Hell and ice water: Melting glaciers threaten Pakistan’s future
Climate change is causing most glaciers around the world to shrink, but due to a weather anomaly, this is one of the few in the Karakoram mountain range in northern Pakistan that are increasing.
This means that hundreds of tons of ice and debris are pushing down the valley at ten times the normal rate or more, threatening the safety of people and homes below.
“People’s lives, property and animals are in danger,” warns villager Basir Ali. Flash flooding caused by glacial lakes, falling ice and rocks, and a lack of clean and accessible water are serious risks for those close to your path.
“When a glacial lake explodes, there is a huge amount of not only ice, water and debris going through, but also mud and this has devastating effects, it basically destroys everything that stands in its way,” said Ignacio Artaza of UNDP Pakistan.
But the repercussions of the Shisper glacier surge extend far beyond its path: The mighty Indo River relies on seasonal melting for more than half of its flow, and changes in Pakistan’s ice fields affect this.
That has implications not only for those who live in its basin, but for the entire nation, which depends on it for much of its food.
Changing water levels also have implications for the fragile relationship between nuclear-armed neighbors, Pakistan and India.
Already ranked among the most water-stressed nations on the planet according to the World Resources Institute, both need the Indo and its tributaries.
Its access to water is governed by the 1960 Treaty of Water of the Indo, which aims to use fair use.
Karakoram, which contains some of the world’s highest mountains, including K2, is just one of the mountain ranges that cross the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region. Sometimes called The Third Pole, the region contains more ice than anywhere other than Artic or Antarctica.
But a third of the glaciers here are expected to melt in 2100, endangering the lives of hundreds of millions of people, according to this year’s Hindu Kush-Himalaya Assessment Report.
Rising in Tibet, the Indo crosses through India and Pakistan fed by a multitude of tributaries before reaching the Arabian Sea.
According to the UN, the water basin produces 90 percent of Pakistan’s food, and agriculture depends on river irrigation, which relies heavily on melted water from ice sheets.
With its growing population experts warn that the nation is facing “absolute water shortages” by 2025, with the loss of Himalayan glaciers a key threat.
While scientists cite climate change and topography, it is unclear exactly what causes the Karakoram anomaly where glaciers are emerging and in some cases growing. But many say these changes will also affect the Indo because they alter the patterns of melted water, causing flash floods or water scarcity that are difficult to predict and manage.
“The Shisper Glacier is increasing in length and width, and it is also moving downhill,” explained Shehzad Baig of the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority.
He warned that climate change meant that there were more snowfalls during winters and warmer temperatures in the summers, which led to the ice mass producing more meltwater, swelling the Hunza River, a hectic mountain tributary of the Indo. “This can cause harm to the Indo.” This can cause damage to the Indo. local community and deprive people of the Indo Basin by blocking or disrupting drinking water and irrigation channels,” Baig warned, adding that changing weather patterns were also creating more glacial lakes.
UNDP estimates that more than 3,000 glacial lakes have been formed in the region, and 33 have posed an imminent threat of “burst floods”, known as GLOF, that could affect up to seven million people.
Last year, the growing Shisper Glacier effectively embalmed a stream of melted water from a neighboring glacier creating a large lake. Authorities were forced to issue safety warnings to Hassanabad and local villages before the water was drained.
But satellite data shows that the lake is already being reformed, leaving residents fearing not only the progression of the ice sheet shredder, but will be wiped out to their deaths in flash floods.
“This whole area will be devastated… the entire population and people’s properties will go to the river,” warns the villager Didar Karim.
Professor Andreas Kaab, of the University of Oslo, says Pakistan must adapt its “monitoring and response strategies, and risk management in general” to address both growing and shrinking glaciers.
The authorities, in collaboration with the United Nations, are establishing early warning systems using sensors located at the top of the Shisper Glacier and downstream to alert communities. But the challenge for Pakistan goes beyond crisis management to long-term water conservation and storage, experts say.
“Pakistan needs to increase its water storage capacity, which is now 33 days: it should be at least 100 days to ensure sustainable development,” warns Dr. Ghulam Rasul of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development.
It estimates that 60% of the water is currently lost as a runoff into the sea. With few resevoirs in operation, the nation is ill-equipped to take advantage of excess water in the short term as climate change causes more glaciers to melt, or from increasingly erratic monsoon floods.