Climate change is rapidly shrinking glaciers in Pakistan
Home to the highest mountain ranges in the world, the Karakorum, Himalayas and Hindukush, there are more than 7,000 glaciers in Pakistan — more than anywhere else in the world outside the polar regions. These glaciers feed rivers, which account for 75 percent of the water supply in the Indus river.
A glacier is a large body of water moving from a higher to a lower elevation. These glaciers form over centuries, when precipitation falls as snow and remains in the same place year around and accumulates layers every year.
Different factors are responsible for the shrinking or retreat of glaciers, most notable being increased melting due to warming temperatures, reduced snowfall quantum, a layer of soot due to environmental pollution that acts to absorb sunlight and accelerates the melting of ice.
Due to the rapid melting of glaciers, a total of 3,044 glacial lakes have developed in the Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pukhtunkhawa region. Out of these, 33 lakes have been assessed to be prone to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF), which could result in the release of millions of cubic meters of water and debris, and cause loss of lives, property and livelihoods of around 7.1 million people vulnerable to GLOF (UNDP report).
Rapid industrialization experienced in the past couple of decades, heavy reliance on fossil fuels for energy needs as well as the transportation industry have wreaked havoc with the fragile ecosystem. Heat trapping gases, the greenhouse gases, are the cause of most climate warming and glacier retreat in the past 5 decades.
This rapid and unprecedented melting of glaciers could have a catastrophic impact on the livelihoods of millions of people living in the plains.
Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba
It’s an established fact that glaciers are vulnerable to climate change. Pakistan’s glaciers are receding at an alarming rate, especially those at the lower elevations. The Himalayan and Hindukush glaciers are shrinking at a rate of 0.5 percent annually. According to projected estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the American Scientific Journal, they are expected to shrink by 45 percent by the year 2100 as a consequence of global warming.
This rapid and unprecedented melting of glaciers could have a catastrophic impact on the livelihoods of millions of people living in the plains and impact water supply, agriculture, food and water security of millions of people.
Just about 2 percent of the total water amount on our planet is freshwater which is fit for human consumption; over 70 percent consists of glacier ice and snow. In many parts of the world, including ours, this is one of the major source of freshwater supply. Glacial retreat and shrinking will lead to severe water shortage in the near future, as we have already started experiencing. It could also lead to reduced agricultural output, especially in areas which rely on water emanating from glaciers.
There are many places in the world that depend solely on the constant flow of water from the natural melting of glaciers for the production of electricity. Once this flow is hampered or stops, the generation of hydroelectricity will also be affected. This is going to be a major issue in a country like Pakistan, where we are already facing an ongoing energy crises and are not making much headways in harnessing alternate energy sources like solar and wind energy.
Also, as we experienced in 2010, flash floods resulting from heavier rains and rapidly melting glaciers not only cost huge losses of life and livelihoods but also resulted in immense damages to the infrastructure. About 14 million people were affected and thousands of people ended up becoming eco-migrants.
Across the board, studies of mountain glaciers increasingly present a grim reminder that poles aren’t the only parts of the planet suffering from major ice loss. There are human communities in their wake that stand to suffer from their loss.
In the larger interest of protecting these populations and making reliable forecasts for food, water and energy security, it is pertinent to have precise knowledge about the pattern of changes in glacier systems over short and medium terms. Various glacier monitoring projects are underway. Scientific evidence and data from such surveillance projects can be used to better predict the shift in the glaciers and devise adaptation measures to protect communities living around the Indus basin.
• Dr. Mehreen Mujtaba is a freelance consultant working in the areas of environment and health.