Melting glaciers threaten northern Pakistan

When it dawned over the Pakistani mountain Javed Rahi villagea loud roar broke the silence, and a torrent of water gushed from a melting glacier nearby, accompanied by a thick cloud of smoke.

Rahi, a retired math teacher, was supposed to attend his nephew’s wedding the day the flood hit the village of Hassanabad.

“I expected women and children to sing and dance… Instead, I heard them screaming in terror,” said the 67-year-old.

“It was like the end of the world.”

The flooding, which occurred in May when a heat wave swept through South Asia, swept away nine houses in the village and damaged half a dozen more.

The water also washed away two small hydroelectric plants and a bridge that connected the remote settlement to the outside world.

There are over 7,000 glaciers in Pakistan, more than anywhere else on Earth outside the poles.

Rising global temperatures associated with climate change are rapidly melting glaciers, resulting in the formation of thousands of glacial lakes.

The government has warned that 33 of these lakes, located in the picturesque mountain ranges of the Himalayas, Hindu Kush and Karakoram that cross in Pakistan, risk bursting and releasing millions of cubic meters of water and debris in just a few hours. like in Hasanabad.

The Pakistani government said earlier this week that there have already been at least 16 such heatwave-related glacial lake outburst floods this year, compared to an average of five or six per year.

The devastation caused by such floods makes rebuilding affected communities a difficult task.

After the natural disaster in Hassanabad, Rahi and fellow villagers who lost their homes were forced to move to a nearby displaced persons camp.

Inside their makeshift tents are the few things they managed to salvage and mattresses to sleep on.

“We never thought we would fall from wealth to poverty,” Rahi said.

– No resources to move –

According to the Global Climate Risk Index compiled by the environmental NGO Germanwatch, Pakistan ranks eighth in the world in terms of vulnerability to extreme weather events caused by climate change.

The country is experiencing earlier, hotter and more frequent heatwaves, with temperatures already reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) this year.

The floods and droughts of recent years have killed and displaced thousands of people, destroyed livelihoods and damaged infrastructure.

According to the United Nations Development Program, the lack of information about changes in glaciers in Pakistan makes it difficult to predict the dangers emanating from them.

Although Hassanabad had an early warning system, including cameras that monitor the flow of water in glacial lakes, the villagers believed they lived high enough above the water to avoid any strike, according to local authorities.

Zahida Sher, who lost her home during the floods in Hassanabad, said the force of the water destroyed buildings that were previously considered safe.

Mountain communities depend on them livestock, orchards, farms and tourism for survival, but climate change threatens all of this.

“We have an agrarian economy and people don’t have enough resources to move from here,” said Sher, a researcher at a local development NGO.

Siddiq Ulla Baig, a disaster risk reduction analyst for the northern region, said about seven million people are vulnerable to such events, but many do not realize the severity of the threat.

“People continue to build houses in areas declared as a flood red zone. Our people are not aware and not prepared to deal with any possible disaster,” he told AFP.

– ‘Terrible night’ –

Further north of Hassanabad is Passu, another precarious village that has already lost about 70 percent of its population and area to floods and natural river erosion.

The village is sandwiched between the White Glacier in the south, the Batur Glacier in the north and the Hunza River in the east – three forces that have received the respectful title of “dragons” for their destructive power.

“The village of Passu is in the mouth of these three dragons,” said local scholar Ali Qurban Mugani, pointing to the centuries-old bodies of dense ice that tower over the village.

As he spoke, workers were erecting a protective concrete wall along the riverbank in an attempt to protect the village from further erosion.

Kamran Iqbal invested 500,000 rupees (about $2,400), which he borrowed from a local NGO, to open a picnic spot for visitors with a breathtaking view.

The beauty of the glaciers has made this region one of the top tourist destinations in the country.

Business flourished until last year’s “horror night” when a flash flood washed away Iqbal’s investment.

Even the most ambitious international climate targets to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century could melt one-third of Pakistan’s glaciers, the Nepal-based science organization International Center for Integrated Mountain Development said in a 2019 study. .

“In 2040, we may start to face problems of (water) scarcity that could lead to drought and desertification, and before that, we may have to deal with frequent and intense river flooding and, of course, flash floods,” Aisha said. Khan, head of the Mountain and Glacier Protection Organization, which investigates glaciers in Pakistan.

– “We are at the forefront” –

Pakistan, home to over 220 million people, says it is responsible for less than one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

However, it remains highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, dependent on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and natural resources.

“There are no factories or industries here that could cause pollution. We have a clean environment,” said Amanullah Khan, a 60-year-old village elder in Passu.

“But when it comes to the threats posed by climate change, we are at the forefront.”

Asif Sakhi, a political activist from Passu, said that mountain communities are increasingly fearful of the dangers posed by glaciers.

“This area belongs to glaciers; we occupied it,” said the 32-year-old man.