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In a flash

People in Chitral are still exposed to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) as adequate preventive measures have not been taken

In a flash

“People in my village noticed that the colour of the river water was changing to grey — an indication that it was mixing with floodwaters. They rushed towards higher ground as water level in the river kept rising. Only three hours later, flood water was flowing through crops, orchards and homes,” says a gloomy Qadir Nasir, resident of Izghore village in Golen in Chitral district.

“My family lost over 4,500 trees, including many apple, apricot, cherry and walnut trees planted over 14 acres,” he adds, narrating their suffering at the hands of flash floods on July 6.

Izghore is situated just over two kilometres from the glacial lake that burst, causing floods. “Uprooted pine trees and stones blocked the flow of water at several places, diverting the flood water towards the houses, crops and plantations,” Qadir says.

Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) occurs when the ice walls containing a reservoir at the bottom of a glacier burst under the pressure of increasing water. The entire lake then rushes downstream and washes away everything in its path.

The GLOF in Golen destroyed 10 houses; another 4 were partially damaged. Nearly 4,000 people were affected. Over 400 acres of crops and orchards were also damaged. The main water supply line from Golen to Chitral was washed away. Water supply to three villages, three community-owned micro hydel power projects and three watermills in Izghore were also damaged. Irrigation system in four villages was destroyed.

Floods also washed away most parts of the 15 kilometres of Golen road constructed only a year ago, besides damaging link roads to four villages, and destroying two concrete bridges before burying a section of the 108 megawatts Golen hydropower plant, incurring an estimated damage of Rs2 billion.

Officials are still calculating the damage and likely costs of reconstruction and rehabilitation. More floods are being reported from the district and other parts of the province. Initial estimate suggests that GLOF would cost about Rs5 billion to the provincial exchequer.

Dr Shakil Hayat, PhD in water governance from the University of Amsterdam and UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, The Netherlands believes that growing incidents of GLOF are due to increased exposure of glaciers to direct sunlight. “Population growth and mass deforestation over the past two decades have exposed these glaciers to solar radiations that trigger faster melting of the snow,” he says.

“A scientific solution to this problem includes regular monitoring of the glacial lakes and the melting of snow. We are also utilising indigenous knowledge to develop remedies,” he adds.

Unlike Himalayan glaciers, most glaciers in Chitral are parched on steep slopes and a little change in temperature or seismic activity rapidly increases the melting of snow. “Deforestation is depleting the glaciers in Chitral because of excessive use of wood for fuel and construction of houses.”

However, according to Dr Hayat, not much has been done since the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) supported GLOF 1 pilot project in 2012. “The GLOF 1 project was a success in creating awareness among the most vulnerable communities in Chitral. However, lack of attention from the concerned government departments cause a seven years delay in the initiation of the GLOF 2 project. I proposed establishment of a mitigating mechanism based on a knowledge, aptitude and practices (KAP) survey,” he says.

The GLOF 1 project was aimed at integrating disaster risk education strategies with climate change adaptation for reducing the risk of flash floods from glacial lake outbursts in high risk areas of Gilgit and Chitral. More than 1,000 men and women were sensitised and made aware of the GLOF related hazards, preparedness and adaptation. Similarly, 10 safe havens and 10 access routes were identified at Bagrot and Bidgo Gol valleys to minimise losses from climate change disasters.

According to latest data, at least 3,044 glacial lakes have developed in Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Of these, 33 are considered hazardous. According to environmentalist Hamid Ahmad Mir there are 543 melting glaciers in 19 out of 24 valleys in Chitral. “According to the Meteorological Department, 116 glaciers have become glacial lakes while another 20 have been declared extremely dangerous as they can burst any time. Golen alone has 53 glaciers and 12 glacial lakes,” says Mir.

Unlike Himalayan glaciers, most glaciers in Chitral are parched on steep slopes and a little change in temperature or seismic activity rapidly increases the melting of snow. “Deforestation is depleting the glaciers in Chitral because of excessive use of wood for fuel and construction of houses and, most importantly, unplanned development,” says Mir.

Another reason, according to Mir, is the slow implementation of mitigation awareness. “We have very good policies to protect glaciers, forests and pastures but due to negligence forests and green pastures, which help in keeping the glaciers intact, are vanishing. Saving forests, controlling the number of livestock in pastures and keeping a check on unplanned urbanisation are some of the steps that can slow down the melting of glaciers,” he adds.

At least 12 GLOF have taken place in Chitral since the first recorded incident in 2007. “The June 2007 floods in Sonoghor area, about 85 kilometres north of Chitral were the first GLOF on record. At least 180 families, known now as climate change refugees, are still living away from their ancestral villages. Then there was another, more devastating GLOF in July 2010 in Bindo Gol glacier,” says Mir, adding that 2015 saw the worst floods in Chitral due to GLOF.

The Green Climate Fund (GCF) created by 194 signatory countries of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2010 to support the efforts of developing countries to respond to the challenge of climate change, is currently funding three projects worth $121 million in Pakistan.

Under ‘mitigation’ category the GCF will lend Pakistan $37.2 m along with a grant of $11.8m for the Green BRT Karachi Project (FP 085). Another grant under ‘adaptation’ worth $35m will be provided for transforming the Indus Basin with climate resilient agriculture and water management’ project (FP108).

Under ‘adaptation’ the GCF awarded Pakistan a $37 million fund (FP018) in 2017 for scaling-up of GLOF risk reduction in Northern Pakistan. The GCF website says 28.4 percent of the funds had been given to Pakistan. The five-year project requires the government of Pakistan to review or revise at least two policies to address or incorporate GLOF risk reduction by the end of Feb 2022.

This endeavour, also called the GLOF 2 project, aims to enable 100 percent of the target communities in KP and GB to receive and respond to early warnings and take appropriate action following that warning. Furthermore, at least 250 small-scale biological and mechanical engineering structures will be established to reduce the effects of GLOF events on livelihood assets.

Meanwhile, 22 and 28 weather-monitoring stations will be installed in KP and GB respectively to collect meteorological data in the catchments areas for better understanding the parameters with flood peaks. Similarly, 408 river discharge sensors, 170 in KP and 238 in GB will be installed to collect river flood data in order to understand and predict flood peaks.

Aisha Khan, Mountain and Glacier Protection Organisation CEO (MGPO), tells TNS that the grant is to be utilised by the UNDP through the Ministry of Climate Change. “It has taken two years for the procedural work. It should have been operationalised by now but the progress has been slow,” Khan argues.

“Time is running out. The concerned department should start the consultative process, followed by the implementation strategy. They need to be transparent about choosing their implementing partners and details about allocation of funds for scientific research and social adaptation,” she suggests.

Despite repeated requests, the Ministry of Climate Change did not respond to queries about the status of the grant.

Arshad Yusufzai

The writer is a Peshawar based freelance journalist and has worked for Voice of America and The ICRC. Connect with him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/ayusufzai.

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