New Report Documents Pakistan’s Water Insecurity

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A map of the mean annual precipitation in Pakistan, illustrating the country’s aridity (Source: United Nations Development Programme).

Water security is a pervasive issue in Pakistan, a largely arid country. The majority of the country receives less than 300mm of rain per year, while a small region in the north receives upwards of 1000 mm per year. The Indus River provides much of the water to the area, but its flow is irregular due to the variable precipitation. Moreover, the river originates partly in Pakistan and partly in India, creating additional political challenges that stem from the decades-long history of tension between the two countries.

Last month, the United Nations Development Programme released a Development Advocate Pakistan report that describes the uncertain future of water in Pakistan, which is impacted by changing climate and melting glaciers, as well as political issues with neighboring India. The report’s editors suggest several ways to increase water stability in Pakistan. They advise increasing public awareness because the lack of trust stems in part from incomplete access to data and information. They also recommend high efficiency irrigation systems and updating academic curriculum in the country to include sustainable development.

A road passes through Tharparkar, a region in southern Pakistan (Source: Rcbutcher/Creative Commons).

As the report describes, the region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan provides most of the water in the glaciated parts of the country. Altitudes exceed 5000 meters with annual snowfall of approximately 5000 millimeters in the highest regions. This zone is the largest area of perennial glaciers outside the polar regions; nearly one third of the Gilgit-Baltistan area is glaciated. The meltwater of these glaciers contribute a massive volume of freshwater, which forms a significant component of the flow into the Indus River.

The variability of river flows as a result of monsoon seasons has led to water crises and conflicts between provinces, as well as neighboring countries. The Indus Water Treaty has allowed for peaceful relations between Pakistan and its neighbor India for the past 40 years. As Justin Rowlatt describes in his BBC report from September 2016, the Indus Water Treaty has survived two wars and numerous military impasses between the two countries. However, the increased water stress in the Indus River basin since the early 1990s has strained the treaty. 

Coverage of the UNDP report in Indian and Pakistani newspapers has unsurprisingly varied. A recent article in the Times of India covering the report emphasized Pakistan’s negligence and delays in presenting cases to the Indus Water Treaty. An article in the Hindustan Times reports that, “Pakistan has cleverly employed the IWT to have its cake and eat it too” by receiving the larger amount of water the treaty allots for downstream States, while also using the treaty to sustain conflict with India.

The coverage of the issue by Pakistani newspapers is sparser. In one editorial published in Pakistan Today, the author calls the UNDP report a “wake-up call” and urges cooperation between Pakistan and India to resolve the dispute.

The treaty itself fails to address two important issues. The first is that it does not provide for a division of water during shortages in the dry years between India and Pakistan. The second is that it does not discuss the cumulative impact of reservoirs on the flows of the Chenab River, a major tributary of the Indus, into Pakistan.

On a fundamental level, the government of Pakistan does not think the Indus Water Treaty is effective because its people are not satisfied with the amount of water received, but the government of India does not wish to amend the treaty or address water conflict between the countries in other contexts. The treaty allows India to create reservoirs on nearby rivers to store water for hydropower and flood shortages. This provision has created conflicts between Pakistan and India, since India controls the flow of most of these dams and reservoirs.

The Jhelum River in Pakistan (Source: Myasinilyas/Creative Commons).

The Jhelum River also presents a problem to Pakistan’s water security. The river is controlled by India, but is a major source of irrigation and hydropower for Pakistan. If India were to close the gates of the river for long periods, it would have a detrimental impact on Pakistan. As relations between Pakistan and India continue to decline, India has threatened to use water as a political weapon. The “possibility of turning off the taps has been raised before, but never as forcefully as this,” explains Rowlatt in his BBC article,

Pakistan itself contributes to the dysfunction of the treaty. As the editors explain in the UNDP report, “Pakistan’s negligence in conducting sound analysis and delays in presenting cases to the Indus Water Commission of World Bank” has slowed progress.

