Territorial Re-Arrangements: Attabad Lake, a Potential Border

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Territorial Re-Arrangements: Attabad Lake, a Potential Border

This essay is an attempt to reflect upon the territorial challenges that are faced by post-conflict and emergency zones of Pakistan. It speculates on

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This essay is an attempt to reflect upon the territorial challenges that are faced by post-conflict and emergency zones of Pakistan. It speculates on the temporary and permanent consequences of an event on a space, using the Attabad Lake incident as the point to explore social and cultural ramifications of crisis and to comment upon the larger concepts of borders, boundaries and the emerging visual culture. This essay fluctuates between the transformations triggered by the lake and the governance strategies being deployed to secure urban spaces.
The Attabad Lake incident sets forth a debate on governance, control and territory that require our immediate attention. This writing is in response to the Laajverd Visiting School “Conceiving Crises” conducted in Hunza on the Attabad Lake event in August 2014.
Crises are instants of shifting modalities; they mark points of change in a multilayered program. It is a specific period of time that is crucial in several ways of identification and determination of a system that is being regulated in an escalated force field.
To understand an area or to get acquainted with a particular community in a geographic setting, it is perhaps helpful if one could share the same worldview[i]. In the regional areas, people depend on the geographic landscapes to build their socio-economic and cultural lives. The settlements in Hunza are comfortably nestled in the jagged cliffs, steep terrains, and rock faces of the valley. Lush green lines drawn horizontally across mountains, almost like a border, indicate water channels feeding farmlands and built settlements. The upper side of the line is barren while the lower side of the line shows terraced farms, orchards and houses. Hunza Valley is fed by the Ultar glacier through water channels carved out centuries ago channeling water to desired areas for farming and drinking purposes. Access and used water flows further down and joins the Hunza River. Water is a natural resource that has been managed and governed by men in these valleys for a long time; practices and processes have developed and emerged over time to tackle water content, flow, temperature and accesses to be used for growing, drinking farming and producing energy. When the landscapes begin to shift, the worldview (Olsen, Lodwick, & Dunlap, 1992) is transformed. Attabad is located a few kilometers from the main Hunza Valley; water channels and farmlands on the mountain are said to have caused a part of the mountain to slide down into the Hunza River, ultimately blocking it in the year 2010. Attabad Lake was formed; a 35km long chunk of the Karakoram Highway, the only transportation link in the valley that also connects China to the warm waters, was submerged in water ultimately resulting in a separation between Hunza and Gojal. Relief activities and IDPs (internally displaced persons) are divided between Hunza and Gojal. The Pakistani government extended support to the Hunza side while China offered relief goods for Gojal. The presence of the lake in the valley makes transportation and communication a difficult task. The Chinese government has extended quite an amount of aid for the IDP[ii] in Gojal and is continuing to do so.
Relief performs the role of a tranquillizer. It instantly seeps into the chaotic system, organizes it, and eases it. Relief operations and activities are temporary as they induce into the immune system, a dose of tranquillizer at the peak of a problem, once the body is sedated, it will respond differently to the disease. It has already learned to cope with it. Likewise, urban reforms based on the principle of relief induce something that I call the Secure Space Drug (SSD). The security mechanism intends safety but cannot ensure it. They are installed, tried, tested and modified by time. Public amenities such as a street, pedestrian way, road, market places have been induced with a security drug, present to ensure operations as long as possible by trying out different mechanisms of security that get intensified as time goes by. To understand the core intent of the space drug and its effects on the movement, it can be read through its properties that, if chemical, involves the strategic planning of or related to the ‘movement’ of pedestrians and vehicles. The dynamics around allowing movement under different situations and conditions and laying patterns in order to ensure circulation can then be constituted as the chemical properties of movement. The authority in-charge of the security restricts access to certain areas and channels the traffic on different routes. The physical property based on the chemical property relates to material in space. The matter acts in channeling and regulating movement in a certain space. The physical property can also be perceived as an intervention or a disruption or deceleration of speed within movement but this system of security measure ensures movement. Both these properties affect the visual cultures of the urban landscape. The barriers and checkpoints that are installed at various points are the physical property of movement mechanism.
