Islamabad – Two early warning systems, more automatic weather monitoring stations, engineering structures and awareness-raising activities are expected to help vulnerable communities in Pakistan’s northern areas reduce the long-term risks of destructive flooding from glacial lakes, this summer season.
The efforts are part of the ongoing Pakistan Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) project, which is being implemented by the Ministry of Climate Change with technical support from the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD).
A GLOF is a type of flood that occurs when the dam of a glacial lake bursts and releases water downstream at a frightening speed, risking the lives of communities that could find themselves in the flood’s path.
The frequency of GLOFs in Pakistan has increased during the past few years, according to Pakistani research scientists and glaciologists.
In 2008, a lake at the Gulkin glacier in Upper Hunza burst three times in the space of two months, flooded the village community nearby and destroyed around 50 houses. The Korambar Glacier near Iskhoman Valley and the Buni Gole Glacier near Chitral generated GLOFs in 2010 and 2012, causing damages to agricultural land and human settlements on each occasion.
Pakistan has 2420 glacier lakes — lakes that are fed by water from glacial melt — and 52 of these lakes are “potentially hazardous” and likely to cause GLOFs in the future, according to a 2005 International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) report.
“GLOFs have the potential to release millions of cubic meters of water and debris, with peak flows as high as 15,000 cubic meters per second,” according to a project document prepared by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for the Pakistan GLOF project. UNDP is the “Responsible Partner” for the project.
At these speeds, GLOFs can simply wipe out villages and towns in the valleys situated below, said GLOF Project Manager Khalil Ahmed.
“It is like if you get out of the way in time you are lucky, otherwise you are gone,” Ahmed said.
The spike in GLOF incidents and their potential for causing destruction increases the significance of the $7.6 million GLOF project — Pakistan’s first government-level climate change adaptation initiative. Adaptation, as opposed to mitigation, focuses on reducing risks and building resilience to climate change.
Ahmed said the project is working on two fronts: It is trying to develop the technical and human capacity of government institutions to understand GLOF risks and it is creating awareness among vulnerable communities in GLOF-prone areas so the communities could respond to GLOF risks.
On the technical side, the project teamed up with PMD to set up automatic weather stations that could collect hitherto unavailable data for the glaciers.
Ghulam Rasool, chief meteorologist at PMD, said the PMD set up four stations on the Baltoro and Passu glaciers to record temperature, humidity and precipitation measurements as well as monitoring levels of glaciers, glacial lakes and run-off water.
Equipment for 14 weather stations was bought during the project’s first year.
From next month, Rasool said, the PMD will start setting up four more stations on the same glaciers. In addition, two early warning systems will be piloted at one site in Chitral Valley and another site in Gilgit.
Rasool said the warning systems will rely on a combination of the output from weather stations, weather prediction done at PMD’s national weather stations and data from sensors deployed at a glacial lake to measure the strength of its bank.
“We have the option of using a siren system or a flashing light signal to alert communities for evacuation in the case a GLOF incident is expected,” Rasool said.
Engineering structures that could divert the floodwater away from communities will be built at 5 sites each in Chitral and Gilgit valleys, Ahmed said. The PMD has also been tasked to do an on-ground inventory for potentially hazardous glacial lakes to validate the ICIMOD report which was based on satellite data. PMD verified around seven lakes in the past season and aims to verify at least ten more this year, Ahmed said.
But the most important part of the project is the participation of local communities living in GLOF-prone areas, he said.
“We have done a vulnerability assessment survey of the populations in the GLOF-prone areas, including flood path prediction that will help in identifying the communities which might be affected first,” he said. “But the communities are being trained so they themselves will conduct the evacuation procedure.”
Through trainings, informational leaflets printed in Urdu and village meetings, the project has tried to raise awareness about GLOF among the communities and the response has been encouraging, Ahmed said.
“Earlier, the locals considered GLOFs as Allah’s wrath and they never thought about tackling the issue,” Ahmed said. “We cannot really stop GLOFs but we are teaching the communities to understand the phenomenon so they can build resilience to its risks.”
The locals have formed hazard watch groups at the village level and disaster risk management committees at the valley-level, Ahmed said. A Disaster Risk Reduction fund, worth Rs1 million, has been constituted for the each valley-level committee, with the project’s support.
The Pakistan GLOF project is financed by the Adaptation Fund, UNDP and in-kind contributions from the federal government. The Adaptation Fund, which contributes $3.6 million to the project, is an international fund set up to finance climate change adaptation projects under the Kyoto Protocol.
Ahmed said the only glitch in the project at present is that a project director, appointed by the government, has to approve funds and during the past 1.5 years, four project directors have been transferred and posted which has caused delays in the utilization of available project funds and hampered implementation activities.
The Hindu Kush Karakoram Himalaya (HKH) region houses the largest glacial mass outside the polar region, and Pakistan’s Northern Areas are home to over 5,000 glaciers.
Pakistani researchers and climate experts believe rising temperatures and climate change, due to natural and anthropogenic reasons, might be fueling an increase in glacial melt in the country’s North. According to a 2009 technical report by the PMD, the temperature in the northern areas increased by 1.5 degrees Celsius in the past 40 years.
The retreating glaciers often give rise to glacial lakes — lakes that are fed by water from glacial melt. Such lakes can exist in, under, beside and/or in front of a glacier, according to a 2012 paper on GLOFs in Pakistan by Muhammad Iqbal Khan, a glaciology expert.
The lakes are usually bounded by sediment deposits which form a natural dam to hold the water in the lake. A GLOF is generated if the water level in the lake exceeds its capacity or if the dam bursts. The dam might break due to pressure from torrential downpour, seismic activity and erosion among other factors. The lake’s walls might also crumble under pressure from heavy discharges of water due to accelerated melting of glaciers.
Once the dam gives way, the water accelerates down steep slopes, usually carrying boulders with it, and has the potential to destroy infrastructure and settlements in its path.