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”.