The Glaciers are Melting, Lao!


By: Izhar Hunzai

Before the advent of mobile phones and SMS, if you wanted to communicate an urgent message in Hunza, you would go to the top of a hill and perform a ‘lao’, loudly calling upon the village community to convene and attend to an urgent matter, such as fixing a broken irrigation channel, resolving a conflict, or burying a fellow citizen. I wish to do a ‘lao’ in the following lines.

A few days ago, I attended a conference on Climate Change Science and Policy in Islamabad. It was co-hosted by Pakistan Agriculture Research Council (PARC) and International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), supported by the Canadian and United Kingdom governments. The aim was to present results of latest climate change research conducted in the region, including studies focusing on Pakistan’s northern mountains and impacts downstream, to policymakers and key stakeholders. It was a timely and much appreciated event and a useful international public service.

Based on fresh evidence presented in this conference, climate change poses an existential threat to Pakistan. This was not only accepted by eminent Pakistani scientists andpolicy makers who attended and contributed to the conference deliberations, but they also highlighted the cost of doing nothing. All agreed that the problem is global, complex and unprecedented. Pakistan is not even a significant GHG emitter and polluter. Yet it is now increasingly certain that it will take the brunt of the consequences of a disaster of unprecedented proportions, which is not of its making.

The scale, severity and complexity of the challenge is hard to describe in a short article. In the landmark Paris Conference of 2015, stabilizing global temperatures at 2 degrees centigrade above the then global mean temperature was the collective aim. That meant arresting CO2 emissions at 400 PPM (parts per million). Well, this limit is now already breached. Just to provide a perspective as to where the global warming is headed, 2015, 2016 and 2017 were the hottest years ever recorded in the history of our planet. My family is from Gilgit but we live as tenets in the upper portion of a house in Islamabad. When the heat became too unbearable last summer, my wife and I painted our roof white—chuna laga diya! It worked to some extent. We fear that the coming summer could  be worse than the last summer. Winter failed to happened during this winter season in Islamabad, and that is not a good omen. Thankfully, our landlord family has decided to retrofit their house and have lined the roof with white marble tiles, which we hope will reduce the impact of urban heat waves.

Pakistan contributes less than 0.05 percent of (greenhouse gases) GHGs to the global emissions and is not responsible for the global warming phenomenon. As usual, the main culprits are industrialized countries, especially USA and China. Yet, Pakistan is the 7th most vulnerable country in the world that will pay dearly for a warming planet. The cost of loss and damage is expected to be steep if you were to believe the scientists and policy makers in this conference.

The average global temperature is calculated to increase by 1.5 degrees by 2030. This increase will be about 2 degrees higher in Pakistan and even higher by another 2 degrees in the mountain areas. This can lead to an epic disaster of unmanageable scale, complexity, and consequence, compounded by new diseases, multiple disasters, policy and market failures, population pressures, conflicts and too many claimants over fewer and declining resources.    

Pakistan is basically a semi-arid country and the River Indus is its lifeline. The Indus River gets roughly 40% of its water from snow and glacial melt in the northern mountains, which Pakistan calls a disputed area. Scientists in this conference warned that rising temperatures will increase and intensify melting of permanent ice and glaciers in the northern mountains, doubling the amount of water in the Indus River in the next 30-40 years’ time. All of the extra water will fall in the Indian Ocean without benefiting, rather causing havoc in Pakistan, because we don’t have any dams to store this water. What is even more scary is that this increase will peak and coincide with the monsoon season, a time when India releases excess water from now fully or partially dammed eastern rivers which it controls. This will lead to widespread flooding and inundation of agricultural lands, cities and infrastructure, not to mention diseases and other related disasters.

In about 70 years’ time, the glaciers will be reduced to less than 40% of their current volume, and the Indus River will see a corresponding reduction in its flow. Meanwhile, the population of Pakistan will swell to 500 million. You can imagine the nature of conflicts. Allah will also stop helping us, because we did nothing to help ourselves. Not a pretty scenario!

When Indus is threatened, Pakistan is threatened. The consequences of flooding and tsunami like destruction from the increased melting phase could knock out infrastructure, energy supplies and production and distribution of food and other basic necessities. It is not that policymakers are not cognizant of these facts and cannot do some advance planning to reduce the cost of this looming disaster. They won’t because it is a political economy and equity question. Just like the global problem, it is the poor who will pay the high price, not the elite of Pakistan. The elite will buy the best adaptation insurance available in the global market. So one scenario is nothing will change and what has to happen will happen. Under this scenario, the high cost of loss and damage can weaken the state, and reduce its ability to respond to multiple threats. What is needed is to pay attention to these new existential threats and include them in the larger security calculus. Adaptation strategy in Pakistan should begin at the level of individual citizen with knowledge and motivation to adapt climate compatible lifestyles and occupations.

Potential solutions have to follow push and pull methods, top down and bottom up approaches, and innovative and imaginative tools! These solutions must be aligned with national, regional and global initiatives, based on SDG principles. The first condition is to agree to help ourselves, agree to apply knowledge, reach out and co-learn and co-create solutions to new challenges thrown up by climate and global change. The supply side push has to include knowledge transfer and resources. The pull measures should mobilize local resources and leadership. Incentivized mechanisms, such as various cap and trade markets, regulatory regimes, reward and recognition systems, and learning and adopting new coping and resource management and conflict transformation techniques, would be needed.

Climate resilience programs can be built around community needs and priorities using a mix of global knowledge and community learning by doing. Taking a long-term approach to adaptation would necessitate revising education curricula, especially the early years of education. This method can be the basis for evolving an integrated adaptation strategy and culture. The government at the federal level has passed extensive legislation in the form of the 2015 Climate Change Act. It has created a Council, an Authority and a Fund. This is a good start, and actions must follow, policies changed and investments prioritized. But no visible initiative can be seen on the ground. The government is investing in thermal plants to produce energy that will spew more emissions, especially the black carbon from coal plants which are responsible for intensifying glacier melting, rather than building hydropower plants and reservoirs to store and regulate water.

All stakeholders must hear the loud lao shouted down from the mountains, that the health of the mountain ecology is linked to the security and prosperity of Pakistan. Changing national policies for the benefit of all people begin with knowledge of things, citizens’ voice and actions. Let’s create public awareness, mobilize and reorganize society around common stakes and redefine our national politics.

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