Coordinated policy response needed to mitigate glacial lake outburst floods in South Asia: experts

By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio

ISLAMABAD: Climate change scientists, experts and policymakers emphasized that boosting intra-regional collaboration in South Asia for dealing with common climate risks, particularly glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), has become inevitable for making the region climate-resilient.

The South Asian countries including Pakistan have witnessed increased frequency in GLOF incidents, which occur when the dam containing a glacial lake outbursts and unleash water downstream at a frightening speed. As a result, the devastating outburst of glacial floods like the recent one in Chitral district wipe out everything in their way when they flow downstream, they noted while addressing a two-day international moot on “Glacier Lake Outburst Floods: Challenges And Adaptation Solutions”, which concluded here at a local hotel on Thursday (July 15).

The conference was attended by climate change experts, scientists, policy makers, academia from, among others, Italy, Netherlands, Afghanistan, Nepal and Bhutan and various parts of the country.

“It is a multi-dimensional challenge and strong partnership and multi-lateral cooperation is required to deal with it,” Arif Ahmed Khan, secretary climate change ministry, said during his keynote address to inaugural session of the moot on October 14.

He highlighted, “GLOFs are dynamic in nature and involve various expertise for designing and implementation of adaptation and mitigation interventions of the projects like GLOF. Therefore a multi-lateral cooperation, partnerships and coordination at national and regional scales are required.”

He informed that participants from various countries that for making the country resilient to GLOF incidents, the climate change ministry in collaboration with UNDP-Pakistan through UN’s Adaptation Fund initiated four-year climate change adaptation project in year 2011 titled “Reducing Risks and Vulnerabilities from Glacier Lake Outburst Floods in Northern Pakistan” at a cost of US$ 7.6 million, for which Pakistani government contributed US$ 3.5 million in kind.

Launched in Gilgit and Chitral, the project aimed at developing human and technical capacity of public institutions to understand and address immediate GLOF risks for vulnerable communities in Northern Pakistan and; and enabling vulnerable local communities in Pakistan’s north to better understand and respond to GLOF risks and thereby adapt to growing climate change pressures.

While sharing sucessess stories and achievement of the GLOF Pakistan Project, Arif Ahmed Khan told participants that the best possible and viable community-based approaches were introduced and tested in the two project of Bagrot valley (Gilgit) and Bindo Gol valley (Chitral) as a part of GLOF risk mitigation to protect lives and livelihoods of vulnerable mountain communities living in GLOF-prone areas.

The secretary said further that the project also generated policy recommendations helped sensitization and institutional strengthening of relevant government and non-governmental stakeholders.

“There was inadequate understanding about the severity of the GLOF risk and its impacts required for hammering out policy measures to deal with them. But thanks to the country’s first adaptation project, now we have enough action-oriented information and knowledge about GLOF risks, viable measures and replicable GLOF risk mitigation model case studies carried out in the GLOF project areas,” he pointed out.

Arif Ahmed Khan said that efforts were being taken to upscale the case studies developed under the project in collaboration with different stakeholders including provincial governments to help mountain communities adapt to the aggravating risk of GLOFs and make public infrastructure GLOF-resilient.

“We have already developed and submitted a US$ 36 million project to the UN-led Green Climate Fund (GCF) for launching second phase of the GLOF project for scaling up and replication of the lessons learnt through ongoing GLOF project,” he added.

Deputy Country Director of the UNDP – Pakistan, Ms. Tracy Vienings, said that among all the climate change-related programmes initiated in the country, the GLOF Pakistan Project was a unique adaptation project, which has benefited thousands of households in Gilgit and Chitral, whose lives, livelihoods and homes have been made secured from the rising frequency of GLOF incidents.

“No one can stop the outburst of the glacial lakes in Pakistan’s north. But efforts can be taken in the light of the GLOF Pakistan project to save the lives and livelihoods of the tens of thousands of poor mountain communities, which are now at the mercy of nature,” he stated.

She assured all-out support to the Pakistani government in reducing the risk of the climate change-induced GLOF risk.

National GLOF Pakistan Project Director and Joint Secretary (Development) at the climate change ministry, Aftab Ahmed Maneka said that GLOF incidents, whenever happen, result in large-scale loss of lives and damages to community infrastructure, communication networks, roads, agriculture lands and livestock.

He observed that the glaciers in Pakistan are retreating at a rate of between 40 to 60 meters in a decade, which is a much faster rate as compared to other regional countries.

“Given the pace of melting of glaciers, around 3,044 glacial lakes have been identified and mapped in Pakistan’s north, which is home to nearly 5,000 glaciers. 36 of the identified glacial lakes have been declared ‘potentially hazardous’ and on the verge of outburst anytime,” he counted and said that the severity of GLOF risk in the country merits response on war-footing ground.”

The climate change ministry is in close contact with different stakeholders to cope with these potential GLOF risks and mulling over various policy options/measures to protect the lives and livelihoods of the mountain communities settled in GLOF-prone areas for centuries, he told the participants.

Programme Manager for River Basins and Cryosphere and Atmosphere Project at the Nepal-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Arun Bhakta Shrestha, said that the South Asia regional countries, particularly Pakistan, Nepal and Bhutan, are extremely vulnerable to GLOF risks.

He urged the South Asian governments to scale up experiences gained from the implementation of the GLOF projects in the regional countries and formulate and implement other GLOF risk reduction policy measures to build up the region’s resilience against the climate change-caused GLOF disasters.

“Framing GLOF risk reduction policies and programmes and their implementation must reflect the community involvement, for it is vital to success of the initiatives for the success of this project.

He cautioned that Pro-activeness of the government, cooperation of scientific community, positive role of media and support of donor is key to success of such projects.

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