As the temperature rises and glacial lakes grow, the Kyrgyzstan government is monitoring some glaciers while neglecting others.
Kyrgyzstani officials are closely studying the 18 growing glacial lakes on the Adygene Glacier to predict glacial hazards. Since these glacial lakes are located above Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek, glacial lake outburst floods could potentially flood the valley, endangering a million people.
As glaciers are retreating, glacial lakes are growing and forming. This poses the risk of a glacial lake outburst, a kind of megaflood that occurs when dams holding back glacier lakes fail. Incidences of glacial lake outbursts are increasing. In 2007, the United Nations Environment Program classified floods from glacial lakes as the largest and most extensive glacial hazard with the highest potential for disaster.
An additional threat comes from the underground ice plugs that dam these lakes. These plugs thaw slowly, feeding water into the Ala-Archa River. But a sudden melting could create an outburst of water and develop into a large, destructive mudslide and debris flow.
In recent history, glacial lake outbursts have already impacted Central Asia. In 1998, one such event claimed more than a hundred lives in Batken Province in western Kyrgyzstan. In 2002, an outburst at Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains claimed 23 lives. In both cases, early warnings of floods were not available. If a similar disaster occurred on the Adygene Glacier, many thousands of lives could be claimed, since the capital downstream is densely populated.
Today, the Kyrgyzstani government is closely monitoring the glacial lakes above Bishkek and preparing organized emergency plans for evacuation. The government has allocated $15 million to build a drainage channel and automatic monitoring stations. When the sensors detect a critical increase in the water level, they trigger alarms in the valley to warn people to flee to safer ground away from the river valley.
The government has not allocated resources equally for all hazardous glacial lakes in the country. Officials blame the unequal monitoring on the lack of government funds. In particular, there is no monitoring in the southern province of Osh, which has a population of one million. The province has been scarred with ethnic tension between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. Kyrgyz make up 68 percent of the population and Uzbeks account for 30 percent. Over the years, the conflict cost thousands of lives on both sides. After the 2010 Osh riots, Uzbeks have been strategically disenfranchised and internally displaced by the dominant Kyrgyz who dominate the government. Disputes over natural resources, land and water could easily escalate ethnic violence. The lack of preparation for glacial lake outburst floods creates a risk of a disaster that could worsen the existing ethnic tensions.
Glaciologists predict glacial lakes will continue to around the world. Developing monitoring systems for glacial lakes near glacier communities is necessary to prevent massive loss. These initiatives should extent to all communities regardless of their economic, political or ethnic status.