The lowari tunnel problem - Maureen Lines - Thursday, February 10, 2011

Source :

Chitral and the Kalash valleys have a reputation for beauty and hospitality, their mountains, lush green valleys and sparkling streams shine out from travel posters of Pakistan.

In winter, however, the valleys are very remote, due to inclement weather and inaccessible roads. In past years, when tourists flocked to the valleys in summer, the inhabitants, along with the hotel migrants, sustained themselves for best part of the year from the income they made. Now, however, due to the insecurity following the invasion of Afghanistan by the Americans and Nato forces, there are few visitors from down country, thereby depriving both Kalash and Chitralis alike, much needed income generation. Their only other major source for income is the forest and their agriculture. With the constant destruction of the former, the latter has been very much affected. There is natural soil erosion in the area and this has been exacerbated by the torrential floods. Climate change is also taking its toll with fresh springs drying up every year.

The Kalasha in particular (along with Chitrali women) have been marginalised with low level of education, although that is now improving, low employment, lack of income generation, social exclusion, gender inequality and lack of control over one’s health. All these factors have increased the vulnerability of these people. The provincial government over recent years has done its best to help both Kalash and Muslim communities, but their remoteness has always been a hindrance. Qualified teachers, medical personnel, good administrative officers do not wish to serve in such far flung areas. The Lowari Pass, blocked during the winter months, now has the Lowari Tunnel, but it is unfinished; the company building it and the powers that be have yet to settle on a proper schedule for the transport of vehicles and passengers from one side to the other, further frustrating travellers.

The tunnel has been the subject of conjecture for many years. Back in the eighties I went with an American survey team to study what had been built previously and had been abandoned some years before. The geologist amongst the group showed me the earthquake fault running on the edge of the arch at the opening of the tunnel on the Dir side. He shook his head and said this was no place to build a tunnel. Not only was the land unstable, but there was also water sediment. Now, many years later, the tunnel has ‘opened’, but not actually been finished. There has been no earthquake to destroy it, but where the other entrance is situated, on the Chitral side at Ziarat, flood waters have destroyed buildings, equipment and cost the life of an engineer.

A couple of years back, on one of the opposite banks of the nullahs, an avalanche took the lives of a number of Chitral Scouts. Last year I drove through the tunnel. Half the journey was done in the pitch dark. Our jeep ploughed through water most of the time. I gather nothing has changed except the tunnel authorities have admitted there are no more funds. One wonders how many more years before it is finished. Indeed, if it ever will be finished. Still the people from Chitral have only a certain time in which they can pass through the tunnel. The reason given last year was because the constant flow of traffic meant the labourers could not work. This year, the work has stopped except for maintenance. So why can’t the people travel through the tunnel at the time of their choice?

In the final analysis is the tunnel the answer to the problem of the Chitralis? If and when the tunnel is ever finished will it really bring great benefit to them? Will it just be part of a long road to Central Asia sending out waves to the distant valleys of unwelcome visitors, fuel tankers to supply Nato or American troops (Afghanistan may be in the news for years to come), pollution (many of the trees on the Lowari Top which have not been axed are dying from the pollution emitted from the vehicles), terrorism in one form or another, or will it really answer the problems of the people of Chitral, both Kalash and Muslim? Would not a government subsidised helicopter service prove to be more viable and safer? Economically, the cost may be borne more easily than the billions that have disappeared down that long tunnel.

In such a scenario, where there is desperate economic pressure on the households to provide even the most basic necessities of life, a catastrophic event such as was seen with last summer floods, puts unbearable pressure upon the people. Although some of the people benefited from WFP and food distribution from other agencies, they are still in need of rehabilitation assistance in the short and long term. Perhaps the rehabilitation should come first before the completion of the tunnel. Also, it would behove the federal government to make sure that the tunnel, built at such cost, should at least provide the service for which it was meant.

Although just about every one has been effected one way or another, by losing their standing crops such as corn, some their wheat, which was waiting for the thresher, fruit trees, walnut trees, their grape harvest (the last two, cash crops) and have had land washed away (in some cases people have lost their flour mills and irrigation channels), and should be helped now and in the long term, We have to be realistic and help those that are the most severely affected.

No comments:

Post a Comment