Humanitarian interventions, according to the UN World Summit in 2005[iii], develop innovative approaches that link relief to other forms of intervention, such as development and peace building, to more effectively deal with the multidimensional challenges of ‘complex emergencies’. Efforts to restore the transportation link between the north and the warm waters has led to the creation of a tunneled highway cutting across the mountains beside the Attabad Lake. Large warehouses and storage units have also been set-up along the road in Gojal to keep the work pace efficient. Due to this, employment opportunities have risen for the people in Gojal contrary to the response they experienced from their own government. Employment opportunity promises a better future for the affected. Since the lake poses a huge challenge for transportation and communication, food items and other packaged goods have been transported from China. Everyday household use items are laden with Chinese names and instructions for use, hence teaching the local people, basics of the Chinese language. The local bazaars have Chinese symbols and items on their name boards. The Chinese population in Gojal has also increased in the recent past due to the construction of the highway tunnel project and the area now resembles a Chinese regional province. Sost is the highest dry port in the world that is located a couple of kilometers from Gojal. Goods arriving from China are checked at Sost port and shifted and transported down South through Pakistani trucks. Due to the formation of Attabad Lake, which hinders transportation of heavy vehicles, Chinese trucks and carriages move further down into Gojal to offload items in boats that transport them across the lake. Sost dry port now only acts as a checkpoint for items/goods. A few Pakistani trucks are still restricted to Gojal unable to cross the lake; an unsuccessful attempt to transport trucks over the lake resulted in a sanction for crossing heaving vehicles in boats over the lake. Chinese visual symbols and language have become quite evident in Gojal province. The visual culture seems to have erased the political border between the two countries. It becomes interesting to read the presence of this lake through Latour’s “thing theory”; this lake has a form of subjectivity and an agency of its own. Bill Brown takes a similar approach to “thing theory”; he explains, “we have always lived off the splendor of the subject and the poverty of the object…[Objects are] shamed, obscene, passive,” and the “alienated, accursed part of the subject,” (Brown 8). Objects can be understood as docile in contrast to things. Things are not merely props, tools, or background characters rather they become apparatus. Instead, objects become things at a critical instance, the moment of crises that alters the relation between the object and the subject. The landslide causes the disruption of the road and formation of the lake, which has eventually become a geographic border that crucially restricts and restrains movement in and across the valley.
Chinese presence in Gojal has increased and strengthened in the past few years not only as a visual element but also as a socio-economic factor. Pro-Chinese sentiments are felt in Gojal valley for they have been saved, favoured and helped by the Chinese government in the times of crisis and are still being supported through employment opportunity and relief goods. The Chinese government not only offered relief but also introduced an apparatus for rehabilitation; employment through the new transportation link construction project. Gojal’s local population does not direct the same sentiments towards Hunza or the Pakistani Government as they feel a strong neglect and lack of communication from the other side of the Attabad Lake. The lake acts as a border that restricts access, communication and control of the province on the other side of the lake. With limited population and regional area between the lake and the Khunjerab Pass (Pak-China border), Gojal seems to have become a liminal zone.[iv]
In post-conflict and post-emergency zones, spaces of insurgency have become liminal zones, where access is restricted and the movement is calculated and monitored. These spaces have emerged in the urban areas of Pakistan where the visual culture follows the security apparatus. The conflicting rhythm of the inhabitants of the city and the evolution of the urban fabric is important to analyze in relation to the visual culture of the city. A critical study of the securitisation and the symbols attached to it project a sense of boundary. Areas are constantly being cordoned off, en­closed and barricaded; movement in space is regulated, checked and controlled. Strict boundaries are laid out in order to check activities taking place in a certain area. This also requires any barren space, void or land in the city and its peripheries to be identified and taken care of in a certain manner that no area is left unchecked. Spaces are kept separate so that the regulating body can keep a control on the situation. These boundaries create forts within the city with strict surveillance systems.
Although the Lake has become an obstruction, or, is more likely seen as one, it is required that the link with Gojal from this side of the Lake is established again. The lake should be used an opportunity, a junction, a point of intersection, rather than a border that cuts the places, people and cultures apart. Attabad Lake, the beautiful water body between mountains holds great potential for the affected people around it as a natural reservoir and a scenic place. Innovative efforts and actions should be directed towards bringing the people around the lake/affected by the lake together to gather around it and initiate dialogue for potential progress.
Brown, Bill. “Thing Theory”. Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1, Things. (Autumn, 2001), pp. 1-22
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the social; an introduction to actor network theory. Oxford University Press Inc., New York, 2005
Olsen, M. E., Lodwick, D. G., & Dunlap, R. E. Viewing the world ecologically. San Francisco: Westview Press, 1992
[i] We have referred to worldviews as “mental lenses,” or cognitive and perceptual maps that we continually use to find our way through the social landscape surrounding us.
[ii] Internally Displaced Persons: IDPs legally remain under the protection of their own government – even though that government might be the cause of their flight. As citizens, they retain all of their rights and protection under both human rights and international humanitarian law. UNHCR.
[iii]After the former Secretary-General’s call, the UN General Assembly created the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which presented recommendations to the General Assembly that informed the ‘responsibility to protect’.
[iv] A porous space that has a re-organised structure and is rapidly losing its national identity. Acts like the humanitarian camp – that is looked after by an agency, which does not govern or rule them, but it manages them. This agency is successfully managing populations and land to its own interest i.e. trade.


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