Once upon a time in Hunza Valley



Posted on 14 May 2008  | 
By Ali Gohar Hunzai.

I am a resident of Hunza Valley, situated in the north of Pakistan. A few days ago, I was thinking about the changes that had occurred in my valley since I was a child. I was quite shocked to know that while we enjoy modern facilities today, we have lost many things which were part of the natural environment of these areas and are now irreversibly lost. I would like to share the changes I have observed in three decades in Hunza Valley and the Karakoram areas where I was raised.

I remember when I was a school going child in mid-seventies. The winters used to be severe. Everything froze, the land, water in the streams, even the water stored inside homes. Running water in the streams froze and it made at least four inch layer of ice. There were no pipes to supply water to homes so the women of the area collected water from the nearest stream. In the morning a man used to break the layer of ice and make a hole to pass a bucket into the stream. Then the whole day the women would collect water from the same spot and the following night again it froze and this cycle continued up to mid-February.

In the month of February the weather would change a little bit. People would start ploughing the fields. On some days the land would be frozen and the farmers could not plough the fields. At that time cash crops were not introduced in Hunza Valley, so each household was dependant on subsistence farming of wheat, barley, buckwheat maize and potatoes.

People had strange traditions at that time. No farmer would plant any kind of trees on his farm. The logic was that the shade of the tree would disturb the growth process of the crop. After the harvest the whole village remained open and barren. Someone would grow spinach, carrots or other vegetables just to store for winters; usually people were dependent on potatoes and dried meat stored in the month of December.

I remember in the months of February and March hundreds of crows, some with red beaks and others with yellow would migrate along with hundreds of wild pigeons. All these birds would remain in Hunza for some weeks then migrate again to unknown destinations. Similarly in the months from June to August we could observe quails and birds hovering above the wheat crop.

After the construction of Karakoram Highway (1966-1978) a great socio-economics change took place in the Hunza valley and over all Karakoram areas. People started importing wheat and other needed items form the south. They become fewer dependants on subsistence farming of wheat.

In 1982 Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) was initiated in these areas. It gave the idea of cash crop. Initially the idea of cash crop seemed to be ridiculous to the people. It was a deviation from the customs of the area. Many people argued that fruit is not the substitute of bread. The plantation also raised issues and disputes among and between the neighbours but with the passage of time these things settled down. Not more than 5 years had passed when people had the results. The fruit gave a better financial return than wheat. It became a trend to plant fruit trees and grow potatoes. Within less than a decade the wheat crop came to a minimum in the region.

When I look back at Hunza of mid-seventies I see that a revolutionary change has taken place. The farms are now completely covered with fruit plants and there is abundant fruit to sell in the market and even to eat round the year for households. We have basic facilities of hospitals, roads, better schools, electricity, tourism and the Internet.

I feel that the fragile ecosystems of these areas have been greatly affected due to many reasons. I wonder if this is only a case with Hunza or there are similar cases in other parts of the mountainous areas. If there are, then how can we play our role for sustainable development of the mountainous areas of Karakoram, Himalayas and Hindukush?

What we have lost in this period of time is irreversible. We experience less snowfall compared to the seventies and earlier. The winters are less severe; now the streams do not freeze and young ones cannot enjoy skating and also waterfalls do not make icicles that we used to play games with. I loved seeing birds hovering over the fields. We have lost quails, pigeons, crows and wolves in winters, we have lost bald eagles that always hovered over the area spreading whitish brown wings and we have lost rabbits and vultures in the meadow. People had myths about the bald eagles. My grand mother connected the movement of these birds with the ruling family of Hunza and declared the presence of these birds a good omen.

Moreover, Ultar Glacier, the main source of water for central Hunza has retreated about one and a half kilometre below the point where it was in the seventies and early eighties. There is much more human activity in the Ultar meadows and its biodiversity is the victim of hunting, over grazing constructions due to tourism activities.
River Indus near Skardu in Pakistan.
River Indus near Skardu in Pakistan.
© WWF-Pakistan Enlarge
Young children in Pakistan. The author was going to school in the seventies.
Young children in Pakistan. The author was going to school in the seventies.
© WWF-Pakistan Enlarge
After the construction of Karakoram Highway, a great socio-economics change took place in the Hunza valley.
After the construction of Karakoram Highway, a great socio-economics change took place in the Hunza valley.
© WWF-Pakistan Enlarge

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