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19 June 2019

Glacier Hazards and Risk Mitigation

Sher Wali (Geographer)
Sher Wali writes on socio-geographic matters and is regular contributor of the Dardistan Times. He hails from Yasin Valley

Pakistan is located at the junction of the world’s three largest mountain ranges— Karakorum, Himalayas and Hindu Kush. The region has a total coverage area of 3500 sq.km and Pakistan hosts 8 out of 14 highest peaks of the world. A large part of the area remains covered by piles of snow round the year. Scientists and climate advocators call the region the Third Pole outside of the polar region.

An inventory study conducted by International Center for Integrated Mountain Development(ICIMOD) in the five Hindu Kush-Himalayan(HKH) countries of Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, has identified a total of 15,003 glaciers, covering an area of about 33,344 sq.km, and 8,790 glacial lakes, of which 203 have been identified as potentially dangerous

In 2005 water Resource Research Institute (WRSI) of Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) in collaboration with ICIMOD prepared a glacial inventory, identifying 5218 glaciers with an average coverage area of 15041 sq.km. The study has recorded 2420 glacial lakes of which 52 were identified as potentially dangerous.

 Outburst Floods of such glacial lakes pose great threat to the downstream low lying areas. The northern and north western parts of Pakistan, mostly Chitral in KPK district and Gilgit Baltistan are hosting these larger glaciers. As climate change intensifies, risk and frequency of Glacial Lakes Outburst Floods (GLOF) is expected to increase in future. Many other research papers have also indicated that the glaciers in Karakorum and Himalayas which also have a regional sharing with central Asian region is susceptible to climate change, and these glacier are going through rapid changes.

As per IPCC 5th Assessment report published in 2013, global surface temperature change for the end of the 21st century is likely to exceed 1.5°C relative to 1850 to 1900.

With ever alarming scientific projections of global warming and climate change, it is very likely that most of the glaciers in Himalayan and Karakorum ranges will diminish. As a result, Glacial Lakes Outburst Floods will pose danger, on one hand, and on the other hand, areas with low precipitation and water shortage will face drought, environmental degradation, pressure on ecosystem and health and hygiene issues.

Gilgit Baltistan and Chitral, having the largest glaciers inventory, are prone to GLOF induced flash food. As witnessed in recent years GLOF incidents have increased and over the past  the region has suffered heavy loss in terms of infrastructure, lifeline facilities, irrigation channels, roads, electricity polls, standing crops, and erosion of fertile fields, and forest.

 As villages and small settlements are located at the foot hills, along the narrow valleys and on the alluvial fans, in the event of lake outbursts, there could be catastrophic consequences in this part of the world.

Booni and Brep Glaciers in Chitral produced major GLOF in 2010 and 2007. Similarly, Gulkin Glacier, Passu Glacier, Hundur Glacier, Hinarchi Glacier, and Darkut glacier which are located in Gilgit Baltistan have produced 20-30 small to medium level of GLOFs during 2005-2012. Shimshal GLOF in 1885, from Karakorum Range and Karumber GLOF in 1905 in the HinduKush range are the worst GLOF events which caused wide-spread damages to infrastructure and life lines facilities, along downstream areas.

In order to reduce the risk of the glacier hazards, many agencies are working in the region— anticipating and charting out advocacy programs to mitigate the glacier risk. FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance Pakistan is working in close collaboration of the local communities, government and civil society organizations to enhance the response and rehabilitation capacities of communities, identified as in immediate danger. FOCUS has been engaging key stakeholders through awareness sessions and capacity building since1998.

There is much more to be done in this area. The glacier hazardous assessment needs a detail inventory of glacial lakes, glacial lake outburst modeling, data on climate change, impact assessment on agriculture and livelihood of the mountain communities and capacity building of communities. It is also important to infrastructure systems for early warning and emergency response.

The greatest contribution to climate change is that of human activity. For that reason, communities have a role to play. Caring for the environment is the first step out of risk. We should avoid constructing houses in areas where glacier tongues are sticking out. Deforestation should be stopped and the behavior of glaciers should be closely observed.  Nothing should be taken for guaranteed when it comes to weather conditions in the region.