOF phenomenon came into existence”. (Assistant Commissioner HUNZA Abdul Wahab Khan told Media on Sunday).

The head of Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority, Khalid Saleem, while talking to media said that a lake formed at Shishpar Glacier had burst and the water was affecting the Karakoram Highway including the KKH Bridge in Hassanabad. He was referring to the glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF).

This GLOF incident in Hunza occur due to rapid meltdown of shishper glacier. This induced erosion of glacial lake outburst flooding has damaged over 52 houses and KKH from some points, according to GB Chief Secretary. Furthermore hundreds of trees, cultivated land and two hydro-power plants were got effected as well. 22 houses have been vacated and residents have been shifted to safe place. According to officials the local population is not exposed to any sort of risk. However, the shortage of water, food and petrol in the areas which connects Gilgit city to other valleys of the region is a serious concern. Houses, orchards, powerhouses, and fiber optics have also been damaged in the area.

Impacts of the destruction of this bridge will be both economic and strategic as both Pakistan and China are dependent on this bridge for trade. Hunza is gateway of CPEC in the region so as this bridge is a life line for all smooth trade activities. Secondly, if we talk about local economy, the incident will affect the local traders as well because they are engaged with border trade since long. It also affects the region’s tourism industry as the domestic and international tourists would not be able to reach Hunza and it will put a stop on the earning of a lot of people who are attached with tourism industry.

This outburst has also caused connectivity issues as incident abruptly interrupted the traffic on Karakoram Highway from central Hunza to lower parts of the district. In the absence of the bridge, local administration has made it possible for vehicles (smaller traffic) to cross over the River Hunza a few kilometers northeast using the local Shamex Khai Road which would further connect them to a network of several other local roads. They could eventually cross the river again near the next village Murtazabad.

Hunza and Gilgit has long history of flooding and the element of GLOF in any form exists there from centuries. Below is the table which shows Hunza and Gilgit facing floods generated by the landslides and debris flow dam breaks.

Floods generated by the landslides and debris flow dam breaks.
(Source: THE CLIMATE AND FLOOD RISK POTENTIAL OF NORTHERN AREAS OF PAKISTAN)

In Hunza River basin, out of 110 glacial lakes, 47 lakes were characterized as major lakes. Majority of these belong to Supraglacial and Valley types. With the creation of a large landslide dammed lake at Attabad during February 2010, the villages along Hunza River up to Gilgit and downstream become highly vulnerable of Lake Outburst flood hazard. Proper monitoring of the lakes’ behavior and installation of early warning system can reduce risk of any flood disaster in the downstream areas.

Pakistan has the highest number of glaciers outside of the polar region and are melting at high speed due to climate crisis, increasing global temperatures resulting in heatwaves and many other forms. It results in GLOF which cause internal displacements, climate induced migrations and local instability. There is a dire need to engage global leaders, climate champions, International organizations and policy community in a series of dialogue to devise sustainable solutions for reduction in emissions and environment friendly interventions all across the country and especially in the vulnerable regions.

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