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Resilient Communities and Protective Measures: Battling GLOF Threats in Pakistan's Northern Beauty

In Pakistan's northern mountains, the impact of climate change is evident, with rising temperatures contributing to the rapid melting of glaciers.
by TNN Editor - 11 Dec, 2023 1593
resilient-communities-and-protective-measures-battling-glof-threats-in-pakistans-northern-beauty

Seema Sabah

Glaciers, massive bodies of ice formed over extended periods from compacted snow in specific areas, are crucial components of our ecosystem. Typically found where snowfall exceeds snowmelt, they serve as natural reservoirs of fresh water and play a vital role in climate regulation.

However, the global shift in climate due to widespread global warming has led to significant consequences, such as the accelerated melting of glaciers and the occurrence of extensive floods. The repercussions of climate change are evident worldwide, affecting communities and ecosystems.

In Pakistan's northern mountains, the impact of climate change is evident, with rising temperatures contributing to the rapid melting of glaciers. As the glaciers melt, the water often accumulates in front of the glacier, forming glacial lakes.

The danger arises when the water in these lakes increases to the point of breaking and overflowing the moraine barriers. This sudden release of meltwater, termed Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF), can lead to catastrophic flooding. The moraine walls, composed of unconsolidated material and often covered in dead ice, struggle to contain the massive volume of water.

This meltwater has given rise to over 3,000 glacial lakes in Pakistan, with 33 of them posing a significant risk of dangerous flooding. These floods have the potential to devastate remote mountain communities, resulting in the loss of lives, homes, and livelihoods.

In 2022 alone, witnessed a considerable flood that impacted the lives of more than 7 million vulnerable people in these areas, a significant portion of whom live below the poverty line. Research indicates that Pakistan has experienced a total of 83 Glacier Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) events since 2022, underscoring the alarming impact of climate change on these glacier lakes.

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The Swat Valley, known for its breathtaking beauty and popular tourist spots, is a prime example of the devastating effects of GLOF events caused by climate change, particularly in the Kalam area.

A survey of Paloga Valley in Kalam revealed a significant impact of the GLOF in August 2022. During a field trip to Kalam, interviews with residents highlighted the primary sources of livelihood in the area. Agriculture and tourism served as the economic mainstay, with locals establishing small huts and food stalls to cater to tourists.

However, the disastrous flood of 2022 wiped out these income sources, leaving the community in dire straits. Many lives were at risk, and the population significantly decreased due to the lack of necessities, forcing residents to contemplate climate migration as a necessary step. The profound effects of climate change on communities necessitate addressing these challenges and finding sustainable solutions for the future.

Paloga, as highlighted by former UC Chairman Kalam Malak Fareed Ullah, experienced the harsh impact of GLOF and floods in 2010, resulting in significant damage. Unfortunately, the area faced another round of devastating GLOFs last year, emphasizing the widespread devastation that these events can cause. Flood-prone communities like Paloga must implement effective measures to mitigate the impact of such disasters.

Moving beyond Kalam and Swat, the northern part of Pakistan, particularly District Chitral, stands out as one of the most vulnerable areas for GLOF disasters. Research data indicates approximately 542 glaciers in District Chitral. However, due to the adverse effects of climate change attributed to global warming, GLOF events have become increasingly frequent in various parts of District Chitral, leading to significant loss of life and extensive damages.

Despite the challenges, there's a glimmer of hope. Residents must have found relief in sharing news about the GLOF project and the construction of a 300x400-foot wide protective wall. This proactive measure reflects the community's commitment to ensuring their safety and shielding themselves from potentially disastrous floods.

Commissioner Swat, Saqib Raza, stated that the government has been taking proactive measures since 2010 to address and mitigate the consequences of GLOF events. Numerous projects have been introduced during this time to tackle the issue, showcasing the government's commitment to protecting communities and minimizing the impact of floods. These initiatives are crucial for enhancing resilience and ensuring the well-being of the affected population in GLOF-prone areas.

The United Nations Development Program initiated the GLOF-II project in Kalam, building upon the GLOF-I project in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. The project aims to reduce risks and vulnerabilities from GLOF in the Northern Areas of Pakistan. GLOF-I played a vital role in helping communities prepare for and mitigate risks through protective walls, early warning systems, improved infrastructure, and community-based disaster risk management, including safe havens.

One of the notable initiatives of the GLOF-II project is the construction of protection walls in various vulnerable areas, including Kalam. These protection walls act as safeguards against GLOFs by redirecting floodwaters and minimizing the impact on nearby communities. It's a proactive measure aimed at ensuring the safety and well-being of the people living in those areas. The ongoing progress of the Protection Wall instills hope in the community, highlighting its potential to reduce the impact of floods and safeguard the community.

