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How Chinese extraction is destroying Gilgit-Baltistan

Pakistan is allowing unlimited extraction and construction in Gilgit-Baltistan by China. The delicate ecology of the region will not be able to survive this exploitation.

A toxic 'friendship' for Gilgit-Baltistan as its fragile ecology is ravaged.

Pakistan’s current-day rulers (who represent the old colonial masters in manner and spirit) are nowhere to be found when locals need help against the ravaging floods and landslides. However, they do react swiftly when ecological disasters disrupt the vital road link with China. This was the standard reaction of activists of Hunza during discussions about the recent glacial lake-burst near Hasanabad which washed away houses and razed a major bridge on the Karakoram Highway.

Paving way for the Chinese companies to undertake natural resource exploitation and infrastructural development in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) has generated huge dividends for the Pakistani military. Under the banner of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), both nations are initiating work on mega dams, oil and gas pipelines, and uranium and heavy metal extraction in GB. As expected, this has come at a grave cost to local livelihoods and environmental sustainability. More importantly, GB provides over half of drinking and irrigation water to Pakistan and Chinese mega projects are showing an adverse impact on local climate leading to uncontrollable pollution and an irreversible depletion of aquatic ecosystems.

GB is dubbed as the roof of the world. GB rivals Czech Republic in square mileage and more than 94% of that land is made up of mountains, lakes and ice. There is more glacial ice in Pakistan than on Earth outside the Polar Regions and over 80% of those known 7,253 glaciers are located in GB. Further, over 60 of world’s tallest peaks with height above 20,000 feet from sea level lie here. The mighty mountain ranges of Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindukush converge right where River Senge (Indus) meets River Hanisara in GB.

So it is no exaggeration to claim that glacial death, pollution, abrupt weather transformations, human-induced loss of natural habitat and disappearance of ice sheets is not just detrimental to GB but will hurt safety and economy of entire Pakistan. World Bank warns that one-third of these glaciers will disappear by the end of this century causing famine of great magnitude in Pakistan. Melting ice sheets would also release viruses locked away for thousands of years causing unprecedented rise in occurrences of rare diseases. The United Nations claims that climate disasters could kill over 300,000 people in Pakistan in the next three decades and the alarming numbers would reach manifolds if we include the anticipated deaths from novel pandemics.

Deforestation is a major cause of landslides in GB. Increasing vegetation cover will not only help mitigate this but also help protect wild animals which are losing shelter and food resource at record speed. In many developed nations, animals and forests have same rights as humans and GB could ameliorate its sustainability model by following those nations. Imran Khan’s “ten billions tree tsunami” is a good initiative but it fails to compute net loss of ancient forests to rapid urbanization, mega dams, motorways and Chinese resource extraction projects. The loss of forests to Chinese hydro-electric projects in Khyber Pakhtunwa (KPK) and ‘Azad’ Kashmir is palpable.

Pakistan army arrived in GB with the promise of protecting locals against India. However, it has transformed itself into a horde snatching indigenous lands and imposing Chinese interests on locals. Despite repeated warnings from locals, military has confiscated hundreds of thousands of acres of private land in places like Skardo, Diamer, Shigar, Ghizer, Gilgit and Hunza and awarded to the Chinese companies. In one instance, army bulldozed and flattened homes in Makpondas to grant private land to a Chinese company to build CPEC-related economic zone. This happened at midnight and in the Holy month of Ramadan when poor families were preparing meals for the next-day fasting. Imagine a Muslim army of the so-called Citadel of Islam violating the sanctity of holy Islamic month, in which violence and attacks on unarmed civilians are entirely forbidden (haram).

Experts claim that by 2030, China will be able to produce twelve gigawatts of electricity for Pakistan from the on-going hydro-projects in GB. One of those projects is Diamer-Bhasha, the largest roller compact concrete dam in the world. The reservoir of Diamer will be over 100 kilometre-long and inundate most of the only double-cropping district of GB. It will also submerge more than 50,000 cultural and religious petroglyphs which date back to Sogdian, Scythian and Tibetan era.

It is claimed that in addition to improving irrigation water and energy supply, the Diamer reservoir will also help reduce silting in the downstream Tarbela dam thereby increasing its shelf life. However, Diamer dam is being built in a geologically volatile territory where earthquakes are a daily phenomenon. As the Indian plate continues to push into Asia; the hardest impact of that push is felt in and around Diamer and Astore districts where China is currently building Bunji and Diamer dams. Earthquake-induced damage to Diamer and Bunji reservoirs and resultant flooding will also damage Tarbela and bring havoc in Punjab and Sindh where almost 85% of Pakistan’s population lives.

And what will happen when Diamer reservoir also fills up with silt? Locals fear that authorities will then dam Skardo and Shigar valleys to prolong life of Diamer dam. This dam, dubbed as Katzarah, will be the largest in Pakistan and is expected to generate 15000 megawatt of electricity. Katzarah will displace almost two-third population of Baltistan region. In essence, as sacrificial lambs, people of GB will continue to put up with forced demographic changes and cultural annihilation to save the mighty Punjab.

It is nothing but shortsightedness that Pakistani military has turned locals of GB into an enemy to appease the Chinese. Pakistan is letting companies bring workers from China while tens of thousands of local college graduates remain jobless. The systematic settlement of outsiders and interference in local politics and cultural rituals is causing conflicts that never existed before. Those among the youth who protest against Chinese interference and encroachment face treason and terrorism charges. However, locals argue that it is no treason to protest against land theft and environmental destruction and that Pakistan army is committing real treason and terrorism by sacrificing the wellbeing of locals for China. Pakistan claims that locals of GB are exempt from taxation. However, reality is that they are paying advance tax in form of losing homes, land, dignity, culture, identity, livelihoods, and in many cases, lives.

Pakistanis from Cholistan, Seraik and Sindh should stand with the people of GB against these dams. These dams are reducing river flow and causing salinity to thousands of hectares of arable land in Sindh. The inflow of sea water will also inundate fishermen colonies along the coast and damage coastal national parks which are home to hundreds of endangered animal and plant species. Damming and diverting water has caused acute shortage of clean drinking water in Thal, Seraik, Sindh and Balochistan. Upstream dams have compromised the safety of coastal cities like Karachi which is home to over twenty million people.

River Indus is the foundation of Indian civilisation and its sustainability is paramount to survival of life in lower riparian zones and oceans. In this context, ignorant and venal politicians and military generals making decisions on resource development is a grave threat to the safety of GB. Few years back, a Pakistani cabinet member suggested bombing the Karakoram glaciers to increase water flow to Sindh. We need empathy, wisdom and acumen or water scarcity will become a permanent feature while speeding up climate change in Pakistan.

Like elsewhere, Chinese model of extraction and development is not sustainable. The bridge in Hunza can be built again but damage to local ecosystem is long termed and permanent. Standing with the people of Hunza not only means to speak up to end land grab and help secure land compensation. It also means to stop other parts of GB from turning into Hunza and this can happen only when we stop multinational companies from ecological destruction.


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