Water Security Management

Melting Glaciers and GLOF

The impact of climate change is not a topic to be taken lightly for a country that is generally considered to be in seventh place for the most at risk. Despite the complexities of the challenges the topic is coming into great focus and awareness is growing.

From the mountains in the glorious north, to the coastline of the Arabian Sea, the risks of disasters and other environmental catastrophes from the impacts of climate change and Global Warming are substantial. Many, in some form or another, relate to water issues including the melting of glaciers, glacial lake, flash and riverine floods, droughts and water management.

A major issue that needs urgent attention is in the north of the country. Around the world, including across the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush region, glaciers are receding. In Pakistan, alarmingly, this is believed to be happening faster than anywhere else in the world. The glacierized area in northern Pakistan spreads across 11,780 km2 of the Himalayan, Karakoram and Hindu Kush region. There are 7,259 glaciers with a 2,066 km3 volume of ice. The glaciers feed at least 60% of the Upper Indus Basin.

The melting of the glaciers increases the risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) across this region, placing the surrounding and downstream communities at risk. When glaciers retreat, they leave behind lakes supported by ice dams or accumulations of rock and soil. The inherently unstable dams often burst, sending huge volumes of water rushing into the villages below them. Over hours and days, the release of millions of cubic metres of water and debris from lake outbursts can cause devastating flooding for hundreds of kilometres. Lives have been lost in such events. Homes, roads, bridges, and other local infrastructure, forests, crops, and livelihoods are swept away. Tourism industry, the lifeblood for so many locals, suffers substantial loss for long periods of time until the area recovers thereby increasing the poverty levels of locals who are totally dependent on the industry.

Adding to the risks, customary practices of the local population, including chopping trees for firewood, cooking and warmth reduce the tree cover and stability of the terrain around the lakes. Without the tree cover, the denuded slopes become less stable and the risk of landslides is substantially increased. The local people also cut into the glaciers for ice and water for their homes. Not only is there a need to raise community awareness about the impact of such practices, but also to assist them to develop more sustainable solutions to meet their daily fuel and water requirements to reduce the stress on the environment.

The melting of the glaciers increases the risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) across this region, placing the surrounding and downstream communities at risk. When glaciers retreat, they leave behind lakes supported by ice dams or accumulations of rock and soil. The inherently unstable dams often burst, sending huge volumes of water rushing into the villages below them. Over hours and days, the release of millions of cubic metres of water and debris from lake outbursts can cause devastating flooding for hundreds of kilometres.

GLOF events have occurred in the past. These have not been well-documented in part due to the remoteness of the region, but also because until more recent times disaster management had not been a defined part of the government processes. The scale and frequency of events is growing.

To address the growing threat, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) of Pakistan is placing significant emphasis on the dangers presented in the glacial lake region. In March 2018, the NDMA’s Chairman, Lieutenant General Omar Mahmood Hayat, highlighted the issue when he directed a team of experts to provide a comprehensive report on the GLOF risks in Shimshal Valley. The report is to cover both technical and financial aspects and recommendations for implementation to reduce risk.

The building of the Kishanganga and Ratle hydro-electric projects on the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers in Indian Occupied Jammu & Azad Kashmir, has been contentious. Pakistan has reasonable concerns that these projects will have a negative impact on the flow of water in Pakistan from these rivers. Pakistan is dependent on the Indus River system. With a burgeoning population to feed and the country becoming increasingly water stressed, any negative impact on water flows in the river system will be catastrophic particularly for the country’s agricultural industries and food security. Conversely, any unexpected release of water from the Indian side can cause flooding in the Pakistani rivers.

The Khurdopin Glacier situated in Shimshal Valley of district Hunza has a history of surging, retreating and bursting within a cycle of twenty years. The bursting of the glacial lake in 1905 and 1964 caused considerable damage to both public and private infrastructure downstream beyond the city of Gilgit. Another surge was observed around 1998-99. Alarmingly, the glacier began another rapid advance in October 2016. As ice and sediment pushed into the river, a large lake formed in December 2017. Experts have reported that the glacier has made abnormal progress and blocked the Shimshal River, creating a glacial lake.

A round-the-clock monitoring unit was directed to observe the situation at the Khurdopin Glacier Valley and ensure the implementation of an early warning system to disseminate information to the population at risk. An evacuation plan is also being devised and mock evacuation drills will be conducted with the local population. Rescue and relief stores, including food and medicine, will be stockpiled along with forward displacement of earth-moving machinery.

To understand just what happens when a lake bursts, be it due to glacial melting, torrential rain and/or massive landslides from unstable surrounding slopes, we need only to look back at what happened in Hunza in 2010. Today Attabad Lake is a magnet for tourists to the Hunza Valley. The extraordinary turquoise waters of the lake, surrounded by soaring rugged mountains, is a must-see. But it is not a natural lake. It was formed in January 2010, when a massive landslide upstream from Karimabad blocked the flow of the Hunza River, killing at least 20 people, displacing 6,000 and stranding many thousands more as all roads were cut. Within five months the lake reached 21 kilometres in length with a depth of up to 100 metres in places. Then it started to flow over the dam formed by the landslide creating a looming nightmare for the surrounding communities and a massive challenge for rescue and relief authorities to prevent further catastrophe.

