Evacuations start amid fears of Pakistan lake burst

ATTAABAD, Pakistan Mon May 17, 2010 8:47am EDT

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ATTAABAD, Pakistan (Reuters) - Authorities in north Pakistan began evacuating people from villages on Monday, fearful that a lake created by a landslide will burst soon and trigger heavy flooding that could affect 50,000 people.

A landslide in early January blocked the Hunza River and created a lake 16 km (10 miles) long near Attaabad village. Twenty people were killed and another 25,000 stranded upstream who now struggle to remain linked to the main town of Gilgit.

A 24 meter-deep spillway was created to drain the lake and officials hope for a gradual erosion of the blockage.

However, they do not rule out the possibility that rising water levels from melting glaciers will create too much pressure, leading to a major breach in coming days.

"We are starting evacuation from today and there will be forced evacuation from tomorrow and the day after," Lieutenant Colonel Amer Siddique, a senior official of the National Disaster Management Authority, told Reuters.

He said no one would be left in vulnerable villages by Thursday.

Pakistan is already under fire for its handling of crippling power cuts and is struggling to contain a Taliban insurgency and strengthen its sluggish economy, so can ill-afford a catastrophe like widespread flooding.

Officials say boats have transported 272 tonnes of food and 75,000 liters of fuel upstream to stranded villagers.

"We have enough food and if there is any shortage, we can get (more supplies) in a day from other areas," said local government official Zafar Waqas Saad.

Some involved with relief efforts say the government has not done enough and is playing down the gravity of the situation.

"The government says enough food and supplies have been stored," said social worker Noor Muhammad. "If there is a serious crisis there are only supplies for one month."

About 14,000 people in 34 villages of the Gilgit-Baltistan region could be uprooted if the lake bursts, officials say, but residents fear flooding would affect 50,000 people.

Mukhtar Hussain, a 40-year-old farmer who was among those evacuated on Monday, said the steps taken so far were not enough.

"The tent provided to us is too small to accommodate my family of six. It is simply impossible to live in such a small tent. The government must do something about it," Hussain said.

The lake has already swamped at least four upstream villages, displacing nearly 6,000 people, said social worker Muhammad Darjat. A 2km stretch of the Karakoram highway has also been blocked, hampering trade between Pakistan and China.

(Additional reporting by Kamran Haider; Writing by Augustine Anthony; Editing by Michael Georgy and Paul Tait)

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