New tunnels over Attabad Lake threaten boatmen livelihood: report

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Boatmen in Gilgit-Baltistan fear losing their livelihood after the completion of four large tunnels along the south shore of Attabad Lake, according to a report in the Washington Post.

“We are going to lose 50 per cent of our business, probably more,” said a 47-year-old boat operator, Malik Shah. “Maybe the tourists will still come for us, but we do not know that, so maybe not.”

In January 2010, a massive landslide blocked the flow of River Hunza, creating a natural dam and burying 20 people beneath it. The rising water displaced thousands of residents and submerged countless villages, fields, orchards a well as a 19-kilometre stretch of the Karakoram Highway (KKH).

During the last five years, boatmen have carried people and cargo, including dead bodies, rare gemstones and fugitives, between central Pakistan and China. Although the crossing is a pleasure for tourists, for villagers, truckers and smugglers it was more of a bother since they had to take the hour-long ride in hand-made wooden boats several times a week.

Earlier this month, after several years of construction, Chinese engineers completed four large tunnels along the south shore of the 13-mile-long Attabad lake. Traffic will now flow on the newly diverted Karakoram Highway which will cause hundreds of boat operators and day labourers to lose their livelihood.

The 20-foot boats are as colourfully painted as Pakistani trucks and are powered by two engines and steering wheels taken from junked cars control six-foot rudders. These boats wait on each side of the lake, where the highway disappears under the water, for customers who pay around $3 to $5.

These boats also transport cars, sport-utility vehicles which would drive directly onto the boats using boards as ramps, as well as, livestock. However, trucks laden with cargo are too heavy to get on the wooden boats so the cargo is offloaded onto the boat and then reloaded onto another truck at the other end of the lake.

The whole process took hours and created a lot of jobs for the people of that region, many of whom survive on just a few dollars a day.

“It was fixed, permanent income,” said Ikram Ali, 32, who made about $350 a month offloading trucks. “Now, I wonder if I will stay penniless for days.”

Another problem for boatmen is that the lake, which was initially 350 feet deep, is now gradually being filled in by silt from glacial runoff. Many boats this summer ran aground near the shoreline.

“It’s filling in,” said Riazullah Baig, a local tour guide. “In another 10 years, it may just be a riverbed again.”