Melting Glaciers of the 3rd Pole

Pakistan has glaciers more than anywhere except in the polar region (North and South Pole). The country’s northern part Gilgit Baltistan (GB) is known as the Land of Glaciers. However, a dramatic change in environment is eating up the iced mountains in the Karakorum and the Hindu Kush Range — it is increasing risk to lives, species, resources, etc. downstream.

GB is part of the family of global mountainous regions where climate changes rapidly through elevation over relatively short horizontal distances. As a result, the hydrology, vegetation, ecological conditions, and socio-economic settings also change rapidly.

Due to meteorological abnormality glacier meltdown is surging day by day at the fastest rate. More than a hundred ton of ice and robust debris are dropping down valleys ten times more than the average rate. As a result, large glacial lakes are formed –there are risks such glacial lakes would burst through banks and create deadly flash floods downstream.

GB is no exception.

Manzoor Hussain, a resident of Hunza Valley, reported an incident that happened recently. According to him, water from glaciers started to dribble down with loud grumble of rocks. Villagers left their houses and ran away to secure their lives. The rumbling started on May 30 at noon. It wasn’t new for the villagers, but this time the floodwater raised quickly with an estimated count of four meters per day. It led to the evacuation of villagers from their homes to save their lives.

A UNDP report says till 2018 there were about 3000 lakes formed worldwide by melting glaciers, among them thirty-three were declared deadly lakes, risking the lives of more than seven million people.

Half of all humankind directly depends on resources from the mountain, primarily water. Mountains also support 25% of world’s terrestrial biodiversity and include nearly half of the world’s biodiversity ‘hotspots’. Of the 20 plant species that supply 80% of the world’s food, six of those (apples, barley, maize, potatoes, sorghum and tomatoes) originated in mountains. In humid parts of the world, mountains provide 30–60% of the fresh water downstream; and in semi-arid and arid environments, they provide 70–95%. Mountains also provide goods and services of global significance in the form of water, hydroelectricity, timber, biodiversity and niche products, mineral resources, recreation, and flood management.

Pakistan has received warnings about devastating flood conditions and disasters, which can happen because of the glacier meltdown –in between 2018 and 2022.

An analyst says there’s “a clear and present threat to water security specially to countries like Pakistan who are dependent on these glaciers for year-long supply of fresh water exists”.

“Are we (therefore) ready to deal with new type of things, syndromes, diseases etc. also. Has this angle been explored?”, says Ghulam Mortaza, Islamabad Bureau Chief of local national TV BOL.

Pakistan may not be ready for the melting glaciers challenges, even though it is aware of the situation, some experts say.

“When glaciers melt, diseases like viral, bacteria, fossils and other biological species wake up which could be harmful for humans,” Murtaza adds.

What about the region as a whole, as the Hindu Kush range travels east-west meandering into Karakorum and the Himalayan range.

“Unfortunately we will not be able to do much about it; it needs global effort or at least a regional approach,” the analyst says.

“Local conservation efforts will still be applicable but will not change the melting phenomenon.”

China, India and Pakistan will have to come together, but the current and emerging situation makes chances of such a cooperation remote, the analyst adds.

Impact of Glacier Meltdown and Future Risks

According to the UNDP-Pakistan, glacier meltdown isn’t just melting of ice, but it brings boulders and debris along with the large amount of sand that fills the river and causes a flood. The fall out of the recent Shishper glacier rushed beyond the expected path.

The whole nation relies on the Indus River as it is a primary source of irrigation all across Pakistan. The dripping of glacier with boulders destroyed the apricot, walnut and cherries on which many families were depending. Millions of lives are in danger due to abnormal melting of glaciers.

According to the Hindu-Kush Himalaya Assessment Report, the third pole glaciers will vanish entirely by 2100. And by 2025, the nation will face the scarcity of water: the changing water level and abnormal melting patterns in the Indus River impose threat of water war between nuclear states India and Pakistan as Indus River connects both states.

What about the quantum rise in water flow as melting glaciers flood.

Pakistan is building two main dams to harness the water and produce hydropower. These will help somewhat in flood control, says Khan Hasham Bin Saddiq, a former head of a think tank in Islamabad.

Downstream, the Indus River could remain in threat zone due to the changes.

“We need to take a holistic view of the Indus Basin and manage it as one single breathing system,” the analyst says.

First of a series of reports on melting glaciers challenges for Pakistan

With additional input from Irshad Salim, Syeda Saroash Zahra and Arun Dean.