Glacier Melt Threatens Medicinal Plants in Pakistan

Posted by on Dec 1, 2016

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Lack of access to health facilities is a massive problem facing developing countries. Zaheer Abbas et al. recently published a paper on the Karakoram Range in Northern Pakistan in which the communities have been relying on traditional methods for treating common physical ailments. Like many remote communities without access to modern health care, the Balti community have honed their traditional knowledge of local plants over the centuries using herbal treatments readily available to them in the Karakoram range. However, traditional knowledge is not well recorded in the region because medicinal plant concoctions are only passed down orally. This knowledge, if documented and shared, could inform other non-traditional medicine, according to Abbas et al. However, as R. Jilani et al. describe in another paper, if glaciers in Northern Pakistan start to melt, the reduction in the water resources could greatly affect the plants grown in the region, threatening the future use of Balti knowledge.

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A map of the Karakoram Range (Source: Creative Commons).

The Karakoram Range, a large mountain range that spans across Pakistan, Afghanistan, China, India, and Tajikistan, is one of the most glaciated areas outside of the polar regions and also one of the most botanically diverse. The range is home to the Biafo Glacier, which is the third largest glacier in the Karakoram and the fourth largest in Asia. For now, as Abbas et al. explain, the glaciers in the Karakoram Range are stable and not experiencing glacier melt like other regions. This is due to the very high altitude of the glaciers and the fact that temperatures remain cold throughout the year. However, a paper by Rajiv Chaturvedi et al. explains that in climate scenarios where carbon emissions continue to increase, we can expect melting of the Karakoram glaciers to occur at a rapid rate. The region and its glaciers have not previously been studied in depth due to the area’s remoteness, high altitude and harsh climate. Adding additional complications to future research is the fact that there is no weather station in the region, so temperature readings typically come from Skardu, 55 km away. This raises questions about the future impact of climate on the use of medicinal plants and traditional Balti knowledge.

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A picture of Thymus Linearis (Source: Dinesh Valke/Creative Commons).

For their Karakoram study, Abbas et al. interviewed 69 inhabitants of the region, including five herbalists, in order to understand how regional plants are used by the local communities for medicinal purposes. As Abbas et al. explain, many modern drug discoveries have been based on medicinal plants used by indigenous people. For this study, the team explored a total of 63 plant species, and with the help of the Balti people, categorized the plants into uses for 11 common diseases and disorders. They also looked at  how effective the plants were at resolving those particular health issues based on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being most effective). The common health issues ranged from anything from a common toothache to kidney stones. The study also showed the diversity of the plant parts used in the remedy, including flowers, seeds, leaves, and in some cases, the entire plant. The majority of the species studied were indigenous to the Tormik Valley due to its microclimate. The Tormik Valley is lush and fed by freshwater streams and springs.

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A photo of Hippophae Rhamnoides (Source: Jean Tosti/Creative Commons).

Of the 63 species examined, three of them were particularly valuable due to their effectiveness, and each scored a 4 or 5 on the scale. Thymus linearis (a shrub with small dark purple blooms), commonly known as Himalayan thyme or common thyme and belonging to the Mint family, is used by the Balti people to treat abdominal pain and vomiting. Hippophae rhamnoides, commonly known as sea-buckthorn (a tree with bright orange seeds) is used to treat a multitude of disorders, including arthritis pain, eczema and urinary disorders. Convolvulus arvensis, a winding weed and relative of the morning glory, when ingested as a whole plant, is used to treat constipation.

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A photo of Convolvulus Arvensis (Source: Farbenfreude/Creative Commons).

Interestingly, Abbas et al. share that the upper and lower parts of Northern Pakistan have unique ethnobotanical traditional knowledge. The communities in the neighboring Skardu valley, located at the junction of the Indus and Shigar Rivers, for example, use the same Thymus linearis plant to treat colds and pneumonia. While they may use similar plants depending on the availability, communities sometimes use the plants in different ways. In some cases, they may use plants for activities beyond food and medicine, such as for building huts and fences.

Ethnobotany, the study of interactions between humans and plants, is especially important now as the documentation of traditional knowledge decreases with time. The Balti community demonstrates how important traditional knowledge of plants can be. The traditional knowledge cultivated within these communities can provide important data to help inform health care policy. However, if melting begins to affect the glaciers in the Karakoram Range, these plants may be entirely destroyed.

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