Tackling risks of glacial lake outburst floods in Pakistan’s north  

Melting of glaciers in Pakistan because of global warming poses a serious threat to sustainability of river flows and agriculture, which is mainstay of the country’s economy.

Fahad Bashir Bangash 
Fahad Bashir Bangash – The contributor, photographer

The country’s glaciers are receding at an alarming rate of almost 40 to 60 metres a decade as a result of the rapidly changing climatic conditions, according to Pakistan Meteorological Department.

There are estimated 5240 glaciers spread over 15041 square-kilometres in Pakistan’s north, according to Kathamndu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development.

Due to rising temperatures, around 2420 glacial lakes have formed, 55 of which are potentially hazardous and can burst out anytime, washing away everything on their with full force.

Dozens of glacier glacial lakes have already burst out over last several years, which have caused loss of lives and massive damages to agriculture, water and sanitation infrastructures and other public as well as community infrastructures in mountain valleys in Pakistan’s north.

While glaciers retreat, glacial lakes form behind moraine or ice dams. Because of their inherent instability, such dams are extremely vulnerable to sudden outbursts/breaches called glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF). Such outbursts can lead to a release of millions of cubic metres of water and debris in a few hours with the peak flows as high as 15,000 cubic metres a second.

A beautiful view of the Bagrote valley

As long as global earth temperatures continue to rise, nothing can be done to stop more and more glacier lakes from forming. But, some adaptation and mitigation measures can be put in place in the mountain valleys of the country, which have become vulnerable to threats of glacial lakes and their outburst.

In Bagrot valley alone, around over 8,000 of the valley’s residents are vulnerable to GLOF and flash floods, while existing sanitation and irrigation infrastructure has suffered severe damage over the last years due to extreme weather events.

The communities settled in GLOF prone mountain valleys are highly vulnerable, and they need for greater education and public awareness on how to reduce risk from GLOF threats and how such risk can be managed.

Situated some 800 kms from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad and 40 kms from Gilgit city, the Bagrot valley consists of 10 scattered villages, whose population depends for almost all its needs on streams that bubble forth from the Karakoram mountains, a sub-range of the Hindu Kush Himalayas and the world’s most heavily glaciated area outside of the Polar Regions.

A layered embankment is being constructed to control land erosion
A layered embankment is being constructed to control land erosion

Spread over 452 sq km, the Bagrot valley’s main glaciers are: Hinarche, Burche, Gutumi and Yune.

Having this view in point, one of the most successful initiatives underway is a four-year, 7.6-million-dollar Pakistan GLOF Project has been funded by the Adaptation Fund, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the government of Pakistan.

There are two major aims of the project: 1) to develop the human and technical capacity of public institutions to understand and address immediate GLOF risks for vulnerable communities in Northern Pakistan and 2) to enable vulnerable local communities in Pakistan’s north to better understand and respond to GLOF risks and thereby adapt to growing climate change pressures.

For the implementation of the country’s first adaptation project, two mountain valleys – Bagrot (Gilgit) and Bindo Gol (Chitral), which are gravely vulnerable to the risk of glaciaer lake outburst floods (GLOF) protect lives and everything from possible damages from the GLOF incidents.

The main thrust of the project is protection of lives, livelihoods, existing water channels, farmlands and the construction of flood control infrastructure including check dams, erosion control structures and gabion walls.

Under the Pakistan GLOF Project, following key interventions have been carried out to secure lives, livelihoods and the community infrastructure and reduce risks and vulnerability to the GLOF incidents. As many as 13 flood diversion walls, two bridges, 9 safe havens and safe access routes have been constructed in the Bagrot valley. Besides, community-based disaster response cell has also been put in place to prevent human/material/livelihood losses in the community.

Different programmes have been organized in the valley to build up capacity of the community members and awareness-raising to effectively response to natural disasters like flash floods, glacier lake outburst floods, earthquakes and torrential rains.

One Early Warning System (EWS) has been installed in the valley in collaboration with Pakistan Meteorological Department in order to study the GLOF phenomena in the valley and reduce/avoid potential damages from outbreak of floods by intimating local communities in time.

Programmes have been also organized for enhancing capacity of the Gilgit district administration, sub-district administration and local communities to effectively and timely respond to the disasters like GLOF and flash floods.

Community-based anti-disaster force called Hazard Watch Group (HWG) has also been established in the valley to inform community members about potential outbreak of any disaster like GLOF, flash flood, land erosion and landslide when in the making.

The scenic Bagrote valley
The scenic Bagrote valley

The HWG comprises volunteers, who have been imparted knowledge and skills at different training workshops and provided with necessary equipments to inform the communities downstream about outbreak of any imminent disaster. This all aims to safely and timely evacuate communities to safe havens so that any loss of lives is staved off.

There is an strong need that such initiatives are scaled up further and replicated in other GLOF/disaster-prone valleys in Pakistan’s north to protect lives and livelihoods of the mountain communities. To achieve this, provincial governments of Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa need to come forward to replicate these proven disaster risk reduction models in hazard prone valleys in their respective provinces.

The writer is monitoring, communication and documentation officer at the Pakistan GLOF Project in Islamabad.

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One Comment

  1. why do people not learn. The photographs shown are most depressing, as they bear witness to the massive deforestation in the area. Just 20 years ago, one could find many of those now barren slopes covered with forests.
    we talk about climate change and keep on chopping trees and claim that man made measures are the solution to save the villagers from GLOF. Wake up please

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