The Karakoram Highway: A Friendship Channel
Date : 19-04-2015
The “Friendship Highway” which connects Pakistan and China through the Khunjerab Pass is a modern feat of construction that defies conventional engineering wisdom. Cutting through the rugged mountain ranges of the Himalayas, the Karakorams and the Pamirs, carving its way into terrain which is susceptible to landslides and rock fall, it took over two decades to complete and witnessed the loss of life of hundreds of Pakistani and Chinese workers. Running 1300 km from Islamabad to Kashgar(Kashi in Chinese) it is the highest metal road in the world and traces one of the many routes of the ancient Silk Road.
The Karakorum Highway (KKH) is often called the Eighth Wonder of the World for its elevation and extreme difficulty of construction. The December 1979 issue of the New York Times magazine wrote: “It took twenty years and the life of one worker every mile, to carve through towering mountains, glaciers and isolated valleys to build 500 miles long Karakoram Highway through Pakistan to China.” Originally conceived as an all-weather link road between the northern Pakistani cities of Swat and Gilgit, it was first known by the title of the Indus Valley Road when the Army Corps of Engineers began work on it in 1958. In 1966, following the 1965 Indo-Pak war, and in the face of emerging security concerns, it was decided to extend the road to the Chinese border and link it to a road on the other side. The project was named the Karakoram Highway. From then, and up to its completion, there were periods of temporary delays caused by the changing political environment, budgetary constraints and the wars of 1965 and 1971 between India and Pakistan.
Work on the highway in Pakistan was to be completed in two phases: the first of these would oversee the construction of a shingled road from Thakot to Khunjerab, and the second would upgrade it to highway specifications. The first phase was completed by early 1971; however, further progress was temporarily halted when war broke out later that year. After the war, Pakistan was faced with a shortfall of finances and labor, and found itself unable to continue work on its portion of the highway. At Pakistan’s request, the Chinese Government sent its engineers to assist their Pakistani counterparts in the project. This joint effort resulted in completion of the work in 1978, and on June 18 that year, the highway was inaugurated by the Pakistani President General Zia-ul-Haq and the Chinese Vice Premier Kang Piao. However, it was not opened to the public for another few years.
Since then it has not only served as a connecting link between the two states, but has opened up a world of new communities hitherto unexplored. The tiny villages that dot the highway had previously existed in isolation for hundreds of years. The KKH opened for the traveler an unexpected plethora of locales, unique in culture and outlook; it also facilitated communication between the villages themselves and gave them representation in the mainstream life of Pakistan.
The Northern Areas began to change as their geographic isolation came to an end. Remote villages, which had lived in a state of disconnect from the rest of the country, witnessed rapid transformations in their socio-cultural setup with the advent of modern communication in their relatively closed off existence.
It also provided an economic boost to them in terms of tourism, increased employment opportunities and bigger markets for their goods. NGOs, in tandem with the government of Pakistan, began making their way into the newly accessible terrain and established programs for rural development that would prove to be especially beneficial for the women and girls of these communities. Health services in the region saw steady improvement, and schools were opened in the more far-flung areas. Parallel to the improvement in physical infrastructure and socio-economic well being, an effort was made to improve agricultural productivity. With greater access to these villages, tourists were able to interact with the local communities and observe first-hand the unique traditions and customs of each one.
The KKH had also been envisioned as a vehicle for fostering people to people contact between the two nations, an objective successfully achieved. Numerous trade ventures were undertaken by Pakistanis and the people of Xinjiang travelling up the Highway. The exchange of goods was accompanied by cultural exchange. In Kashgar, for instance, Pakistani films and music have acquired influence. While in the earlier years Pakistani traders travelling to Xinjiang had only engaged with the local Uighur community, over time they also began travelling directly to other provinces via Xinjiang and cultivated business relationships with the Han community of China as well.
The symbolism of the Karakoram Highway as a tribute to the exceptional relationship between Pakistan and China is as important as is its strategic significance, for it lies at the junction of Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and India, with a distance of no more than 250 km separating the five. One consequence is that Pakistan has acquired importance as a potential energy corridor, since the shortest and most secure overland connecting route between the landlocked, hydrocarbon-rich Central Asian states, and the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean is through Pakistan. Another ramification is that the Pakistani dry port of Sost can act as a channel of trade between the CARs, allowing their exports access to both China and Pakistan. The Central Asian countries and Pakistan are major producers of cotton. This also opens up the possibility of joint cotton and textile projects.
