Field Studies


June 27, 2018

By Fazal Amin Beg
From the outset, I’d like to clarify here and we must accept and understand that when we conduct such kind of studies on diferent target communities related with applied side of development, many community members and respondents share information with us (as field researchers) conditionally that the positive facets of the findings should be shared with them as well as across the globe so that they should get benefits out of their cumulative knowledge and realities.
This study anyway on “Culture, Indigenous Knowledge and Environment” I had carried out Spring 2012 in the Northern Pakistan, which was an assignment of Aga Khan Rural Support Program (aKRSP), a project of Aga Khan Foundation, Pakistan.
Although, it’s a detailed study comprised of over 80 pages here I’m going to share at present (June 2018) the executive summary only with all related stakeholders so to know and understand an important aspect of indigenous knowledge fostered among and handed over to generations of various cultural communities of Gilgit-Baltistan Region. The whole study will emerge as a book, indeed.
2. Introduction
The Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP) assigned me this interesting study in consultancy on Culture and Environment. The main purpose of this study was to explore and document the indigenous knowledge on construction of the irrigation channels of Hunza and Nagar ; and to come up with recommendations driven out of the study (Vide Annex I). Rationales behind this study was peoples’ perception that the indigenous knowledge (IK) on building irrigation channels is being lost from the society, as the youths of the valley show their indifference or otherwise towards the subject.
After designing the study, I left for the fieldwork. With close collaboration with the Project Management Unit (CARITAS funded project) at Aliabad, I started data collection.
Two main approaches were taken in this regard to get access to and acquire information from the respondents: Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) and In-depth interviews of key informants, though general discussions were enormous people was also continued on the subject.
A lesson learnt from my long fieldwork in Xinjiang (China) Badakhshan (Afghanistan) and Kashmir (Nilum district) was to use kinship relations also as an effective tool to enter into peoples’ mind and society whereby to build rapport with the respondents. This technique was very efficient here in this study as well.
I recorded the data in my digital voice recorder while the social mobilizers did notetaking. It should be noted that deployed social mobilizers (3 female and 3 male) with me were for two purposes: to assist me on the one hand; and get practical training of fieldwork with me on the other.
With the facilitation of AKRSP staff in Project Management Unit in Aliabad and in disaster Emergency Field Office in Gulmit, in one and a half month’s fieldwork, I could reach to more than 150 respondents. Focus was made on the settlements of Hunza and Nagar possessing both historical as well as non-historical significance or irrigation channels. Semi-open and semi-close ended questions were asked. After fieldwork phase, the data were processed, notes were taken on the laptop out of the focused group discussions and in-depth interviews. I thus analyzed the data thoroughly and brought the interesting findings in a detailed report shape.
Two main focuses, as cited above, were there in this study: i) to explore the old techniques used in irrigation channels and the people as experts/specialized in the old days; and ii) to come up with recommendations, especially vis-à-vis youths involvement. In order to get information on the old techniques and people, it was imperative to investigate the people’s background (families and descent groups). This took the Consultant in the distant past and interestingly was very productive to know that to what extent the indigenous or local knowledge of the community was locally-driven in Hunza and Nagar.
This study begins with the background (concept and contex), objectives, rationales and the employed methodology. In the second part, the study givens an orientation with Hunza-Nagar and the irrigation channels construction in a historical context. It gives a clear picture on the diverse immigrated descent groups (clans/tribes) that composed the social structure of the valley. It also provides information on the forced communal laboring called rajaki, especially in relation with the construction, reconstruction or maintenance of the channels.
Coming towards the actual focus of this study, the report then reveals the tools and techniques used for building irrigation channels in Hunza valley. The last part of the report deals with the challenges, collective views and suggestions of respondents, and recommendations.

Multidimensional results emerged out after the study regarding the irrigation channels construction in Hunza and Nagar.
Although, living in the same valley on Hunza River basins (to the left and right) and historically two rival princely states, the communities on both side shared overall similarities of indigenous knowledge on irrigation channels construction. Convincing factors seem their intimate kinship, lingual relationships living on both sides whereby the knowledge would have been shared. The kinship relationship, whether consanguine or affine or even fictive, has their impact on the community to share the knowledge with other community members, especially on such critical subjects including irrigation water channels: because water means survival not only for humankinds but for all biodiversities living parallel to their environment , as they are interdependent in the ecosystem.
It was revealed through investigation of descent groups (clans, tribes, lineages) that Hunza and Nagar hasn’t have their actual IK in particular but rather dozens of in-migrating tribal and clan groups shared together the indigenous knowledge (emanating out of their former ethnic identities being Dardic, Buroshos, Iranians, Turkic, Tibetans and Arabs).
It was interesting to note—especially in the context of communities living in Upper and Central Hunza as well as Upper Nagar—that the former linguistic identities such as speakers of Shina, Burushaski, Wakhi, Dumaaki, Khowar, Turkic, Persian and “Balti languages have got shifted for either of the above languages.
Building irrigation channels in Central Hunza is said to have started with Kisar channel, Kisar-e Dala, in Altit before emergence of the States of Hunza and Nagar. Kisar is said to have been a Balti Prince.
Recent development in irrigation channels in Hunza is seen only in the 18th century CE by the then ruler, Mir Silum Khan III (died in 1824), who took initiative for the landmark construction of the large channel of Samarqand or Kuhl-e Samarqand (also known shortly as Dala) of Baltit. After him, the tradition continued ahead through his successors/descendants including Mir Shah Ghazanfar Ali Khan and Mir Ghazan Khan I to Nazim Khan down to Mir Muhammad Jamal Khan (died in 1976).
Tools used for building irrigation channels in the old days were i) ibexs’ horn as pick-axe (gant̃i) for digging the land (hard or soft); wooden lever; wooden shovels and spades; and locally prepared blasting material. There was no hammer of any size, so with the help of identified strong stones, the other stones were broken by striking them on each other.

