by Roheena Ali
The Karakoram Highway (KKH), often referred to as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’, stands as a testament to human ingenuity and an engineering marvel connecting Pakistan and China. The 1,300-km highway meanders through some of the world’s most stunning landscapes and cultures and mountain ranges, including the Karakoram, Himalayas, and Hindu Kush. The KKH offers travelers a unique and awe-inspiring journey through lush valleys, waterfalls, and picturesque villages.
However, travelers must also be prepared for the challenges it presents, including safety concerns, remote conditions, and infrastructural limitations. A trail of tragic accidents and the loss of hundreds of precious lives annually on the highway reveals a darker reality that must be addressed urgently.
The idea of connecting Pakistan and China through a highway was conceived in the early 1960s, with the main objective to enhance bilateral trade and communication between the two countries. The construction of the road began in 1966, jointly undertaken by the two governments. It was an ambitious project as it faced formidable challenges, including extreme weather conditions, harsh terrain, and high altitudes.
Nevertheless, the indomitable spirit of the engineers and labourers prevailed, and this magnificent feat of engineering was completed in 1978, marking a historic moment in the region’s development and connectivity.
Initially, the highway was a gravel road, but over the years, with the increase in the flow of trade and tourism, it was upgraded and widened in the 1990s.
The KKH serves as a crucial artery for trade and tourism, making it a vital source for the economic development, and well-being of the regions it passes through. It has been instrumental in promoting trade, tourism, and cultural exchanges, but it has also presented several challenges, particularly in terms of road safety.
The mountainous region is particularly susceptible to unpredictable weather conditions and related risks; during harsh weather, particularly in monsoon season, the highway becomes perilous, and at times blocked for weeks.
Furthermore, the KKH is known for its treacherous curves and turns; Portions of the highway are poorly maintained, leading to bumpy rides and discomfort for travelers.
Despite its strategic and economic importance, the authorities seem indifferent toward its upkeep and safety measures. The absence of protective barriers along these dangerous sections increases the likelihood of accidents, especially during adverse weather conditions.
Some of the major safety-related issues are the faulty design, sharp curves, absence of guard rail or fence, tunnels, and trauma centres, poor maintenance, lack of alternate routes in areas prone to climate-change-induced disasters such as glacier lake outbursts floods, avalanches, landslides, and heavy snowfall.
As a result, travelers are left at the mercy of nature’s wrath, and accidents become all too common. The heart-wrenching accidents on the KKH raise critical questions about the responsibilities of the parties involved.
To address these issues and to ensure the uninterrupted flow of traffic and the safety of travelers on the KKH, several steps need to be taken:
The primary responsibility lies with the two governments to allocate sufficient resources for regular maintenance, and the construction of tunnels or installing protective fences in hazardous areas.
The highway’s design falls under the purview of engineers. It is imperative that engineers and experts work in collaboration to identify hazardous stretches and implement suitable safety measures.
The design and construction of the KKH must follow strict risk assessments and international road safety standards. Engineers and road authorities should identify dangerous stretches and implement appropriate safety measures. Ongoing evaluations of the road’s condition and safety protocols are essential.
Local administrations need to ensure road safety, regular inspections, timely responses to hazardous conditions, engage with communities living along the highway, and raise awareness about road safety and disaster management.
Travelers on the KKH should be educated about road hazards. Awareness campaigns should target both drivers and tourists to follow road safety practices. Encouraging responsible driving behavior can significantly reduce accidents.
The KKH’s economic and cultural importance should be balanced with the well-being and security of those who rely on it – whether for trade, tourism, or daily transportation.
Drivers must exercise extreme caution while navigating these treacherous bends, but even the most experienced can fall victim to the unforgiving terrain.
Installation of safety barriers and guardrails: Along the treacherous bends and turns, install safety barriers and guardrails to prevent vehicles from veering off the road and reduce the likelihood of accidents.
Conduct regular inspections and maintenance to ensure the highway remains in optimal condition. Upgrading the road to meet international safety standards, including better lighting and signage, is crucial.
Engage with local communities living along the highway to raise awareness about road safety and disaster management. Local authorities should collaborate with the public in identifying safety concerns and implementing solutions.
Enforce strict rules against speeding and reckless driving on the highway. Set up checkpoints and employ technology to monitor and penalize violators, emphasizing the importance of safe driving practices.
Only through collective effort, unwavering commitment, and prioritizing human lives over other considerations can we turn this perilous highway into a safe passage for generations to come.
Let us not forget that every voice raised against negligence and every action taken toward safer roads could save countless lives. The time for change is now, and together, we can rewrite the future of the Karakoram Highway, making it a highway of wonder, not woe.
Roheena Ali is an M.Phil scholar and a gender specialist currently working at Skardu, Baltistan.