by Tobias Thornes
The Hunza Valley stretches out before me, reposing upon my vision like a verdant dream. Except that no dream could conjure such sparkling, vivid colours, nor invoke such unimagined beauty as that possessed by this high Green Heaven. Around it, a crisp crown of snow-capped mountains dazzles in the shimmering summer sunlight, completing the perfect picture of a true paradise. It was worth the long, slow climb into the Karakorum, high above the plains of Pakistan, to find this overawing treasure at the top. Yet the genesis of Hunza is a story more subtle than it might at first appear. For how could such a haven of fertility flourish amidst these rocky, barren heights? The truth is that these trees, these flowers, these fruits and fields of plenty are all mankind’s making – the happy result of humans working hand-in-hand with Nature, for once, to bring a landscape alive.
Centuries ago, the ancient Hunza people, who until then had relied on raiding and plunder to survive where sustenance was scarce, carefully carved out canals at just the right inclination to carry meltwater from the glacier to quench their thirsty fields: a natural flow diverted through human skill. Hidden in their mountain home, they remained for decades an isolated but self-sustaining, prosperous community, blessed with the joys of a simple life in their lofty Eden.
Ascending to the valley in 2018, I find that little has changed. I come as one of a small but growing number of travellers and tourists who take the long road, by bus or on foot, into these magnificent mountains, to climb the slopes or simply look upon an unspoiled green ambrosia now so rare in the world. The people are gracious and giving, well-educated in spite of their remote position, and seemingly in a state of near-perfect contentment, the secret of joyful life that humanity once held but let slip from its grasp. Having all the simple things they want or need, they crave for nothing more. My visit here has filled my own heart with a joy unparalleled, and it is with refreshed inspiration that I take my leave and begin my descent towards the plains. If only that ‘green’ vision – that sustainable contentment and reverence for nature – pervaded our world more widely, I wonder wistfully, could we not all live in such peaceful bliss?
But greed, not gratitude, is the attitude that prevails in most of the corporate-controlled world that I witness, and there is little such enlightenment in lowland Pakistan. A bus carries me south into the country’s agricultural heartland, the largest area of artificially irrigated cropland in the world, and a monument to the ‘Green Revolution’ imposed by the British in colonial times. The Empire greened the Indus desert by taming the mighty rivers of the Punjab – literally, the ‘land between five rivers’ – in their greedy thirst to expand their cotton plantations. This was no careful, reverent re-direction like that carried out in the Hunza hills, but an industrial-scale onslaught of over-irrigation that, over the decades, has released a deadly poison in the soil they sought to enrich: salt. At the edges of the farms and fields, a vast swathe of white death encroaches year by year, land spoiled by a rising water-table that has dragged up this demon from the deep. Entering this man-made wilderness is stepping onto an alien world, dotted here and there with lifeless lagoons of brine that speck the sordid moonscape like craters of an undrinkable extra-terrestrial soup.
And that’s not the sum-total of Pakistan’s water troubles. In the pleasant, soft warmth of a golden early-summer’s evening I find myself being led down, at last, to the banks of the river Indus to see and touch the life-giving water for myself. By the time it reaches this far south the river has already been diverted and somewhat polluted – enough to kill off the Indus river dolphin, and I certainly shouldn’t choose to quench my thirst with this water. But it remains the well-spring of all life in Pakistan, fed by another melting glacier high up in the Himalayas. Perversely, in their greed for more water, some even suggested burning coal atop the glacier to speed up the process. Although this proposal has thankfully not been implemented, the glacier’s usual cycle of melting and regrowth is nonetheless under threat from climate change, and its disappearance would mean disaster for Pakistan.
Tied into all these water issues, I realise, is the recurring inability of humanity to transcend the present moment. By looking to the past, Imperial and Pakistani governments could have seen the spectre of salination foreshadowed in the collapse of the great Indus Civilisation nearly four thousand years ago, a victim of its own extraordinary irrigation technology. If only the world could look to the future, we would see our own climate doom in the needless waste of today’s materialistic lusts. And there is no better place to witness the emergence of this dangerous duality of short-sightedness than across the border, in India.
‘Subcontinent’ is a good word to describe the Indian peninsula, a land almost as varied in climate as any continent. While the south-west is deluged by up to eleven metres of rainfall per year, in the north some parts receive barely ten centimetres. The common culture that still pervades much of this country is a tradition with water at its heart. Through centuries of flood and drought Hindus especially have venerated India’s rivers, but only since colonial times has man actively sought to control them. The coming decades could see the revival of a great proposal of characteristically reckless nineteenth-century ambition to join together the rivers of North and South India in a ‘River Link Project’, aiming to water dry Rajasthan. Rather than venerating the powers of nature, the project’s advocates seek to ‘dethrone the Monsoon’, stripping it of its power to impose a geographical water inequality on the country. Entering the dry north before its brief rains arrive to cast their spell of green vibrancy on the parched Earth, I can see the origins of this temptation.
I am travelling on the famous Lahore-Delhi bus, the ‘Call of the Frontier’ instituted in 1999 to increase accord between two uneasy neighbours. It’s an eight-hour drive to the Indian capital. Stepping off the bus in Delhi, I find it difficult to breathe. This has been called the most polluted city on the planet, any remaining greenery hidden beneath a heavy toxic smog. There are more than ten thousand people per square kilometre here, a city of seventeen million, and they soon demonstrate that the true water inequality in India is not geographical but social. While the wealthiest gobble up as much water in a day as the average European city-dweller uses in a month, the squalid lower classes queue for measly morsels at communal pumps. Even the lower-paid amongst the middle classes, dressed to impress in their clean business suits, betray their true, lowly status by standing in line. The rancid heart of this new India, descending in a smog of pollution, climate change, and rampant inequality, is neither the river blue nor the forest green of the civilisation it is slowly choking, but black – coal black, as I shall soon witness for myself.