In May 2004, a quadrilateral trade agreement between Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China, came into effect. It was seen as a means to boost regional trade by using the Karakoram Highway and onward road links through China for the exchange of commodities between Pakistan and Kazakhstan. Road links between Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan via the KKH opened up a new panorama of trade between the two countries; large numbers of Pakistani traders travel directly to Bishkek, with Pakistani textile products being a particularly popular item in the Kyrgyz Republic. Tajikistan and Pakistan have recently begun work on a direct land link in the form of the Pakistan-Tajikistan Highway. It would link the Karakoram Highway to the Central Asian capital city of Dushanbe. The Highway is also the route parallel to which the TAPI pipeline linking Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India will run. Uzbekistan, as far back as 1997, had expressed an interest in using the Andijan-Osh-Irkashtam-Kashgar road link through Pakistan via the Karakoram Highway; more recently, Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani, on the occasion of a meeting with Uzbek President Karimov, expressed Pakistan’s desire to include Uzbekistan in the quadrilateral agreement with China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, and also offered to facilitate Uzbekistan with the use of the Gwadar and Karachi ports. All these measures, the core of which is formed by the Karakoram Highway, resulted not just in improved trade between Pakistan and the Central Asian nations, but also facilitated Pakistan in taking advantage of their energy resources (Tajikistan, in particular, has showed its willingness for such a venture; the CASA-1000 power project signed in March 2011 aims to transfer 1000 MW of surplus electricity from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to Pakistan). Moreover, these routes will also boost people to people contact through tourism.
An agreement was signed between Pakistan and China in July 2010 for the widening and upgrading of the Karakoram Highway; this would raise the operational capacity three-fold. It has been decided to open four new road links through the Khunjerab Pass, bringing the total number of roads connecting the countries to eight. The Highway not only provides China with enhanced economic influence in Central and West Asia, but also facilitates it with a route towards the waters in the South. As a link to Pakistan’s Gwadar Port, it would provide China with vital access to the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean.
In January 2010, a series of landslides near the Attabad village in Gilgit-Baltistan spilled over onto 19 km of the Karakoram Highway and blocked the Hunza River, creating a lake at the site. Large sections of the Highway were submerged as a result of the formation of Attabad Lake, which rapidly grew deeper with every passing day. There was a consequent displacement of some 450 families from their homes in Upper Hunza, as large stretches of agricultural land, and with it the physical infrastructure, went underwater, severely disrupting the lives of the locals and leaving them without means of sustenance, dependent on aid from the Pakistani Government and the international community. The emergence of the lake not only led to the supply route from the lower reaches being cut off, but also disrupted cross-border trade between China and Pakistan, as the only means left of navigating across the area is now by boat. The volume of bilateral land trade has suffered a setback to the tune of $8.7 billion.
Since the overland route between Pakistan and China has been cut off, regional trade has been adversely affected. The Highway is the shortest route from China to the Gwadar Port on the Balochistan coast. If the obstacle caused by the formation of Attabad Lake is not addressed properly, it stands to disrupt the flow of fuel and other commodities to and from West Asia. An agreement worth $275 million was signed between China and Pakistan in December 2010 for the repair of the section of the highway damaged by the lake. The surface of the lake was to be lowered by draining the water body and allowing the submerged route to be recovered. However, the engineering work on reducing the water level is making slow progress due to the extreme terrain and severe weather conditions.
In April 2011, the Pakistani government approved an amount of $25 billion for the expansion of the KKH by the National Highway Authority. It was decided that the submerged section would be relocated and the highway realigned to allow transit trade to resume. In August, a meeting was held at the Presidency, chaired by President Zardari and Prime Minister Gillani to review progress on the work being done. It was announced that a proposal by the China Reconstruction Bridges Corporation (CRBC) for the rehabilitation of the damaged portion of the highway, and the construction of 13 km road, had been accepted by the Pakistani Government. The NHA signed a contract with the CRBC to this effect. The work by the CRBC would only be undertaken once the water level of the lake has been reduced, efforts for which continue at a frantic pace.
The impact of the Karakoram Highway on the trade, communications, cultures and economies of Pakistan and China has proved to be a positive force for the region. The KKH has not only become a practical expression of the ever-strengthening Sino-Pak bilateral ties, but also a conduit for greater economic integration and cooperation within the broader region of Central Asia.