Sun. Oct 25th, 2020

Culture & Risk: Case study of Shimshal

by: David Butz

I work in Hunza, Pakistan, in the Karakoram, mainly in Shimshal, a rural community of about 1500 people. Most of my research has focused on social organisation and social change in this community, especially in the context of trans-cultural interactions. A by-product of these interests has been some peripheral attention to natural hazards and the way people understand and cope with them. I’m not a specialist in hazards, and therefore some of what I say may seem obvious or old-hat. I hope that a couple of examples from this community may be a useful contribution.

I’d like to talk briefly about three sets of hazards the community has faced, each of which has its important cultural dimensions.

1. Every so often the Shimshal River gets blocked by an advancing glacier upstream from the permanent settlement. The resulting lake poses a significant threat to the permanent agricultural settlement, transportation infrastructure (roads, bridges, trails), and other communities downstream. In the early 1960s the glacial dam burst, about half of the homes in the community were lost, much agricultural land was destroyed, and several people died. At that time the village was a nucleated settlement close to the flood plain, with agricultural lands spreading over a couple of alluvial fans; when the houses were rebuilt they were scattered among the fields, partly because the land on which the original houses had stood was washed away, and partly to de-intensify the risk of subsequent glacier dam bursts. In my understanding, this change in settlement pattern initiated something of a cultural change in the community. People relate this dispersal of homes to changes in understandings of family, community, privacy, property, and I have observed that people in Shimshal sometimes draw upon the current (relatively recent) settlement pattern in support of their identity as Wakhi, and to distinguish themselves from non-Wakhi inhabitants of northern Pakistan.

Question 1.1 asks how socio-cultural background influences attitudes and responses to disaster risks. I guess my point here is that it is probably also important to consider how disaster and responses to it inform cultural identity and practices. Recently, there has been some discussion of re-nucleating the settlement so that provision of potable water, electricity, etc. will be easier. Arguments within the community against re-nucleation seem to focus more on issues of identity (what Shimshal IS; who Shimshalis ARE) than on issues of disaster (even though the glacier dam lake continues to form occasionally, to much consternation). To the extent that ‘risk’ enters this discussion, it is the risks to identity that dominate. Meanwhile the community is aggressively settling the floodplain with schools and other buildings, tree nurseries, and fields, and seems to be relying mainly on the hope of an imported technological fix to deal with the threat of a dam burst flood. This may indicate the extent to which local culture has been colonised (or perhaps, less dramatically, influenced) by developmentalist and scientistic discourse.

2. When I first went to Shimshal, its access to the main Hunza Valley was by footpath, about five day’s walk and involving a glacier-crossing. Different paths were used in winter and summer. One route dominated because it was shortest and least arduous, but different routes out of the community existed. Parts of the paths were often blocked by landslides or rockfalls, but other less convenient routes were available, and people operated with an expectation of delays. A jeepable road now reaches Shimshal, and the journey to the main Hunza Valley (and the Karakoram Highway) takes about three hours. People depend heavily on rapid and reliable access to Hunza and Gilgit, and the delay of a couple of days causes considerable inconvenience and even risk to people, not least because rapid access to health care in Gilgit has become an expectation. The road is almost as susceptible to land and rockslides as the path was, much harder to repair, and without practical alternative routes. Although the likelihood of a landslide event causing a block is arguably no greater than it was 20 years ago, people are now more vulnerable to such events because people’s lives are now organized with the expectation of rapid and reliable transportation. On the other hand, the road when it is open (as it usually is) allows people to mitigate a host of other daily risks… toothache, childbirth (which is increasingly understood as risky), illness, food shortage, etc. For people in Shimshal the road is to an extent an identity resource; it helps them to understand themselves as people who are modern, on-the-go, connected, and that adds identity-risk to the risks associated with road blocks. Of course, this identity is more available to some people than others (as you might expect, it is most available to youngish, well-educated men from relatively prosperous households), and therefore identity vulnerability to roadblocks is unevenly distributed.

3. In 1974 most of Shimshal’s high pastures were incorporated into the newly formed Khunjerab National Park (KNP), and according to park regulations, Shimshalis were prohibited from grazing animals, hunting, or harvesting any of the resources in the community’s most important high pastures. Since then, and in the face of various park management plans, the community has refused to comply with the regulations, and while it has abandoned hunting and introduced a variety of conservation initiatives, it has not reduced its grazing activities. For most of the last 30 years a skittish truce has existed between Shimshal and the park management, with occasional flare-ups and direct confrontations. Most Shimshalis would say that the greatest risk to the community’s survival in material and identity terms is the risk that the KNP management plan will be fully implemented. About a decade ago Shimshali yak herders began to notice that wild blue sheep (one of the species the park was meant to protect) in Shimshal territory were dying of some strange disease. People perceived this as a natural hazard, in two ways: first, as a naturally occurring event which threatened their continuing access to their pastures, according to the logic that any evidence that wildlife were not thriving in Shimshal might spur KNP to clamp down on the community; second, a naturally occurring event that threatened Shimshali identity, because Shimshal without blue sheep would no longer be Shimshal, in the same way that Shimshal without its high pastures would no longer be Shimshal. I was involved with the community in organizing a veterinary expedition to the high pastures to try to diagnose the disease; we found that the blue sheep are suffering from scabies (sarcoptic mange), which they are contracting by grazing the same pastures (although in different seasons) as domestic sheep and goats. The blue sheep were badly harmed by scabies which were endemic and therefore not that destructive in domestic livestock. This wasn’t good news for Shimshal, because it establishes a link between what is ailing the blue sheep and Shimshali grazing practices. Shimshalis have responded by committing themselves to injecting all sheep and goats in the community twice a year for several years (in order to stop re-infecting the blue sheep population), and seem to be moving toward a long-term reduction in the numbers of sheep and goats they graze in the high pastures. These strategies for mitigating a natural disaster (that turns out not to be so natural) have something to do with material instrumentality (keeping KNP off the community’s back), and everything to do with cultural identity. The high pastures mean something to Shimshalis that is not separate from their instrumental use, but which goes beyond their instrumental use. The pastures lose some of their meaning without a healthy population of blue sheep, and so does being Shimshali lose some of its meaning without such a population. I don’t think the steps Shimshal has taken to revive the blue sheep population (and the additional risks of involving outsiders in this matter) can be understood without considering these identity issues. By dealing with the problem as they are by using ‘modern science’ to care for the blue sheep, the community is nurturing its ‘traditional’ identity, enhancing its sense of itself as ‘modern, on-the-go, and connected,’ and bringing these two aspects of identity into cooperation. The latter is a constant challenge for a rapidly modernizing community like Shimshal, and I doubt that any analysis of the community’s response to hazards (or preparedness, etc.) can be well-understood without considering this challenge.

 (The writer is Professor, Geography Director, MA Program in Geography and Co-editor, ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies, Brock University, St. Catharines, CANADA )

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Forwarded by: Ali Musofir

5 thoughts on “Culture & Risk: Case study of Shimshal

  1. Thank you Ali, for this. It is really amazing to read such scholarly contributions by professional researchers.

  2. It is a superb contribution of Mr,David who has worked in Shimshal and has brought fourth the so hidden facts through his research ,and Mr. Ali’s kind attention in making it accessible to all the readers of the pamir times.
    Such researches should be carried out by the graduating students of the area at least, during their thesis to explore and uncover the many hidden facts in our culture that can address the socio economic, agricultural, architecture, health and several other fields of study.

    Regards Habiba (FJWU)

  3. good research work. I learnes a lot about shimshal valley and brief view of their livilhoods patterns…..Excellent job

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