Mountain communities threatened by melting glaciers

Mountain communities in the north are faced with the danger of melting glaciers. A middle aged Shah Raees stands atop the rubble in Barikan Kot village in Bagrot valley of Gilgit-Baltistan, as he shares a heart-wrenching story of how his ancestral home and a 10-kanal land in Barikan Kot village was swept away by a historic super flood.

The flood occurred as the iced wall of Hinarchi Glacier, which was holding a big glacial lake had burst, leading to a flood disaster.

Raees’s forefathers weren’t the only affectees, as a 100 other households of the village were devastated as well. All of them had to migrate to other areas in search of livelihoods and safety.

But the catastrophe that struck Barikan Kot village more than a century ago is still being felt; the rubble and boulders that came along with the historic super flood are still there. What lies underneath are peoples’ homes, fertile land and orchards. Silence prevails in the area as the land is uninhabitable. Barikan Kot village lays abandoned and deserted.

This situation, however, is not due to just one natural calamity that occurred about a century ago — Barikan Kot village suffers from many glacial lake outburst floods every year. This occurrence of an extreme weather event after a few decades was considered a natural phenomenon, but an unprecedented increase in the intensity and frequency of natural disasters is an anomaly.

Temperature rise seems to be the primary cause of glacier melting, including the Hinarchi Glacier on which many glacial lakes are being formed, posing a serious threat to mountain communities.

Aisha Khan, the executive director of Civil Society Coalition for Climate Change (CSCCC), who also heads the Mountain and Glacier Protection Organization (MGPO), explains why there is an increase in the formation of glacial lakes.

According to her, “global warming and changes in mountain ecosystem will increase the formation of glacial lakes and exert pressure on human and natural systems. Most of these glacial lakes in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region of Pakistan were formed in the last five decades and the number of glacial lake outburst flood events is likely to increase, as new lakes are being formed and old lakes become more unstable”.

Raees says glaciers in Bagrot valley are getting even more unstable and threatening people’s lives. “This year, there was a record glacial lake outburst flood event and our considerable land was inundated due to it. Due to glacier outburst events, the local population and livestock are in danger,” he says.

“The glaciers are slowly moving and have even reached a mosque, which my father had built in the village. As far as I know, due to these glacial outburst incidents, five people have died and over 100 animals have been killed.”

Global warming poses an existential threat to the glaciers of Pakistan, where it is not just leading to their gradual decline but also resulting in devastating floods. The government has initiated projects to prevent the loss of lives and livelihoods but it needs to step up its efforts to protect the local communities and prevent the glaciers from increased melting.

Syed Zahid Hussain Shah, an expert who manages the threats posed by glaciers, explains this phenomenon as he hikes to the Hinarchi Glacier. According to him, the glacier used to be 18km in length but owing to the impacts of climate change over the past 30 years, it has reduced by approximately 2km. While pointing to the boundaries of Hinarchi Glacier, Zahid says, “Hinarchi also used to have a greater height in the past but due to climate change, it has reduced significantly”.

“The adverse impacts of climate change on the Hinarchi Glacier include the formation of lakes. The depressions on the glacier lead to the formation of glacial lakes every year.

“If these lakes drain, they pose no threat but if they don’t, their chances to burst are high and eventually devastate the downstream communities.”

Zahid was also the field manager of Glacial Lake Outburst Flood-I (GLOF-I) project (2011-2016) jointly managed by the Government of Pakistan and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pakistan. The project aimed to reduce the threat of glacial lake outburst flood incidents in Bagrot valley in Gilgit-Baltistan and Bindo Gol valley in Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.


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