On August 15, 2020, a teenage girl was killed in a remote village of Chitral as glacial flooding swept through six homes, partially damaging sixteen others and inundating standing wheat and bean crops. Eleven other people were injured when the local police station and a boy scout station in Chitral were overwhelmed. The glacial flood also washed away a section of more than 500 meters of road towards the valley of Baroghil.
Fast forward to February 28, 2021 and the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) issues a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) warning over the Shishper-Muchuhur glaciers in Hunza. The situation is still developing and a possible GLOF event is planned for May-June 2021, which will expose the population of the community downstream of the village of Hassanabad to the risk of glacial flooding. The Shishper-Muchuhur Glaciers have a history of flash floods. The current thrust of Shishper, a 25 km2 glacier, has brought its muzzle four kilometers closer to the Karakoram Highway, a critical route for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) initiative in the region.
It is the new normal in the daily life of these remote and poor mountain communities. The recurrent loss of life, property and livelihoods due to natural disasters, associated mainly with climate change in the region, only worsens year by year. Worse yet, these climate changes alter long-term weather patterns, which are not well understood by these local communities. Although climate-induced changes encompass a wide range of pressing issues, water is arguably the most threatened natural resource.
Pakistan is a unique place: the country is home to more than 7,200 glaciers in its north, spread over approximately 17,000 km2, which is home to the mighty Hindukush-Karakoram-Himalaya (HKH) mountain ranges. It would have more glacial ice than anywhere on earth outside of the polar regions – hence called the third pole. These glaciers feed the rivers that account for about 75 percent of the stored water supply in a country inhabited by more than 212 million people.
Ironically, Pakistan contributes less than 1% of global pollutant emissions, which ranks it among the least emitting. Yet the country is among the most vulnerable to climate-related risks such as changing monsoons, rapid melting of glacial ice leading to floods and flash floods, avalanches, landslides and extreme heat waves. Therefore, climate-induced migration by local people in mountain communities and downstream of this region to save lives and seek better livelihood opportunities is a major challenge. This is real proof of the direct human cost of climate change in this part of the world.
Glaciers are a source of fresh water and vital for the ecosystem. Due to climate change and global warming, several glaciers around the world are gradually shrinking and retreating. Depending on the volume and size of the glacial lake, temperature and precipitation, and geomorphological parameters of the terrain, mechanical failures can cause a breach in the wall of a glacial lake covered with ice or moraine. Subsequently, a sudden release of millions of cubic meters of meltwater and debris can occur in a short time, with catastrophic impact on the socio-economic life of communities downstream. This phenomenon is referred to as Glacial Lake Overflow Flooding or GLOF.
These GLOFs are a major hazard in the high altitude glacial regions of northern Pakistan. According to a UNDP report, approximately 3,033 glacial lakes have been identified in this region, with at least 33 critical lakes. Many recent scientific studies predict an increase in the frequency of GLOFs as a result of ongoing climate change and global warming. The Pakistani government’s “ National Climate Change Policy ” identifies the predicted HKH glacier recession as a major climate threat, while a key finding from the Asian Development Bank, reported in 2017, is the lack of glacier monitoring infrastructure in Pakistan.
Most of the glaciers in Pakistan are at low elevations and the settlements are close to the glaciers. This makes them more vulnerable. Dr Arun Bhakta Shrestha, regional program manager for river basins and cryosphere at the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, pointed out that although greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are reduced to limit the temperature rise as predicted in the Paris Agreement, a scenario with only two degrees Celsius could still be devastating as two-thirds of the HKH glaciers would melt!
Coherent mitigation actions at local, national and international levels are immediate imperatives. Mountain and downstream communities in these disaster-prone areas are under constant threat and their vulnerabilities are compounded by poverty, lack of awareness of GLOF threats, increasing pressure on natural resources, and high settlement models. risk. At the local level, adaptation to climate change and building resilience through specific initiatives – early warning systems, promotion of clean energy in mountains, reduction of deforestation and regulation of use land – must be strengthened. In a country like Pakistan, which lacks essential infrastructure for glacier monitoring, disaster management policies, risk reduction plans, early warning systems and the scientific approach and equipment to do in the face of new risks and vulnerabilities arising from its natural resources, it is imperative that the international community come forward and help.
At the moment, the Government of Pakistan, through the Ministry of Climate Change (MoCC), and UNDP Pakistan are implementing a $ 37 million project called Scaling Up of GLOF Risk Reduction in Northern Pakistan (GLOF-II), a continuation of the GLOF-I pilot project, which aims to empower communities to identify and manage the risks associated with GLOFs. This project extends the monitoring of weather information by installing 50 automatic weather stations at different locations in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Although these weather stations provide information as part of an early warning system at the local level, their scope and scalability is limited at this time.
The HKH glacial region is vast and stretches thousands of kilometers across several countries. This third pole requires a greater commitment from the international community through the development of local infrastructure, investment in strengthening the resilience of communities, prevention of deforestation, reduction of GHG emissions, application of the ‘scientific approach, tools and methods in their study, risk assessment and reduction planning at regional level, continuous monitoring and integrated analysis of glacier evolution.
US President Biden’s recent summit has made progress, but there is a real urgency for stronger climate action, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius as proposed in the Paris Agreement, helping countries vulnerable to adapt to climate impacts and discussing capacity building opportunities to protect lives and livelihoods from the effects of climate change.
Climate change does not seem to recognize our land and water boundaries, and Mother Nature is ruthless when it comes to punishing. Efforts across borders, strategic alliances and politics are essential and only a holistic approach can produce the desired results.
Dr Khurram Bhatti is Associate Professor and Dr AdnanSiddique is Assistant Professor at Pakistan University of Computer Science. They are also National Geographic 2021 explorers.