Sections of the famous Karakoram Highway were crushed by the landslide, cutting the road link to the China Border at the Khunjerab Pass. The Highway stayed closed for over five years until a new section around the lake was completed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation in 2015. During the intervening years after the disaster, all users of the highway had to take their vehicles by boat across the lake, a slow and sometimes perilous, though rather thrilling journey.

The Attabad incident provides a snapshot parallel to what can happen following a major glacial lake outburst, and has provided lessons for future response. The villages below were completely submerged and with bad weather conditions closing in, helicopters were unable to fly. With all roads cut off, the local population was unable to receive much-needed supplies of food, medicines and other necessities. Access will always be a challenge in such situations and more so in remote areas.

In 2014, the Climate Change Division of the Government of Pakistan, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Provincial Governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan, published a study which also made policy recommendations and guidelines to streamline and incorporate the issues for future policy formulation to address the risks of GLOF in Pakistan. This study, and others developed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the Pakistan Meteorological Department and others, are helping to inform the knowledge base on GLOF risks, and to provide monitoring services.

In 2011, Gilgit-Baltistan experienced a GLOF event. NDMA reported at the time that 120 houses in Talus village were swept away. Orographic rains and cloudbursts caused a major GLOF incident in Chitral in 2015. Orographic rains occur when masses of air pushed by wind are forced up the side of mountains. The Chitral GLOF incident triggered flash flooding with torrents washing away villages, killing a number of people and damaging infrastructure and crops. NDMA and the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, with assistance from the Pakistan Army, rushed to provide relief to the affected population.

In recent years, the NDMA and their provincial counterparts have implemented a process to prepare annual Monsoon Contingency Plans to address all aspects of potential flooding, including GLOF. The Contingency Plan factors in not only the risks but all the necessary information to prepare for, mitigate, and respond to an event. As monsoon patterns have been changing due to climate change over the past few years the country must be prepared for previously unexpected disasters particularly where a number of factors combine. The 2010 floods struck parts of the country that were not usually impacted by the ferocity of the catastrophe. A combination of flash floods in the north, converging with riverine floods in the major river systems ultimately affected one-fifth of the country resulting in massive damage to the national economy and lives of the people.

Good management of the rivers of Pakistan is imperative but the ability of managing the flow does not lie solely within the country. The Indus River originates in the Tibetan Plateau, following a course through the Ladakh region of Jammu and Kashmir (India), towards Gilgit-Baltistan and the Hindu Kush ranges, and then flowing southerly along the entire length of Pakistan. Any issue along the river system before it reaches Pakistan, can become critical within the country. For example, any GLOF event or other floods, or any restriction on water flows on the Indian side will impact Pakistan.

The Indus Waters Treaty governs how the water is managed with the Indus, Chenab and Jhelum Rivers under the control of Pakistan and the Beas, Sutlej and Ravi under the control of India. The Treaty apportions certain sharing rights as to how the water may be used. There have been disputes but to date, these have been managed through the legal procedures provided within the Treaty framework. However, should the relationship between the two countries deteriorate, the rivers could be held hostage to geo-politics.

The building of the Kishanganga and Ratle hydro-electric projects on the Jhelum and Chenab Rivers in Indian Occupied Jammu & Azad Kashmir, has been contentious. Pakistan has reasonable concerns that these projects will have a negative impact on the flow of water in Pakistan from these rivers. Pakistan is dependent on the Indus River system. With a burgeoning population to feed and the country becoming increasingly water stressed, any negative impact on water flows in the river system will be catastrophic particularly for the country’s agricultural industries and food security. Conversely, any unexpected release of water from the Indian side can cause flooding in the Pakistani rivers.

Of great concern to governments, not only in Pakistan, but many other countries, is that climate change and the resulting disasters will exacerbate existing social inequalities in relation to availability of resources, intensify local and cross-border conflicts, and cause displacement of populations. Defence organisations in several countries have conducted studies on the security risks related to climate change, particularly in relation to access to water, and the potential for local and trans-border conflict. Some observers believe that the water issues between India and Pakistan may be a cause for concern. However, others are less convinced. Only time will tell.

Is Pakistan at risk of environmental catastrophes resulting from climate change? Unless more work is done on assessing the hazards and implementing the necessary measures to mitigate risks, the answer is likely to be ‘yes’.

The Ministry of Climate Change and NDMA have developed policies and guidelines to address the challenges of climate change. NDMA, along with PDMAs and other partners, are already conducting Multi-Hazard and Vulnerability Risk Assessments, not only in places like Chitral and other northern regions, but across Pakistan in all the most-vulnerable areas to assess the risks. These are important assessments in providing a deeper understanding of the interconnecting hazards and the potential impact on the local populations. Funding support for this work is imperative as is funding for remedial action. The investment in the costs of conducting assessments and prevention will far outweigh the cost of a disaster.

Risk assessments are of no value if recommendations are not implemented. Awareness of climate and environmental risks must be part of any strategy to ensure a higher level of consideration is given to planning, development, infrastructure, construction, agricultural practices, and water management. Communities in all parts of the country must be encouraged to consider the impacts of traditional practices on the environment and to participate in the solutions. Wasteful water usage must be curtailed. Behavioural change will require a sustained public interest campaign by government and other stakeholders. It is in everybody’s interest to participate in measures that will reduce the impacts of climate change and protect water and the diverse environment.


The writer is Australian Disaster Management and Civil-Military Relations Consultant, based in Islamabad where she consults for Government and UN agencies. She has also worked with ERRA and NDMA.

Email: [email protected]

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