Survey of channel. Exercising one’s wit and wisdom, an expert (a local engineer without degree) would use one of his eyesights from the source of water down towards the intended barren-land. He would stand at a distance and ask the helpers/coworkers to mark the point he directed.
A surveyor would take help of guns (e.g., Russian) by looking through the hole and the barrel point, and fire at at point of the intended site. That point was thus marked (and later demarcated).
It seems in more evolved period, a expert would use bottle of glasses, fill it with half water and then use it as a tool to see through the level for demarcation.
Beginning construction of channel: channel construction work was always started from the source down and not from bottom up. (An exceptional case was seen in Hoper, where building a channel was taken from bottom to the top/source).
Checking irrigation Channels level. Irrigation channel level was checked by allowing water after constructing it for more or less 50 or 100 feet. If the water stoped somewhere, such points were given a slight slop.
Allowing water in the incomplete channel also helped in identifying seepages in or erosion of water in the channel. Those spots were thus maintained the same time.
Walling Irrigation Channels. The local experts of building channels, called ustad, would observe the nature of the terrain, first.
At relatively spacious sites, which allowed big stones even boulders (no dressed in the former times as no effective tool was available) were laid at the foundation facilitated by the small stones called j̃ec̃h in Wakhi. Gradually relatively smaller stones were put on top of them and the wall would reach at the surface (top) of irrigation channels.
At rocky sites of the mountain, an ustad would make scratch and make some niches for stones of not big size at the bottom and put on top of them relatively bigger stones strongly appending them into each other like the chains supported by the smallest stones (j̃ec̃h) then reach at the top.
Filling vulnerable sites inside irrigation channel. Along with building the channel, an ustad would direct the coworkers and community members to bring and put turfs, bakor or ghũforg, inside the vulnerable spots (where seepages emerge or erosions occur).
Along with, or in absence of, bakor, thorns (fresh or dried/already cut) are pressed together robustly called as pakhchek in Wakhi, and utilized on the spots/sites of seepage and/or erosion. In addition, turfs and thorns were and are also used in strengthening the channel walls wherever necessary.
In case, if bakor is not available, old cloths (if available) were used.
Although, availability of plastic also brought a good option for the community to use it, respondents highly recommend the natural products , especially bakor because it starts growing up, spreads its roots together around the walls and holes. On the other, bakor and zak̃h, thorn, are also environmentally friendly and also resistant to the chilly cold temperatures as compared to the cement, plastic or other manmade products used for such purposes. The chananels therefore becomes sustainable.
Use of these days cement in irrigation channels, whether for the wall or inner part of channel, doesn’t bear the harsh cold weather, especially at high altitudes of the settlements. The walls and inner part of the channels consequently get large cracks and damages in the aftermath when warm weather comes. Almost all respondents thus strongly discouraged cement utilization on channels.
In-time availability of Community Members or Financial Resources for Laboring on the Irrigation Channels do critically prevail in the respective societies of the valley and is posing a significant challenge for continuation ahead of the inescapable social venture.
Begging attitude of community and indifference in local resources mobilization such as traditional philanthropy called “Nang” and “Nomus is seen in the field.” The local donors/philanthropists used to spare their part of wealth for community development such as building irrigation channels, pony-treks, bridges, even schools (as could particularly be witnessed in upper Hunza).
There are ineffective roles and functions of villages headmen, numbardar or lumbardar, these days—compared to the former position of this political, administrative and judicial headship at grassroots level—has led to underperformance of his responsibilities on matters like irrigation channels maintenance and sustenance.
Roles of related civil society organizations and Village-based Institutions (VBIs) are also not up to the mark such as VWOs, and particularly Local Support Organizations (LSO) or LSO Networks to mobilize the community for communal laboring on the irrigation channels.
The youths (or their seniors) indifferent attitudes towards the indigenous knowledge (either transferring or receiving it) has also led to a big gap between them and their senior generations, on the one hand; and addressing the issues at grassroots level through locally scientific strategies and techniques, on the other.
Overall, youths participation in the rajaki is lacking. Consequently, projects implemented in the community even through LSOs are given to the contractors (as was reported by S̃henbar LSO members). Contractors are not fair enough in honestly using the financial resources.
Youth Awareness Programs on Indigenous Knowledge: The youths of Hunza-Nagar, through LSOs and youth forums, need to be sensitized by arranging seminars/workshops about importance of indigenous knowledge and its acquiring (esp. those facets that are workable/scientific still and environmentally friendly), as we could see in the case of irrigation channels.