The Times of India reports that following the release of the UNDP report, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met with the World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva to discuss the dispute over the Indus Water Treaty. Sharif hopes that a Court of Arbitration helps solve the dispute, while the government of India requested the World Bank nominate a neutral expert to solve the disagreement. The World Bank Group is a signatory to the Treaty and has encouraged both India and Pakistan to agree to mediation on the issue. It is clear that without some sort of institutional change, Pakistan’s water security will become less certain as climate continues to change and tensions with India escalate. 


Roundup: River Outlets, Plant Habitats, and Village Partners

Roundup: Canadian River Vanishes, Plants in the Himalayas and Pakistan’s Villages

Glacier retreat in Canada causes Yukon river to vanish.

From CBCNews: “It’s been the main source of water into Yukon’s Kluane Lake for centuries, but now the Slims River has suddenly slimmed down — to nothing. ‘What folks have noticed this spring is that it’s essentially dried up,” said Jeff Bond of the Yukon Geological Survey. ‘That’s the first time that’s happened, as far as we know, in the last 350 years.’ What’s happened is some basic glacier hydrology, Bond says — essentially, the Kaskawulsh Glacier has retreated to the point where its melt water is now going in a completely different direction, away from the Slims Valley. Instead of flowing north 19 kilometres from the glacier’s toe into Kluane Lake (and ultimately, the Bering Sea), that melt water is now draining eastward via the Kaskawulsh River towards the Pacific Ocean off the Alaska panhandle. It’s a reminder that glacier-caused change is not always glacial-paced.”

Read more about the effects of glacier retreat on the Slims River here:

The Slims River Valley in Canada following glacier retreat (source: Sue Thomas/CBCNews).


The world’s highest vascular plants found in Indian Himalayas.

From Microbial Ecology: “Upward migration of plants to barren [just below the snowl areas is occurring worldwide due to raising ambient temperatures and glacial recession. In summer 2012, the presence of six vascular plants, growing in a single patch, was recorded at an unprecedented elevation of 6150 m.a.s.l. close to the summit of Mount Shukule II in the Western Himalayas (Ladakh, India). Whilst showing multiple signs of stress, all plants have managed to establish stable growth and persist for several years.”

Learn more about the role of microbes in the process of plant upward migration here.

Six plant species found over 6000 meters in the Indian Himalayas (source: Microbial Ecology).


Local struggles in Pakistan show adaptations to glacier thinning.

From Erdkunde: “Framing adaptation as a process of assemblage-building of heterogeneous human and non-human [actors], two village case studies are investigated where glacier thinning has dried up a source of irrigation water, turning cropland into desert. While in the first case case, villagers were able to construct a new and extraordinary water supply scheme with the help of external development agencies, in the second case, several approaches to utilize alternative water sources over three decades were unsuccessful. An account of the adaptation assemblages shows how a diversity of actants such as individual leaders, community, external agencies, construction materials, landslides and geomorphological features play variable and contingent roles in the success or failure of adaptation efforts, thus co-defining their outcome in complex ways.”

Learn more about the adaption efforts to glacier thinning in northern Pakistan here.

View of the Barpu Glacier (source: Michael Spies/Erdkunde)
View of the Barpu Glacier’s former meltwater stream (source: Michael Spies/Erdkunde).

Aromatic, Medicinal Plants Flourish in the Himalayas

In the region of the Himalayas from Bhutan, Nepal, and India, many aromatic plants grow and comprise a part of local people’s lives as medicine and food. In their review paper “Himalayan Aromatic Medicinal Plants: A Review of their Ethnopharmacology, Volatile Phytochemistry, and Biological Activities” in the journal Medicines, Rakesh K. Joshi, Prabodh Satyal, and William N. Setzer analyze in detail the nutritional and medicinal value of 116 aromatic plant species.

