By Aman Ullah Maad
Shimshal is a village situated in the extreme north of Pakistan, on the eastern side of Hunza Gojal, sharing a very long border with China. Being a border village, Shimshal’s history is full of events of historical importance. The cyclical glacial outburst flood, famously remembered in Hunza as the Shimshal Flood or Verzhrav Flood, is one such historical event. This flood has a history of causing terrifying series of destruction throughout the lenth of Hunza, Nagar and other downstream district many times. The Shimshal floods have destroyed the economic resources of the area in the past, changed the social bounding, living conditions and the geography of the area, especially in Shimshal, Passu, Hussini, Gulmit, and Ganish. Many settlers of the area moved to other parts of Hunza after losing their properties due to the floods. Exactly how many floods have came down the Shimshal Valley destroying large swathes of land is hard to tell without scientific investigation, but the local oral and documented history refers to several massive floods emanating from the Shimshal Valley.
There are four huge Glaciers – Yazgel, Yuks᷉hingardan, Khurdhapin and Verzhrav – in the east of Shimshal village. These glacier move back and forth in routine, except for Varzhrav, which moves east to west at its end point. Jenny Jisser Hoooft (1922) writes, “The Verzhrav remains in our memory as the very worst glacier of the whole Kara-Korum”. Verzhrav is a combination of two Wakhi words Verz +Zhrav. Varz means elliptical shape and Zherave means stream. Verzhrav is an elliptical shape valley with the largest glacier in Shimshal valley crossing through southern part of Shimshal pass. This valley has been used as a winter grazing area and also for hunting of ibexes and other wild animals right from the beginning of the history. Chasing ibexes, Qurban Karim and Dildar Baig, residents of Shimshal, reached the most interior part of the valley.
The explorers who discussed about Verzherav valley and glacier in the colonial era were, Francis Younghusband (1889), George Cockrill (1892) and (1893), Jenny Visser-Hooft and Philip Visser (1925), and Colonel Schomberg (1936) while mapping Mustagh area. Among them Eric Shipton, Michael Spender and Angtharkay (1937) reached the eastern part of Verzhrav glacier, following exploratory plan of Shipton and Tilman. Two Shimshalies, Asmat Shah and Arab Khan, explored a pass for the very first time travelling towards Shimshal Pass through Verzhrav in 1968.
The two neighboring glaciers in the west of Verzhrav (Yukšhingadan and Khurdapin) join each other at their end point moving south to north and form the destructive lake that, on outburst, causes massive destruction every now and then.
As the glaciers of Khurdapin and Yukshingardan join each other at their tail, they strike the northern mountain and block the river flowing from the Verzhrav glacier. In more than one year period the lake stores a huge amount of water. According to local wisdom, the movement period of these glaciers is almost 15-20 years.
Muhammad Nayab and Ahmmad Ullah Baig, two local elders, narrated that the number of the years [taken for the lake formation] depends on the amount of snow and rain during the period. If more snow falls in the specific time period then the glaciers move faster and form the lake one or two year before the usual time. However, if there is less snow fall, it takes more than twenty years for the lake burst.
Local people also believe the amount of snow during the 20 years causes a large number of avalanches and the number of avalanches develops pressure on the movement of the glaciers. This, they say, raises the height of the glaciers at the end points, making the lake formed due to blocakde of the Verz Zhrav river, deeper and even more destructive.
During the 20th century the lake formed, due to the meeting of the Yukšhingadan and Khurdapin glaciers, four times, with almost 15- 20 year’s gap.The first erosion in 20th century in Shimshal is said to be 4-5 years after arrival of Agha Abdul Samad, in 1921-22. The people from Shhimshal say that the riverbed of Shimshal was full of natural forest. The outburst of the lake washed away the whole forest along with the first settlement of Mamusing, the first person who reached Shimshal and irrigated the land, called Putdih/ Setenek, a small village about 18 km down the river on the left bank of Shimshal River.
People do not remember or know more about the destruction caused by the glacial outbreak. The accounts of the destruction, transferred orally over generations, are mixed up. Francis Youngshuband, a British soldier and spy, has discussed the 1893 flood in his book published in 1926.
Second outburst of the 20th century occurred in 1942 with huge destruction especially in Passu and Hussaini, two downstream villages. After this destruction the riverside of Shimshal once again was full of natural forest and people had enough wood for daily uses. Continuous floods from 1960 to 1964, according to local account, swept the forest, irrigated fields, houses, orchards with fruit. Two water channels, Yishg᷉heriz and Risgine᷉ben, are also believed to have been affected, causing severe water shortage in the valley. The floods of 1960- 1964 were the most destructive, leaving a huge negative geographical and economic impact on the villages especially Shimshal, Pussu, Hussaini, Gulmit and Ganish in Hunza and on many other settlements down the country.
Very little human loss has been recorded probably because the residents of Shimshal were watching the movement of the glaciers and outburst of lake and passing messages to the villages down stream warning them in advance to live cautiously and leave in advance to avoid losses. The volunteers from Shimshal were posted on different mountains from Yazghel to Avdegar mountain ranges to communicate messages, while volunteers from rest of Gojal were responsible from Passu to Be᷉ldihil and then from center and then lower Hunza passing messages to settlements downstream. These volunteers would inform the villagers by making fire at night time and smoke in day time indicating the lake burst.
I witnessed the Varzherav Lake in 1980 and 2000 but it did not destroy any village except some areas in Pussu and Hussaini on its way; the level of destruction was not like that of 1940 and 1960.
On the basis of the above facts and figures, and drawing upon the local knowledge, I think the Khurdapin and Yuks᷉hingardan glacier might meet again and block the Verzherav River, forming a lake, in around 2020. If the burst of the lake is like that of 1960, then the magnitude of disaster will be double due to the availability of Ataabad Lake on the way. I am not creating a situation of frustration through this article but informing the government and community based organisations to study the glaciers and detail, and take precautionary measures. I suggest some specialist(s) to visit and see the situation on the ground, because rain and snow fall has increased in the resent years and the completion of 20 years period for lake formation, as calculated locally, is getting nearer. It is wise to be proactive, to avoid any losses.
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