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Climate Change and Globalization Threaten Traditional Water Management Practices in Pakistan
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Climate Change and Globalization Threaten Traditional Water Management Practices in Pakistan

Traditional Water Management Practices in Pakistan Threatened by Climate Change and Globalization


Climate Change and Globalization Threaten Traditional Water Management Practices in Pakistan

A northern region of Pakistan is home to the Hunza Valley (the Hunzakutz), where glaciers and snow-capped mountains are the backdrop. Subsistence has been possible for centuries thanks to Indigenous customs that allow access to meltwater. The Hunza Valley, or the Hunzakutz, was once a purely dependent on the land and its resources. Glacial meltwater is the primary link between communities and the natural environment. These traditional ways of life are now threatened by climate change, globalization, and rapidly changing gender roles. However, there are indications that the Hunzakutz Indigenous tradition will survive despite the external forces.

A heartfelt chapter named RajakiZainab Khan Khalid, Published in the volume The New Himalayas: Environmental HumanitiesThe community-based approach to Hunzakutz water resource management is explored in. Khalid, an environmental scientist at Lanzhou University in China, and a researcher in the Department of Development Studies at COMSATS University Islamabad, Pakistan, has a personal connection to these glaciated valleys—her maternal forefathers are from the Himalayan foothills of Badakhshan, Afghanistan, which borders the Hunza Valley.

Talking with GlacierHub about her fieldwork, Khalid said, “I’ve been working in the region since 2016 and I’ve had a very good experience. People are extremely kind and welcoming, they are not estranged to foreign researchers and are open to sharing their lives and experiences.”

The Hunza people first settled the valley and established a distinct community with interaction with the Indigenous Himalayans. Their culture and knowledge of the land and its resources were essential to the establishment and maintenance of their community. Although the Hunzakutz used to be self-sufficient, they now rely heavily on goods from Pakistan and imports form China. This has resulted in challenges from urbanization as well as globalization.

Landscape of the Hunza Valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan Province, Pakistan. Credit: Imran Shah/Flickr

The valley’s water is supplied by the glacial streams from the high mountains, which supply water to rivers and streams throughout the region. The melting water is used to water the fields for wheat, millet, vegetables, and orchards for almonds, walnuts, and apricots. Water is also essential for the goats and yaks raised in the mountains. The rugged topography of the region means water is often difficult to access, making its management of central importance for the Hunzakutz’s livelihoods.

Cashmere goats in Himachal Pradesh (India). Goat farming is one the main types in Himalayan livestock farming. Credit: Jelle Visser/Flickr

Rajaki is the practice of building pipes to carry water from the glaciers into their villages. The villagers encourage one another to participate in rajaki because they believe that it teaches people to form a relationship with their environment and to view resources, such as the glaciers, in a manner of ‘commons.’ This belief that working cooperatively and sharing common resources to increase the productivity of the land is central to the success of rajaki.

A pipe used to transport water from the Hunza Valley’s high altitude glaciers. Credit: Zainab Khalid

One of the most notable changes taking place in the Hunza is the gendering of norms and practices. Rajaki used to be dominated by men, as they were more suited for the hard work involved. However, many young men are moving to larger cities to find better jobs, which is leaving behind a smaller population. Women are increasingly being included in rajaki construction and maintenance due to the lack of key players. They are taking an increasing role in maintaining the longevity of centuries-old rajaki practices and in construction.

Khalid has shown us that women are changing not only in rajaki but also in other aspects of the Hunzakutz Society. Women are becoming more financially active outside of the home. This participation in the economy is One of the strongest indicators of a beginning of a social transformation [in the Hunza valley],” Khalid wrote in One of her paperss.

A region’s women have been vulnerable for a long time to natural disasters such as the flooding of the Mississippi. Glacial lake outburst floodsThey are often less educated and have difficulty accessing financial resources in times of crisis. Khalid’s interviews revealed that women are proactively willing to participate in disaster mitigation and management decisions, and that they must be involved in order to reduce gender inequalities. When interviewing Hunzakutz men, Khalid sensed that perceptions of women’s rights and responsibilities in society are shifting, although this remains at the community level and has not yet been recognized within formal or governmental organizations.

Researcher Zainab Khalid (right), interviews a Hunza women (left) at her doorstep. Credit: Zainab Khalid

Although the valley is geographically secluded, China’s construction of the New Silk Road (also known as the Karakoram Highway), an enormous development project, will connect the region with Europe and East Asia. This Project forms part of China’s efforts at expanding its global reach through its Belt and Road Initiative. Although the Hunzakutz villages are isolated to preserve their Indigenous practices, increasing international connections are eroding traditional cultures such as rajaki. “The China-Pakistan corridor is bringing a lot of access, [whereas] before very few people could reach the area, and with that people have transformed their livelihoods,” explained Khalid. Some people have built hotels or guest houses on their land to accommodate visitors. They are less interested in taking part in rajaki since they are abandoning farming for infrastructure development. Khalid adds that “[construction] is not safe because there are no building codes and there are all kinds of geohazards, unstable slopes, active erosion, seismic activity.” Nonetheless, the forces of globalization have greatly reduced poverty in the region, which consequently is another likely reason why participation in rajaki has declined in recent years, because people are no longer as reliant on the land for their sustenance.

From her time spent researching the Hunzakutz, Khalid thinks that although rajaki is now more of a choice than a necessity, “there was ownership that it [rajaki]Their culture is what makes them unique. [the Hunzakutz] unique. There is no other way for people to have water apart from the glaciers so they have to rely on them.”

Because of its importance, the governance of glacial meltwater in this area of the world is highly researched and the subject matter of many international organizations. Aditi Mukherji is a researcher at the International Water Management Institute New Delhi, explained to GlacierHub that “in the case of the Indus, glacial melt accounts for a large share of the river flow because it does not receive as much monsoon rains [as basins further east, such as the Ganges. Therefore] glacial melt is crucial to Pakistan.”

A large storage tank for water, connected to the villages by pipes. Credit: Zainab Khalid

Climate change is also altering the physical environment of the valley. Landslides that are caused by excessive rainfall are more common. During Khalid’s visit in the summer of 2019, a landslide broke some water pipes and the community had to resort to using water from large tanks stored outside that are usually used for dishwashing and laundry. Flooding can often cause water lines to be disconnected, which is a concern given the decreased interest in maintaining the practice and the predicted rise in severe flood events (including those caused by glacial lake eruptions).

“All of the challenges are overlapping,” said Khalid when asked what she feels is the greatest threat to the Hunzakutz. “The government agency is quite inadequate at the moment,” she added, and therefore addressing these challenges is difficult and progress is slow. “When you go into the field you find so many women that are participating in community activities that are making a difference and who take pride in their achievements, you feel positive that changes are happening right now. However, if you look at the government’s perspective, there is still much to do. One can only hope that the government will follow suit and realize that it is a necessity to have female representation,” Khalid told GlacierHub.

Hamna Tariq is a Pakistani national who is a graduate student at The. School of International and Public AffairsColumbia University student Tariq shared her views on the government with GlacierHub. Tariq felt as though a “government mismanagement of water resources” has exacerbated issues surrounding unfair distribution of resources between provinces.

The practice of rajaki could make the Hunzakutz’s existence unsustainable. Despite the fact that their culture has undergone significant cultural transformations due to changing gender roles, globalization, and climate change, some Hunzakutz are taking control of their heritage and adapting their lives to preserve it. The Anthropocene is threatening Indigenous communities all over the world. These peoples may find relief in recognizing that traditional knowledge and customs are crucial for adapting to changing circumstances.


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