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Pakistan seeks to track flood risk from melting glaciers

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Mon, 19 Sep 2011 11:45 GMT
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 By Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio

KARACHI, Pakistan (AlertNet) - Pakistan is expanding its network of glacier monitoring stations in the Himalayas, in an effort to improve understanding of glacier melt and provide better warning of floods. But some experts say it’s not happening fast enough, as the country continues to be hit by disasters.

Massive flooding in mid-2010 affected some 20 million people and destroyed 1.6 million homes in the South Asian nation. The floods - which inundated up to one-fifth of the country over several weeks as water swept down the Indus River from north to south - were caused by a combination of glacier melt and heavy monsoon rains.

So far this monsoon season, some 5.4 million people have been affected by flooding in the southern provinces of Sindh and Balochistan. Nearly 1 million homes have been destroyed and close to three quarters of crops lost in the worst-affected areas.

These emergencies have increased pressure on the government to do more to protect people from floods and adapt to climate shifts. One way it’s responding is by closer tracking of glacier melt, which experts says is speeding up and could worsen flooding in the coming years.  

Over the past seven years, Pakistan has installed five glacier monitoring stations in its northern mountainous areas, each costing around $20,000.

In July, the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) set up the highest of these at the Baltoro glacier in northern Gilgit-Baltistan province, some 4,750 metres above sea level, in collaboration with Italian research organisation EV-K2-CNR.

Ghazanfar Ali, a prominent glaciologist at the Global Change Impact Study Centre in Islamabad, said the stations are providing information that can be used to protect people from flash floods and make management of water resources more efficient.

“But there is need to expand the network to other glaciers in Pakistan, so that efforts can be taken in advance to tackle the problems being faced by the glaciers, and avoid possible risks of heavy flooding in areas in the lower Indus River basin,” he said.

Last year, the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) helped install two monitoring stations at the Passu glacier in the northern Hunza Valley, at 4,500 and 3,200 metres above sea level. Baltoro has a further two stations, which were set up in 2004.

GLACIERS RETREATING FAST

Scientists believe climate change in northern Pakistan is increasing ice and snow melt in the upper part of the Indus River basin, leading to more frequent floods downstream.

In July, Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Abdullah Hussain Haroon, told a U.N. Security Council debate on climate change and security that Pakistan’s vast glacial area - which covers around 15,000 square km - is in rapid retreat.

“The rate of glacial recession, which has gone up by 23 percent in the previous decade, is faster than in any other part of the world,” Haroon said, according to a government statement.

Climate shifts are affecting almost all of Pakistan’s economic sectors through their impact on water, energy, health, forestry and biodiversity, and threaten to reduce agricultural productivity. Around a quarter of the country’s land is cultivated, of which 80 percent is irrigated by water flowing through predominantly glacier-fed rivers.

PMD experts say more precise tracking of glacier melt will reveal exactly what is driving it, while helping avert flooding, and reducing loss of life and property in communities at the foot of the glaciers.

PMD Director General Arif Mahmood said the new monitoring stations at Baltoro and Passu will provide data on temperature, humidity, precipitation, atmospheric pressure and in-coming solar radiation, as well as wind speed and direction.

They will also enable comparative study of glacier melt in the Himalaya-Karakoram-Hindu Kush range, tracking changes in seasonal snowfall accumulation and variations in melting rates, Mahmood explained. Overall, the goal is to strengthen understanding of the impact of climate change on glaciers and the water they release when they melt.

The lowest monitoring station on the Passu glacier, which has ice reserves of nearly 10.89 cubic km, showed it retreated by 25 metres in one year, according to Ghulam Rasul, PMD’s chief meteorologist. The ice at the lower end is melting fast due to climate change, he believes.

MORE ACCURATE TECHNOLOGY

The remote sensing technology the department relied on until several years ago was useful for observing inaccessible terrain but gave misleading results on occasions, even suggesting glaciers had expanded when they were actually retreating, Rasul said.

The monitoring stations installed at Passu last year use geographic information system (GIS) technology that can obtain more accurate measurements, generating real-time information about the impact of climate change on glacier melt in the Hunza Valley, Rasul said.

The PMD also plans to install solar radiation sensors that will help calculate the speed at which the glacier is eroding, he said.

ICIMOD, meanwhile, is assisting Pakistan to plug technical gaps in its glacier assessment capacity and boost the expertise of its scientists in tracking snowfall, glacier melt and water resources.

A laboratory with advanced temperature monitoring technologies is also being set up, and is expected to provide data on rising temperatures at the glaciers and forecasts of water flows in rivers, according to ICIMOD’s regional programme coordinator, Chaudhry Inayatullah.

That will support Pakistan in making policies to cope with shrinking water resources and reduce the risks associated with floods and droughts, he said.

Qamar uz Zaman Chaudhry, a climate change advisor to the Pakistani government, said the monitoring initiative in the higher Himalayas is a step towards systematic evaluation of the impact of global warming on glaciers. It will also strengthen understanding of glacial lake outburst floods, where water in a lake contained by a glacier is suddenly released, flooding areas downstream, he said.

NEED FOR EARLY WARNING

The expansion of glacier monitoring comes at the same time as new initiatives to track the risk of floods in the wake of last year’s disaster.

The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) has been working with the PMD and U.S. government agencies on a national flood management plan, including a recently launched “Flash Flood Guidance System” to provide more effective warning.

Cattle farmer Ahmed Raza Qureshi remembers the commotion following a flood alert from the Thatta district authorities in southern Sindh province a year ago, which came too late.

Like thousands of others, he and his five-member family were caught unawares and had to flee the fast-approaching water without any preparation.

“Remote Thatta was the last district in southern Pakistan washed away by the gushing floodwaters in September 2010, which would have been saved had the district government officials issued the flood warning in time,” 38-year-old Qureshi said.

He hopes the new monitoring and warming systems will protect people better in the future.

“If properly used for issuing early flood warning in the foothills and lower parts of the country, (they) can save millions from being washed away along with their standing crops, livestock and home assets,” he said.

Saleem Shaikh and Sughra Tunio are development reporters based in Karachi, Pakistan.

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