GILGIT: With glaciers melting faster than before, Gilgit-Baltistan residents in some areas live under the constant threat of a natural disaster.
Those living in downstream areas and near lakes and rivers are most vulnerable, particularly those near Shisper and Hoper glaciers.
Glaciers in the Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges have melted rapidly, creating thousands of glacial lakes in the country’s northern areas.
Around 30 of these lakes are at risk of sudden hazardous flooding, known as glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), the climate change ministry said earlier this week, adding that around seven million people were vulnerable.
In the Hassanabad village of Hunza Valley, the vast Shisper glacier dominates the landscape, heading towards villagers at an estimated speed of around four metres per day.
Climate change is causing most glaciers worldwide to shrink, but due to a meteorological anomaly, this is one of a few in the Karakoram mountain range that are surging.
This means hundreds of tonnes of ice and debris are pushing down the valley at ten times the normal rate or more, threatening the safety of the people and homes below.
According to an assessment report of the Gilgit-Baltistan Disaster Management Authority (GBDMA), the Shisper glacier started to surge in May 2018.
The unusual surge blocked water flow from a stream originating in the nearby Muchuhur glacier, which normally falls into Hunza River at Hassanabad, thus forming an artificial lake.
According to the GBDMA assessment, the possible lake burst could submerge a portion of Karakoram Highway, a bridge, over 37 houses in Hassanabad, two powerhouses, a Frontier Works Organisation camp office and vast fertile lands. It may also block the flow of Hunza River, triggering an Attabad-like disaster.
The water discharge from the dammed lake increases in summer when glacier melting starts.
Tariq Jamil, a resident of Hassanabad valley, told Dawn that hundreds of kanals of fertile land, trees, homes, a powerhouse and water channels along with Hassanabad nullah were damaged by high water flow last summer.
“Three families were displaced when their homes located near the nullah were damaged last year when water eroded land,” he said. “The government has failed to provide alternative arrangements to people living in the red zone.”
In summer, residents live in constant fear as water discharge increases, he said, adding that this time around, water discharge had increased even before the season started.
Another resident, Amjad Ali, said the people of Hassanabad were at risk of dammed glacier lake outbursts.
He agreed that water discharge from the dammed lake was high this season. “If heatwaves continue in the next months, an outburst of the dammed lake or high water flows are feared, resulting in floods,” he said, adding that he was unsatisfied with the arrangements to protect the lives and property of local people.
According to the local administration, a contingency plan had been prepared to cope with an emergency.
Officials said work was under way to channelise the nullah and construct protective walls to control the excessive flow of water.
Besides, the administration was monitoring the daily movement of the glacier and has set up an automatic weather station and rebuilt irrigation channels.
Likewise, the unusual surge of an 18km-long Hoper glacier in Nagar district also gives residents nightmares.
Ahmed Hussain, a resident, told Dawn that the speed of Hoper melting had increased this season.
The height of the glacier has decreased, crevasses have appeared and the sound of falling ice can be heard. Several lakes have also formed in the glacier.
Residents of Hoper valley have to cross the glacier to access the other side. However, the recent glacial movement has blocked trekking paths, making the exercise extremely dangerous. A local resident recently got injured while crossing the glacier.
Mr Hussain said the surging Hoper glacier had also destroyed many tourist destinations and adversely impacted the ecology, reducing the snow leopard and Markhor population in the recent past.
Another resident, Dr Sajjad Hussain, told Dawn that Hoper was one of the rare glaciers in the world situated downside of human settlement and cultivated land.
He said it was alarming that the glacier started moving at an unusual speed this summer.
He regretted that the possible threats from the glacial surge to local people had never been discussed and the government had yet to take steps to mitigate the potential threats and or even make locals aware of them.
Shahzad Shigri of the GB Environmental Protection Agency told Dawn that possible heatwaves could affect the speed of melting glaciers across the region.
He said snow received in winter at peaks — particularly in Astore, Diamer and Ghizer — started melting rapidly, creating flash floods and thus endangering people living in downstream areas.
Mr Shigri said heatwaves could cause GLOFs or make active glaciers slip, leading to major disasters.
Pakistan has more glaciers than any other country outside the polar region – nearly 5,300 in the Karakoram, Himalayan and Hindu Kush ranges, according to the Pakistan Meteorological Department.
They feed the Indus River system, the country’s water lifeline. But data gathered over the last 50 years shows that almost all glaciers exhibit signs of melting due to rising temperatures.
As the glaciers retreat, they leave behind lakes supported by ice dams or accumulations of rock and soil. Inherently unstable, these dams often burst, sending huge volumes of water rushing into the villages below them.
Environmental experts say GB residents are particularly at risk from glacial melting.
In July 2018, a small glacier melt had swollen Barsuwat Nullah in the Ishkoman valley of Ghizer district, creating an artificial lake and blocking the flow of the Immit River.
The water submerged more than 30 houses, cultivated land, a link road and cattle farms and washed away over a dozen vehicles in upstream areas.
On Jan 4, 2010, a massive landslide buried the village of Attabad, destroying 26 houses and killing 20 people. The landslide dammed Hunza River and formed Attabad lake.