Monday, July 8, 2013

Retreating Glaciers in Northern Pakistan

Glacier fed river systems are the life line of Pakistan economy. The contribution of glaciers to fresh water system is more than 60% of the total. It is believed that Glaciers have persisted in Hindu Kush-Himalayas of Pakistan since the last Ice Age, which lasted about 15,000 years ago. Today most of the glaciers are found in Antarctica and Greenland. But outside the polar region, the Hindukush-Himalayas regions are the most heavily glaciated areas in the world. Hindukush-Himalayas region is abode to some 15,000 glaciers, cradle to 9 major glaciers fed river system and home to 1.9 billion people in the world.

The river systems originating from these glaciers provide life sustaining water and hydroelectricity to almost one-third of the world's population. The Northern Areas of Pakistan including Gilgit-Baltistan province and Chitral district of Khyberpukhtunkhwa province alone host more than 5218 glaciers. These glaciers feed ice melt water to Indus River System together with summer monsoon. Of these about 2420 glaciers have developed Glacial Lakes and nearly 52 Glacial lakes in Northern Pakistan have been classified as potentially dangerous. Recent research reveals that Glaciers in Pakistan are retreating at a rate of almost 40 to 60 meters per decade. This a very alarming situation and needs immediate attentions of researchers and Disaster Planners.

But unfortunately these precious sources of fresh water are on the retreat for a number of reasons. The most important and potent factor responsible for glaciers retreat in northern Pakistan like rest of the world is climate change or in simple words the global warming. In today world it is widely recognized that global warming/climate change is leading to the shrinkage or retreat of glaciers not only in Pakistan but throughout the world.

Chitral, the largest district of Khyber-Pukhtoonkhwa province by size, is home to about 542 glaciers covering a total area of 1904 (nearly 13% of the total covered area of the district). Of these, 187 glaciers have developed Glacial Lakes. However, no tangible research has been undertaken to evaluate exact status and number of potentially dangerous Glacial Lakes in the district. However, it believed that there are more than 20 potentially dangerous Glacial lakes in different valleys of the district including the Golain, Laspoor, Yarkhoon, Terich valleys etc.

This is evident from the fact that since late 1990s the district has been facing GLOF events on regular basis. The first GLOF event occurred in 1998 in Yarkhon Lasht village, washing away nearly 15 houses and standing crops. During early 2000 another GLOF event took-place in Brep village, sweeping away almost 21 households and fruit orchards. The damages to infrastructure/physical assets and downstream communities as a result of these GLOF events were beyond imagination. Similarly, the entire village of Sonoghor, located at a distance of 85KM in the northeast of main town Chitral, was washed away by the Glacial Outburst Floods in 2007. Nearly 300 people were displaced, livelihood means were destroyed and infrastructure was wiped-out. Next in the row was Bindo Gol Glacier. Bindo Gol is comprised of historical villages of Shogram, Gohkir and Drongagh. Here it is important to mention that Bindo Gol Glacier was artificially grafted back in 1750s by the local communities through employing indigenous techniques. The main objective of grafting this glaciers was to combat potable and irrigation water shortage in the area. This glacier is no doubt an integral part of local and national heritage for being the sole living example of artificially grafted glacier in the country.

These historical glaciers remained stable for nearly 200 years. According to the local the first Glacial Outburst of Bindo Gol Glacier was witnessed in 1920. The second occurred in 1970s. But since 1980s this glacier has been regularly experiencing GLOF events with an interval of 8 to 10 years. The Glacial Outburst of 2010 brought unprecedented havoc to the area. The outburst of Bindo Gol Glacier in 2010 washed away some 18 houses, farmlands (orchards and corps) and intra and inter hamlets link roads and walking trails. Two ill-fated persons including one women also fell prey to the flood and lost their lives. Two bridges and about 3 KM of main Chitral-Mastuj road was also destroyed. SO far no assessment has been done to evaluate the impact of this Glacial Outburst on Downstream communities and infrastructure.

The devastation continued in 2011 as well. The sub-divisional Headquarter of Tehsil Mastuj, Boni experienced the devastations of GLOF in 2011. Thousands acres of farmlands and hundreds of households were wiped-out by the Glacial Outburst Floods originating from Boni Zoom Glaciers. The debris brought down by the floods expanded the spectrum of the devastations to downstream villages. The Juli Koch village, located on the western bank of River Chitral (opposite to Boni), lost one-third of its covered area to the intruding water waves resulting from the blockage of the river by the flood debris. This increasing trend of glaciers outburst in Chitral district reveals that the number of potentially dangerous glaciers and glacial lakes may exceed than as highlighted in different reports and research papers.

Researchers and scientists often believe in anthropogenic factors for Glacier outbursts. No doubt anthropogenic factors are the main factors of climate change throughout the world. But in case of Chitral both anthropogenic as well as natural factors are responsible for glacier melting and formation of glacial lakes in the district. The potential and recognized anthropogenic factors triggering climate change and associated glaciers outbursts in district Chitral are attributed to:
1. Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
2. Overgrazing in pastures and rangelands located in proximity of glaciers
3. Over utilization of high alpine peatland and resulting degradation of peatlands
4. Rapid unplanned urbanization
5. Increasing vehicles and excessive use of fossil fuels

Besides, there are also natural factors which further expedite the glaciers melting process in the district. Of these the first and most important factors is climate of Chitral. The climate of Chitral is dry temperate and rains are scanty. Due to scanty rains and dry climatic conditions the regeneration process of vegetation including plants and herbs/shrubs etc is very slow. The main forest types in southern parts of the district are comprised conifer and oak forests. Both conifer and oak plants grow very slowly in dry climatic conditions. In addition a major portion of the covered area of district Chitral lies above tree line. The forests in the district are thinly distributed and are under tremendous pressure to meet fuelwood and timber requirement of the local population. Forests acts as a sink for absorbing green house gases from the air. Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide ( the leading green house gases) are removed from the air and converted in to wood by forests. The forests area in Chitral is decreasing rapidly for the reasons mentioned above.

Moreover, district Chitral is a physically isolated area, surrounded all around by the sky high mountains. This geographical feature of the district restricts wind circulation and dispersions of air pollutants and green house gases. With passing time the concentration of these gases in the upper atmosphere kepts on increasing resulting in the warming of the air above. The Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF), according to researchers, are the visible and measurable manifestation of climate change or global warming. Chitral has been experiencing GLOF events since early 1990s. The destruction resulting from these GLOF events is unprecedented.

Glaciers contribute more than 60 percent to the fresh water in Upper Indus. If the present receding rate of the glaciers in Hindu Kush and Himalayas continued the fresh water flow in river systems will decrease 30 to 40% by 2050. The socio-economic impacts of such a scenario could easily be imagined in a country where agriculture is the backbone of the national economy.

This alarming situation demands concrete short term and long term interventions not only to protect lives and livelihoods of people in vulnerable areas but also prevent occurrence of GLOF events as well. The short term interventions should focus protection of vulnerable communities through adaptation measures while the long term measures should include integrated approach for development in all sectors. There is also a need to undertake a detail assessment of glaciers and other natural resources in district Chitral to formulate a long term natural resource management plan.

written by Hamid Ahmad,  Village Jung Bazzar, District Chitral

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