[Opinion] Shimshal Pakistan; A resilient community

Pam Henson 

The devastating floods in central Pakistan have eclipsed the ongoing disruption in the far north east of the country caused by a huge landslide in January last year.

The Karakoram highway links China with the Pakistani ports of the Arabian Sea at Karachi and Gwador. It is a major trade and transport route, passing through the rugged 7000 metre spires and apricot orchards of the Hunza region on its way south.

In January 2010 a huge landslide demolished most of the village of Attabad in Hunza, killing 19 people.  The Karakoram Highway was blocked 12 kilometres north of Karimabad, once a thriving tourist resort,  and over the next few months the Hunza river slowly backed up behind the slip.

After six months a 21 kilometre long and 100 metre deep lake  had formed drowning the pretty farming villages of Shishkat and Gulmit. Villagers dismantled their homes and mourned their waterlogged or completely submerged fields and orchards. For people who mostly eat what they grow the flood was catastrophic.

The effect of the new lake on the  remote village of Shimshal was less direct but almost as damaging. Separated from the Karakoram Highway by an intimidating gorge, Shimshali live a harsh life with few amenities. However in 2003 the completion of a single track, 4WD track high on the side of the gorge opened up new opportunities for trade and communication.

Tourists and government officials made the precarious journey more often. The villagers exported millions of rupees worth of potatoes which lurched south to Punjab in gypsy-painted trucks. Visitors from Pakistan and abroad donated  a water storage and distribution system, solar panels, a secondary school and a mountaineering school building.

But after only seven years of increased prosperity and contact with the wider world beyond the Shimshal gorge, the fortunes of the village have been reversed by the new lake.

The number of jeeps and drivers has reduced to two; the new hotel and guest house stand empty; Shimshali families have reverted to a diet of potato curry and  chapattis. Students at university or college down country now have a much longer and more expensive journey home by jeep and boat.  Emergency health care is now less accessible than it was.

The extraordinary resilience of the tough Hunzakuts and Shimshali has already begun to deal with the new situation, though. Locals have taken over driving the multicoloured, twin-engined boats that now roar up and down the lake. As they chug past the new beach where Gulmit shops used to be,  passengers can see a new boat-building yard. It’s possible to ferry your jeep or truck across the lake on a one-vehicle square barge.

Most Gojal villages (north of the new lake), cut off from the markets in the south that they have come to depend on for survival, are sustained by generous handouts from the Chinese government: flour, rice, oil, sugar – all the basics for six months.

The Shimshali are better placed to cope with the new situation than most villages in the region. Always self-sufficient they have simply gone back to the cashless society, where necessary. Some local men still get work as high altitude porters and climbers on Broad Peak, Gasherbrum, Spantik and other luminaries of the Karakorum range. Some work for the Chinese  engineers rebuilding the Karakoram Highway.

The rare visitor to Shimshal sees life going on much as usual, but education and health are the hidden victims in this remote community of rugged mountain dwellers. The dramatic reduction in income for most families has once again put a heavy responsibility on the oldest child to get a qualification and help to pay for the younger siblings.

Life has never been easy for the Shimshali. But the unpredictable and destructive forces of the land they call home have once again, like a god in a tantrum, dashed their hopes of a better future.

The contributor is one of the founders of Shimshal Nature Trust. She is the author of two books, “Shimshal” and “The women of Shimshal”.

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  1. Well summarized the elongated issues, précised but comprehensive! Many articles have highlighted these issues but in vain, because none of the development agencies and present government takes it serious. I worked directly with victims communities of Gojal for half a year in 2010 and come to a point that though the disaster remained catastrophic and created a number of issue but the prevailing issues could be converted into opportunities for victims as potentials are opportunities there. For example.
    • The lake was a point of attraction for both domestic and foreigner and flow of tourist could be increased through better contingent policies regarding tourism in the area. Eg. Special flights from Islamabad to Gilgit could be operated, special boat services could be initiated, tourism through Chiana rout could be encouraged but what I saw there, the government administration was doing in contrast
    • The potato fields submerged in Gulmit and Shishkat and transportation of potato from other villages become highly costly. So simply the only cash crop could not be marketed that emerged food security problem due deteriorating income. In such a situation an opportunity was there to introduce alternative crops but undone. Currently people are surviving with the help of relief provided by china but after a couple of month a gigantic issue will rise again regarding accessibly and affordability of food in the area.
    • The income from potato was largely contributing to meet basic need, education and health related expenditure but now income from this source is almost nil, so it can have a negative impact on Education, health and food security. To lessen the frustration of the victims education and health related expenditures could be subdised or remitted but the local government and NGOs are reluctant.
    • At the same time popular tourist resort Shimshal, Chipurson and Misgar are declared as restricted zone by the government that can have a negative impact on the flow of tourist by going through complex procedure of obtaining permit. Declaring it as unrestricted areas may help to increase flow of tourist that would create sources of income for the local communities
    • Government had also promised to pay the fee of victim students but still no considerable action has been taken. Doing so will at least decrease the trauma-subject within the victim community
    But the communities around the lack are hopeless and almost helpless because many promises were committed by government and NGOs but did nothing. It is the foreign communities, who visit the area and realize it and put up the situation on media. But I suggest the international communities should also try to put their contribution forward, the way Shimshal Trust, and other institutions are doing in the area.

  2. The writer put the saga of disaster in his note. Everyone comes and drive his/her pen on the loss of disaster but no one raise the questions, why the dam is still there? And why the realignment of KKH is being prolonged? All these kind of questions are really big questions. Even these kind of questions are challenging the sovereignty of a country where the state indicates its weakness and falling of power because of weak governance to control over its colonial areas. The huge dame become a big hurdle for the victims of upper Hunza people economically, socially, culturally and geographical that utterly paralyzed the people. We know the government is not loyal with people’s interest and it has bar slogan to make the people fool or it has no concern with the cry of people, who suffer severly. But why the KKH between China and Pakistan is become cut off since January 4, 2010. Why China kept mum over the mindboggling issue. While China losses of billions of business on KKH. This is really an amazing.
    We request the writers to not lime light the happening issues of people, people in large number know the losses, but force over the governments of China and Pakistan to discharge water and realign the KKH to resolve the issue by taking serious action against this calamity.

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