By Karim Dad
Researchers have established that the accelerated melting of Asia’s estimated 56,000 glaciers is creating hundreds of new lakes across the Himalaya and other high mountain ranges. These natural dams holding a glacial lake in place fails, the resulting flood could be catastrophic for communities situated in the valleys below.
National Geographic Magazine defines flood of this nature as “…..and as the lake fills up, it can overspill the moraines holding it in place or, in the worst-case scenario, the moraines can give way. Scientists call such an event a glacial lake outburst flood, or GLOF. “The challenge with glacial lakes is that the risks are constantly changing,” says Paul Mayewski.
Over the last two years the surging Shishper Glacier has formed huge lake twice. The natural development associated with glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs) have become an increasingly serious threat to the life, property, livelihoods and infrastructure located downstream.
After a pause in uncertainty and fear, Shishper Glacier has once again blocked the flow of water originating from Muchowar Stream. The glacier started to advance in January 2018 and blocked water flow from the opposite valley for over seven months and finally drained on 22-23rd June 2019 through multiple crevasses. The situation put the valley in panic for two days and then the flow normalized.
The two-kilometer-long part of the expended Shishper Glacier greatly regulated water discharge without causing remarkable destruction as was anticipated and feared earlier. Total discharge was estimated to be above 4000 cusecs while the stream is adopted to 1500 -1800 cusecs flow of glacier melt water during normal peak season. Damages were minimum due to proactive measures taken, especially erecting safety walls on either side of the stream in targeted points by the district government as part of flood mitigation measures. A portion of Karakoram Highway, besides some farm land was eroded during the high flood.
Location of the natural Development
Shishper and Muchowar Glaciers, among many, are two of the off-shoots of Batura Wall in the western Karakoram Range in Northern Pakistan. The confluence of both the valleys is located in central Hunza and can be accessed four kilometers away from the main Karakoram Highway in Hassanabad.
Shishper Glacier started surging significantly towards south-west direction from north-east in January 2018. Muchowar glacier, a parallel to Shishper is positioned to the north-west and is stretched towards south- east. Both the glaciers converged into one to form a confluence in the past but since a decade, Muchowar Glacier has detached itself from the other and has retreated about more than four kilometers backwards. This has resulted in creating a deep and long moraine at the mouth of Muchowar valley. A hiker, who very recently visited the valley reported a miner forward movement of Muchowar Glacier too.
The constant aloft and headlong expansion, Shishper Glacier has, so far twice completely blocked water flow from Muchowar stream. This stream has been causing accumulation of water to form a giant lake. The stream earlier penetrated through or underneath the glacier bed and flowed downstream unhindered.
Sher Khan a passionate mountaineer observed “the lake has formed again with the same pattern as was the case last year. The water passage through the glacier collapses -thus damming repeatedly the water flowed from Muchowar stream. Either the dammed water will discharge through the crevasses or will top over the surged glacier by paving a spill way.”
The moving glacier and its consequent repeated lake formations have put a huge cost to bear to the locals. It has negatively affected irrigation systems, drinking water supply lines, hydroelectric generation and live-stock in addition to posing a threat to other infrastructure, houses and farm land.
Impact on Irrigation network
Due to advance movement of the glacier the feeding end of the main Hassanabad channel, previously irrigating Aliabad, Dorkhan and Hyderabad villages of central Hunza has been disconnected. The channel was carved out across steep rock and hard terrain some 30 years ago. The beneficiary communities built this channel on self-help basis with assistance from AKDN (to meet the material cost) as an alternate water source to meet the growing demand of irrigation water. As the channel dried up hundreds of thousands of trees (mostly apricot trees and other fruit) dried or at the verge of dead. The average covered area suffered of drought is seven kilometers length and one-kilometer width. During the whole irrigation period (April – October 2019) only once the cited area could be irrigated. In normal conditions the area needs five to seven times irrigation for smooth growth and yield. The glacier hit a suspension bridge that was built over the stream to pass on spring water into Aliabad and beyond thus creating potable water crises too.
Water situation was further compounded due to flooding and mud flow in Ultar valley during peak summer season. Ultar glacier is main artery for irrigating the whole central Hunza. One person deputed to regulate water flow at the source lost his life and another sustained injury while attempting to channel in water in Ultar valley in August 2019. The network of irrigation channels originating from Ultar Nalah repeatedly washed away disrupting water flow into villages such as Altit, Ganish, Karimabad, Hyderabad and Aliabad. “Such a drought situation had never been experienced nor had ever been reported during nearly 200 years since Aliabad and adjacent villages were inhabited,” an elder stated.
Economically marginalized segments of society, who form a considerable population and relied on horticulture and stockbreeding for their livelihood have directly been suffered the most as a result of the natural development in Shishper and Ultar.
Access to Shishper and Muchowar Valleys
The surging glacier and repeated formation of lake has hampered access to both Shishper and Muchowar valleys. Normally locals took around a 2000 or above livestock into these summer pastures and reared Yaks in winters too. In Shishper valley alone, 142 yaks died as heavy snowfall resulted to starvation in 2019 incurring irreparable loss to the poor owners. In usual conditions owners used to bring yaks to a lower altitude where they could find their food during winters. One of the owners who lost six yaks stated that “when I hardly able to made my way during summer, I only found a heap of dead yaks. I was collapsed to see them all dead as they were the only hope to overcome my economic miseries”.
Dozens of miners earned their livelihood from mining in the valley despite very harsh physical conditions. Since two years they have been unable to access the valley for work. It is far more difficult for them to transport food and other necessary items into the valley. “Since two years I have left unemployed due to surging glacier. Previously despite harsh physical conditions I used to go into the valley and earned enough livelihood to meet the basic needs for my family,” said one of the miners.
During winters of 2019-20, the Hassanabad stream dried twice as the surging glacier blocked its flow downstream for months. Installation work on a two-megawatt hydroelectric project was ceased while 1.2-megawatt powerhouse halted its power generation.
The story above briefly covers the overt effects of surging Shishper Glacier and Ultar Glaciers. Such situations and even catastrophic situations are foreseen by climate experts. Glaciers and glaciers lakes lie high above the human inhabitation in the whole Gilgit-Baltistan region. Policy institutions and civil society organizations need to take measures to not only mitigate effects of climate change rather take strict steps to discourse causes that effect climate change. Resilient physical structures, and informed communities, availability of alternate environment friendly and affordable fuel arrangement, reduction in population growth can be some practical steps in addressing the concern. Legislation on banning extension of permanent settlements in identified vulnerable areas and addressing ultra-poverty prevailing in the region also call an urgent attention.
What happens when the roof of the world melts?
https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/11/glaciers-of-himalaya-other-south-asian-mountain-ranges-melting- Retrieved on 15 January
M. Akhtar, N. Ahmad, and M. J. Booij. 2008. The Impact of Climate Change on the Water
Resources of Hindukush–Karakorum–Himalaya Region Under Different Glacier Coverage
Scenarios. Journal of Hydrology. 355 (1–4). pp. 48–163.
The author is a teacher by profession with interest in environment and human rights. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org