By developing criteria, youth members should identified through LSOs/VWOs and/or youth forums that are interested in learning the workable techniques on irrigation channels in the local knowledge and bring them in practice contextually
Effective advocacy and legislation in the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) is required for streamlining the traditional institution of headman (lambardari) in GB provided this institution has to continue and sustain. Their clear terms of references with their clear authority in excercising power should be delineated. More particularly and on preferential basis, the headmen of GB should be remunerated to cope with the communal issues (e.g. laboring on irrigation channels or otherwise) should effectively be addressed.
Further legislations need to be made on public funding on development through the LSOs (and of course VWOs) instead of using contractors, as the latter is more adhered to their own financial savings than seriously investing funding on community development. Irrigation channels repaired through contractors, as opposed to LSOs, are clear examples in this regard.
There is a clear and dire need to sensitize the civil society organization such as VWOs, LSOs and other related forums towards good governance system as that is connected with community mobilization, also including youth segment.
Regiserted youth forums need to be fostered and utilized for communal work such as laboring on the irrigation channels. It is being evidenced that some youth forums such as Ismaili Boys Scouts and Aga Khan Volunteers Corps are proactive in some social development activities, also including irrigation channels maintenance. For the Nagar community, scouts’ fourm needs to be introduced as at such forums generation gaps doesn’t exit much and the youth members can easily take dicisions for and initiate social development activities.
Membership of youth needs to be intensified in the VWOs of both Hunza and Nagar so that they should also share clearly their views in democratic, meritocratic and pluralistic ways, and contribute to their communual activities.
Keeping in view the prospects in future and needs of the mountain societies such as GBC, the youth and coming generation of Hunza-Nagar and entire GBC should be counseled and encouraged towards specializations in all disciplines of knowledge, but more particularly in sciences such as geology, seismology, glaciology, climatology, food and nutrition, agriculture, forestry, anthropology, sociology, human geography, economics, management and the like so that teams of specialists in a holistic manner should address the issues of these mountain communities.
Exploring the indigenous or local knowledge of Hunza and Nagar provided a great insight into peoples’ earlier origins on the one hand; and the underlying sources of knowledge on the other among different ethnic groups.
It was interesting to note that pockets of local/traditional knowledge traveled with humans and reached at a place as a melting junction (in a way) and made a whole of indigenous knowledge for the valley. Knowledge acquisition is a continuous process that starts, at greater scale, when people begin interacting and intermingling. Consequently, they share (give and take) it with each other. This phenomenon we could clearly observe among the diverse ethnicities and descent groups of Hunza and Nagar in the old times: when focused onto their old days local knowledge on irrigation channels, their construction tools and techniques and even on their governance orders.
Youth and coming generations of any time or period are the ultimate heir of receiving or vehicle of transferring the traditions and knowledge to other and upcoming generations. In this rapidly changing globe, more responsibilities come upon the shoulders of not only youth to acquire their traditional knowledge but rather bigger responsibilities are on the middle age and senior educated people to logically think and effectively act on issues pertaining loss of centuries old knowledge that travelled through our ancestors and reached us: but we are indifferent to assess the importance.
Many facets in local knowledge of Hunza valley, focused on the technique of building irrigation channels can work now and will work in future; and which are, particularly also much environment-friendly where the world communities are having hue and cry on climate change issues—created mainly by human-induced activities. The old days humans were closer to the nature than today’s and therefore they care for the nature and their environment to a significant level.
Using more natural techniques in irrigation channels’ maintenance and sustenance will be cheaper too in financial terms provided AKRSP (or other agencies of AKDN as a whole or other organizations) make the communities of GBC realize by sensitizing them through their own organizations; and thereof, through community participation.

My sincere gratitude goes to Abdul Malik, the General Manager of AKRSP, and Melad Karim, Regional Program Manager (RPM) of Gilgit Regioni for providing me this opportunity to conduct the study on an important but interesting topic.
I highly value and appreciate all the key informants and other respondents for generously and sometimes critically sharing the indigenous knowledge, the encountered challenges related with the environment and proposing solutions.
My special thanks go to all the social Mobilizers for taking so keen interest in the study and it was a wonderful time spending in the field.
In the same manner, I’m grateful to all colleagues within the AKRSP’s Region Office in Gilgit and more particularly the related staff of Project Management Unit in Aliabad and Disaster Emergency Field Office in Gulmit for their kind facilitation.

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