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Pakistan’s glaciers threatened by climate change

For generations, the glacier clinging to Miragram Mountain, a peak that towers above the village, has served as a reservoir for locals as well as powering countless streams throughout Pakistan’s scenic Chitral Valley. Now, though, the villagers say that their glacier — and their way of life — is in retreat. “We worry it may even vanish, and there will be no drinking water,” said Abdul Nasir, 60, pointing up at the 19,000-foot mountaintop streaked with thin, patchy snow.

“Every year it’s melting.” With 7,253 known glaciers, including 543 in the Chitral Valley, there is more glacial ice in Pakistan than anywhere on Earth outside the polar regions, according to various studies. Those glaciers feed rivers that account for about 75 per cent of the stored-water supply in the country of at least 180 million. But as in many other parts of the world, researchers say, Pakistan’s glaciers are receding, especially those at lower elevations, including here in the Hindu Kush mountain range in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

Among the causes cited by scientists: diminished snowfall, warmer temperatures, heavier summer rainstorms and rampant deforestation. To many, the 1,000-square-mile Chitral Valley has become a case study of what could await the rest of the world if climate change accelerates, turning life-supporting mountains into new markers of human misery. “It’s already happening here, and my thinking is, in the coming years it will just go from bad to worse,” said Bashir Ahmed Wani, a Pakistani forestry specialist with the Asian Development Bank. Over the past six years, the Chitral Valley has also experienced three major floods that many Pakistani scientists attribute to climate change.

The floodwaters killed more than 50 people and stranded hundreds of thousands while undercutting a once-vibrant tourist industry still struggling to rebound after Sept. 11, 2001. While climate change is a factor in the region’s calamities, the valley has also come to symbolize the way a poorly educated populace can make the situation worse, creating a cycle of hardship. Its glaciers offer a stark example. The valley’s population has soared — from 106,000 in 1950 to 600,000 today — and most residents get just two to four hours of electricity a day. Without reliable refrigeration, residents turn to vendors hawking chunks of the valley’s shrinking snowpack. Every day, they say, scores of these entrepreneurs drive five to seven hours to the mountain peaks, where they hack into the glaciers — or scoop up the preglacial snow — and load the haul into their jeeps and trucks. Back in the valley, they shovel the snow and ice into shopping bags and sell it for 50 cents a bag. “There are no fans, no refrigerators working, so I will store this for cooler water and then use it for drinking,” said Ubaid Ureh, 46, as he held two dripping bags.

Hameed Ahmed Mir, a local biodiversity expert who has worked for the United Nations, said that one cubic yard of ice weighs about a ton — enough to supply four to seven families with drinking water for several days — and one vehicle can carry three to four tons of snow or ice. “Then multiply that by 200 vehicles per day.” Khalil Ahmed, a former project manager for the U.N.-supported Glacial Lake Outburst Floods Project, said Pakistani law does not make it clear whether the government or the public owns the country’s vast glacial reservoirs. “We are trying to initiate a dialogue with the local people, but these are poor people,” he said, noting that glaciers in the neighbouring territory of Gilgit-Baltistan are also being sold off. Other scientists play down the threat, saying there are so many glaciers in Pakistan that it’s like taking water from an ocean. But even they admit that the sight of desperate families waiting to buy snow underscores the challenges facing this valley.

Ghulam Rasul, head of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, said the country’s weather patterns have shifted dramatically over the past two decades. When 30-year temperature averages from 1961 to 1990 are compared with those from 1981 to 2010, temperatures in the northern third of Pakistan, where the glaciers are located, increased by 1.2 degrees Celsius, Rasul said. Summer snow lines on Pakistan’s mountains have also crept up an average of 3,395 feet since 1981, he added. And the number of glacial lakes — which form when melting ice gets locked up in or around a glacier — has jumped from 2,420 a decade ago to 3,044 today, according to a recent study. Equally alarming, Rasul said, the annual South Asia monsoon is growing more dynamic as temperatures spike over land and clash with cooler ocean waters. Now, instead of the late summer monsoon affecting mainly southern and eastern Pakistan, it has also been pumping deluges over the mountains. “I believe this is an impact of global warming,” Rasul said. “If this continues, the glaciers will be melting at a fast rate, producing glacial lakes — and the lakes will burst,” triggering disasters. The weather changes have not seriously threatened the ice packs in Pakistan’s northernmost regions, where five of the world’s 14 highest peaks — all topping 26,000 feet — are located.

Some researchers think that the glaciers in the Karakorum and Himalayan mountains in Gilgit-Baltistan may even expand as weather patterns shift and more precipitation falls over the highest peaks as snow. Many of Pakistan’s glaciers are also covered in silt and debris, which helps insulate them. But farther south in the Chitral Valley, where most mountains are no higher than 22,000 feet, there is little doubt that the glaciers are under stress, researchers say. In the village of Reshun last July, a 20-foot wall of water crashed over 126 houses and killed a 4-year-old girl “on a very hot day,” said Azmat, 19, who uses only one name.

“We resided here for at least the last 200 years, and we never faced any kind of flood like this,” said the girl’s father, Nizam Uddim, who estimates that he is 52. Siraj ul-Mulk, the 71-year-old owner of the Hindu Kush Heights Hotel in Chitral, has been trekking in a different part of northern Chitral since he was a young man. “It used to take me a whole day to cross the glacier,” he said. “Now, it will take me two hours.” But just as in the broader global debate over climate change, some Pakistani researchers remain skeptical that warmer weather is causing Chitral’s glaciers to melt.

Arshad Abbasi, a water and energy expert, said Pakistanis alone are responsible for their plight. He noted that tree roots stabilize the ground that the glaciers bind to — and that Pakistan has retained just 2 to 5 per cent of its tree cover. Even worse, he said, goat herders, tourists and even the country’s army are allowed to trek over them. “People say global warming, but in fact, it’s human activity” that most threatens the glaciers, said Abbasi, who has studied the effect of Pakistani and Indian military encampments on the shrinking Siachen Glacier in the Himalayan range near the disputed Kashmir region. Local activists agree that lax environmental standards are magnifying the danger.

Inayatullah Faizi, an expert on local culture, noted that much of Chitral’s garbage and sewage is dumped directly into streams and the Chitral River — another reason residents buy snow from the glacier. Aisha Khan, head of the Islamabad-based Mountain and Glacier Protection Organization, said a massive conservation campaign is needed to combat public ignorance. She noted that many mountain-area families still try to make glaciers grow by “fertilizing them,” cutting ice from a dark, debris-clogged glacier (male) and setting it next to a clear one (female). Still, there are signs that younger Pakistanis, even in remote places, are realizing what is at stake. In Sonoghur, a small village north of Miragram that was devastated by a glacial lake flood in 2007, a middle age man began telling a reporter that India and Israel are responsible for glaciers melting because they don’t want overwhelmingly Muslim Pakistan “to grow and prosper.” But Amir Shahzaib, 17, spoke up. “We don’t believe that, and our new generation wants to take care of the earth,” he said, adding that he and his friends were trying to get older residents to stop throwing plastic bottles in waterways. They can’t do it all, he added. “We are just partly responsible for climate change,” Shahzaib said of his village. “Mostly, the city people are responsible.

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