Under the GLOF II project by UNDP, we witnessed a remarkable initiative during our field trip—the construction of Safe Havens Houses. These shelters act as a refuge for people during a GLOF event, providing the local community members with a secure space where they can seek protection from rising waters or other emergency conditions. Designed to keep individuals safe and secure, these safe havens offer a place of refuge amidst the challenging circumstances posed by floods.

Rashid Khan, a development practitioner, highlighted the active collaboration between WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and PMD (Pakistan Meteorological Department) under the GLOF-II project. They are actively working on different ventures, including the installation of an Early Warning System. This system, crucially placed at both high (3000M) and low altitudes, aims to prevent and mitigate the risks of glacial lake outburst floods in the most vulnerable areas.

The GLOF-II project in Kalam has implemented various essential tools, such as the Early Warning System, rain gauge, wind gauge, and river water level gauge. The Early Warning System is designed to sound an emergency alarm in the event of a high-intensity GLOF in the area.

Khan emphasized that the emergency warning system will only activate if the flood intensity surpasses that recorded in 2022. He noted that a low-intensity alarm could be disruptive and cause a disturbance. The manual rain gauge estimates rainfall, while the wind gauge measures wind speed and pressure. Additionally, the river gauge monitors the rise in river water levels during rainfall in Kalam. These tools are invaluable for monitoring and responding to potential flood risks.

In the heart of Kalam, where majestic mountains stand tall, the GLOF II project has woven a tapestry of resilience and hope for the residents. The erratic shifts in weather patterns caused by climate change can throw things off balance, akin to a wild rollercoaster ride that leaves us feeling uncertain and unprepared. We must take action and address the impacts of climate change to make our future more stable and sustainable.

According to community members, the Early Warning System, a guardian whispering secrets of looming threats, has become the community's silent protector. The Protective Walls, standing tall against the fury of avalanches and floods, symbolize the strength that emerges when communities come together.

And then, there are the safe havens—sanctuaries of solace in the storm's aftermath. These structures not only provide physical refuge but serve as beacons of resilience, reminding every resident that storms may come, but they too shall pass.

The GLOF I and II projects act as a ray of hope shining in the most vulnerable areas, addressing the challenges posed by climate change. However, it's crucial to remember that they shouldn't be seen as the final solution. Collective action is needed to combat global warming by reducing the harmful effects of greenhouse gases and transitioning to renewable energy sources. It's a call of the time to prioritize the sustainability of our planet, our only home.

Dr. Shehla Gul, a senior faculty member at the Department of Geography and Geomatics, University of Peshawar, is a disaster management specialist with a Ph.D. in disaster management from Canada. Currently, she supervises several projects on Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF) in the northern parts of Pakistan. Dr. Gul emphasizes that mitigating GLOF risks involves a combination of structural and non-structural measures.

Among the structural measures are protection walls, early warning systems, improved infrastructure, community-based disaster risk management, and safe havens. Additionally, regular monitoring and surveillance are crucial, requiring the implementation of a robust system to track glacier movements, lake water levels, and other environmental parameters. Conducting field surveys regularly is necessary to assess changes in glacier size and lake conditions.

Afforestation and erosion control emerge as effective non-structural measures. Planting trees and vegetation in vulnerable areas stabilizes soil, preventing erosion and reducing the likelihood of debris entering the glacial lake. Land-use planning regulations play a vital role in preventing settlement in high-risk areas and controlling activities that may increase vulnerability.

Capacity building and training are essential components, involving training local communities on emergency response procedures, first aid, and search and rescue techniques. Regular simulation exercises and drills prepare communities and response agencies for GLOF events, ensuring a coordinated and efficient response.

International collaboration is deemed crucial, especially with neighboring countries and international organizations. Sharing information, expertise, and resources is vital for comprehensive GLOF risk management. While various measures contribute, Dr. Shehla Gul underscores that climate change mitigation is the most important. Addressing the root cause of glacial melting through global efforts to mitigate climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions can slow down the rate of glacier retreat.

Developing financial mechanisms, such as insurance or risk-sharing schemes, is proposed to provide financial support for communities affected by GLOFs, contributing to their resilience and facilitating sustainable recovery.

Dr. Shehla Gul advocates for investments in research to better understand glacial processes, climate change impacts, and GLOF dynamics. Technological innovation can enhance early warning systems and risk assessment.

In the context of GLOF risk management and mitigation, it's essential to recognize that the effectiveness of these measures depends on the specific characteristics of the glacial lake, the surrounding environment, and the local community.

A holistic and multidisciplinary approach, involving collaboration among scientists, policymakers, local communities, and international organizations, is deemed essential for successful GLOF risk mitigation.