Mountain communities struggle to secure their future amidst the threat of floods caused by melting glaciers

Atop a steep incline of a glacier piercing through Pakistan’s Hunza Valley in the mountainous northern region, Tariq Jamil measures the ice’s movements and captures photographs. Subsequently, he compiles a report incorporating data from sensors and another camera placed near the Shisper glacier to update his village, located an hour’s hike downstream.

The 51-year-old’s objective is to galvanize his community of 200 families in Hassanabad, nestled in the Karakoram mountains, to safeguard the village and its way of life, increasingly endangered by unstable lakes forming from melting glacier ice.

When these glacial lakes overflow or their embankments become precarious, they rupture, triggering devastating floods that obliterate bridges, structures, and fertile land across the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Himalayan mountain ranges converging in northern Pakistan.

Himalayan glaciers are projected to lose as much as 75 percent of their ice by the end of the century due to global warming, as per the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

Once all the sensors are installed, local representatives will be able to monitor data via their mobile phones. “Local knowledge is highly significant,” Jamil emphasized. “We are the primary observers. We have witnessed numerous occurrences.”

Hassanabad is involved in the United Nations-backed Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) II project, assisting downstream communities affected by melting glaciers in adapting.

Despite a shortage of funding for those most susceptible to climate change impacts, village residents stress the urgent necessity for increased assistance in adapting to the dangers of glacial lake floods.

“The requirements are immense,” noted Karma Lodey Rapten, regional technical specialist for climate change adaptation at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Pakistan is the sole recipient country of adaptation funding from the Green Climate Fund – the principal financial resource of the Paris Agreement – to mitigate the risk of such floods.

While countries like Bhutan have collaborated with other donors to mitigate the threat of glacial lake floods, the $36.96 million GLOF II initiative – concluding this year – serves as a global standard for other regions grappling with this hazard, including the Peruvian Andes and China.

Since 2017, under Islamabad and UNDP’s administration, weather stations and sensors measuring rainfall, water discharge, river, and lake water levels have been set up. GLOF II has implemented loudspeakers in villages to disseminate alerts and constructed infrastructure like stone-and-wire barriers to impede floodwaters.

In Hassanabad, a villager routinely monitors a live feed from a camera installed high in the valley, checking water levels in the river near the glacier’s base, particularly during risky periods like summer when a lake obstructed by ice from the Shisper glacier frequently forms.

Pakistan ranks among the world’s most vulnerable countries to glacial lake floods, with 800,000 individuals residing within 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) of a glacier. Many residents in the Karakorams have constructed their homes on fertile land along rivers flowing from glaciers.

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