But the continued existence of the KKH remains tenuous. On January 4, 2010, an earthquake shook loose a mountainside next to the highway, which tumbled onto the road and dammed the Hunza River, 100 kilometers from the Chinese border. Half a year later the newly formed, 100-meter deep Attabad Lake had inundated 27 kilometers of highway, cutting off 30,000 Pakistanis in remote villages leading up to China and all but halting the transport of goods in either direction. Cargo transport was bottlenecked at either side of the lake for months, with massive trucks forced on to rickety barges for the protracted crossing. During wintertime, the Khunjerab Pass to China closes due to heavy snow. Ice flows on the lake provide a new natural impediment to transportation.
In late 2010, a Chinese company was chosen to restore this section of the highway in a contract worth US$275 million. The Pakistani National Highways Administration estimated the repairs would be completed in two years. When former Prime Minister Pervez Ashraf finally broke ground on the project almost two years later, new estimates predicted a road link bypassing the lake would be complete by the end of 2014.
The big worry for China is that the earthquake and subsequent landslide that created Attabad Lake is not an isolated incident. The KKH winds through a tangle of high peaks where the three highest mountain chains in the world – the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush and the Himalayas – meet. The region is webbed with fault lines, making seismic activity a frequent and deadily reality. The epicenter of the 1974 Hunza earthquake that killed over 5,000 people was located less than 10 kilometers from the highway. In 2005, the Kashmir earthquake killed over 100,000 people; its epicenter was only a few dozen kilometers from the highway. These earthquakes demolished infrastructure and blocked parts of the highway for weeks at a time.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Landslides are also common occurrence even without the precipitating effect of earthquake tremors, and the road is regularly obstructed by boulders and rubble. Since much of the KKH is narrow, even a small landslide will immobilize traffic in both directions until the debris can be cleared.
Floods are another natural hazard plaguing the highway. Glacial runoff during the summer will wash out bridges, stranding freight and passenger traffic occasionally for more than a month at a time.
Other infrastructure is destroyed by coursing runoff as well: floods in 2010 severely damaged Chinese-built hydroelectric facilities and swept away transmission towers and power lines. Access to power in the northern regions is now tenuous in the best of times. In the winter, grid electricity may be unavailable for days to weeks on end as crippled hydroelectric facilities struggle to cope with lower rivers and heating demands. Often, electricity is rationed to the largest cities for a couple of hours in the evening.
The perceived lack of response to these frequent disasters has resulted in protest blockades by unhappy local residents. Protesting via roadblock remains the most expedient way for locals to have their demands heard. In June, a town blockaded the highway after their water supply was shut off by striking workers. These protests are often backed by local jirgas, assemblies of elders who command significant respect in the community. Any heavy-handed move to sweep human blockades aside is asking for trouble. Demonstrations are not limited to disgruntled residents. In May, the district governments of Gilgit and Diamer blocked the highway to protest a change in national governance structure they felt would hurt the government’s ability to hold on to neighboring Kashmir.