ATTABAD, Pakistan – ATTABAD, Pakistan (AP) — The water is rising day by day in this remote part of northern Pakistan, and with it, so is the fear among thousands who stand to lose their crops, their homes and maybe even their lives.
A massive landslide early this year formed a natural dam in the Hunza River, creating a lake that is consuming upstream villages as it expands. If the dam breaks, a flash flood could threaten downstream villages too. The landslide also has blocked the Karakoram Highway, a vital trade link to China, cutting off 25,000 people in the Upper Hunza Valley.
"Why can't the government remove this debris to give an outlet to the water? Doesn't it have sufficient machinery to do away with it?" asked Ajaz Ali, who has watched in frustration as the water slowly submerges his village of Shishkat.
The landslide was large even by the standards of the mountainous Hunza region, whose beauty is said to have inspired James Hilton's novel, "Lost Horizon," a tale of the mythical paradise of Shangri-La.
At least 19 people perished. The debris obstructed nearly 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) of the once fast-flowing river and a longer stretch of the highway, a popular high-altitude route for backpackers that cuts through stunning, snowcapped peaks.
Those stranded in Upper Hunza are relying on relief supplies ferried in mainly by helicopter. Hundreds of people have been displaced, and many are living in relief camps.
The turquoise lake formed by the landslide is more than 6.8 miles (11 kilometers) long, around 215 feet (65 meters) deep and is rising up to 1.5 feet (46 centimeters) a day, according to the National Disaster Management Authority. At least one major bridge in the area has been submerged.
Workers have removed more than 130,000 cubic yards (100,000 cubic meters) of debris in a continuing effort to create a spillway for the water to pour through. Some officials said they hope the spillway will be open by mid-April.
Clearing the Karakoram Highway will have to wait until the dam is breached and the water recedes, officials said.
"It is tedious work," said Farooq Ahmad Khan, a retired lieutenant general who chairs the National Disaster Management Authority.
Authorities downplayed the possibility of a flood, saying the barrier is unlikely to rupture, though the water may rise enough to overflow it by June.
Though relatively rare, such landslide dams and lakes have occurred in northern Pakistan before, according to Kenneth Hewitt, a professor emeritus in the geography and environmental studies department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada.
Two major floods were generated when similar landslide dams failed in the mid-1800s, causing tremendous destruction and loss of life, he said.
One, in 1858, was near the current disaster zone. The dam and resulting lake appeared to be even larger than today's. When the dam broke, it unleashed a torrent of water that lasted for days and swept past Attock Fort, a few hundred miles south, Hewitt said.
"It is of the utmost importance to monitor developments and have a warning and evacuation plan for communities downriver, and other emergency assistance measures ready for immediate implementation should the dam fail suddenly and quickly," Hewitt wrote in an e-mail.
The government said it is putting in place an evacuation plan.
Many in the Hunza area are potato farmers. Even if they don't lose their land to the creeping lake, many are likely to lose income, because access to the region is so curtailed.
"My mother says that when they wake up the first thing they ask about is the water level," said Adil Gulmit, a 21-year-old from the Gojal area in the north who is studying commerce in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.
"My father told me that this year we will not be able to cultivate potatoes because there's no seed or fertilizer available," he added, because the area is cutoff.
The government said it has sent in tents, blankets, jackets and tons of food.
"There are no shortages in the villages affected by the disaster," said Anwar Jamal, a magistrate supervising relief work. "We are transporting 200 bags of flour daily to the villages cut off by the calamity, beside medicines and other items of daily use."
China, a longtime ally that relies heavily on the Karakoram Highway for trade, has sent rice, sugar and other goods, according to the disaster agency. The Chinese Embassy in Islamabad said in a statement that a Chinese road company was working with Pakistani authorities in the disaster zone "by providing equipment and machinery as well as engineering consultations."
Those displaced by the disaster aren't sure what to expect.
Didar Ali has already lost much of his fertile, wooded land in Sarat village to the water. Living in a relief camp in Altit town, the 35-year-old farmer now wonders if his village is lost for good.
"The only thing we are doing here is waiting for the worst to come," he said.
Nahal Toosi reported from Islamabad.