Cymbopogon martinis (source: Wikipedia)

The Himalayas are well-known as the world’s highest mountain range. The authors’ research area, located in the southern margin of the Himalaya range, is actually a narrow band of biodiversity. It is called by some researchers the center of plant diversity in the Himalayas. The monsoon brings rains concentrated in the summer and contributes a great deal to the rich biodiversity. The authors report, citing prior research, that “The Indian Himalaya is home to more than 8000 species of vascular plants of which 1748 are known for their medicinal properties.”

Artemisia marítima (source: Wikimedia)

The authors of the review paper indicated that the plants growing in high elevation are important for local people. Those plants provide both nutrition and medicinal functions. Some of those wild plants have been eaten by people since ancient times, while the medicinal effects have been noticed just recently. In the article, the authors list the ethnopharmacology, biological activities, and essential oil compositions of Himalayan aromatic plants. Some of them not only are useful but have some special characteristics.

For example, there are around 400 species in the genus Artemisia, like mugwort and wormwood, growing in the temperate regions, and 19 species of this genus in Himalayan regions have been recognized as medicinal herbs. The plants of this genus are traditional medicines discovered a long time ago by indigenous cultures. Most species have strong aromas, and can be smelled from a long distance. Due to their strong aromas, some of the plants in this genus are used as incense and insecticide. For example, the leaf extract of Artemisia japonica is used to treat malaria, while a paste of the leaves is applied externally to treat skin diseases in northern Pakistan. Another species, Artemisia maritima, is used by several Himalayan peoples to treat stomach problems and intestinal worms.

Artemisia michauxiana (source: PFAF)

When it comes to the Cinnamomum genus, which is in the laurel family, many people are quite familiar with the common spice, cinnamon. Chefs treat it as one important flavor and some people like cinnamon flavored coffee or tea. The Cinnamomum genus is another typical aromatic plant that are green from spring to winter. Their aromatic oils are preserved in the leaves and bark. In the Himalayan areas, eight out of 250 total species have been found. There are still many other genus of aromatic plants providing food and medicine for local people in the Himalayan places, such as the genus Cymbopogon, which is also known as lemongrass.

With its distinct environment of glacial and river valleys, the Himalayas nurture a rich biodiversity. Traditional herbs still play an important role in people’s health. More species are joining in the group of medicinal herbs. As a result, it should be highlighted that plants in Himalayas demand protection considering the challenge of climate change, environmental degradation, and other threats.

Roundup: Bacteria Are Doing Well; Zooplankton, Dams Are Not

Each week, we highlight three stories from the forefront of glacier news.

Project Forecasts India’s Hydrological Future in a Changing Climate

Pangong River in India. How will climate change affect the Indian region's water? (Photo: Pankaj Kaushal/Flickr)
Pangong River in India. How will climate change affect the Indian region’s water? (Photo: Pankaj Kaushal/Flickr)

From Earth & Space Science News:

“The Indian subcontinent is particularly vulnerable to climate change because of its diversified socioeconomic and climatic conditions. Changes in monsoon variability and glacier melt may lead to droughts over the Indian plains as well as extreme rains and abrupt floods in the neighboring Himalayas…Through our work with the NORINDIA project, we found that there is a risk of 50% glacier melt in the Beas River basin, which covers northwest India and northeast Pakistan, by 2050.”

Learn more about NORINDIA and its work in India.


Chilly Conditions No Match for Methane-cycling Microorganisms

Microorganisms in the soil of the Austrian Alps have been found to produce methane according to a new study. (Photo: image_less_ordinary/Flickr)
According to a new study microorganisms in the soil of the Austrian Alps have been found to produce methane. (Photo: image_less_ordinary/Flickr)

From FEMS Microbiology Ecology:

“Alpine belt soils harbored significantly more methane-cyclers than ––those of the nival belt, indicating some influence of plant cover. Our results show that methanogens are capable of persisting in high-alpine cold soils and might help to understand future changes of these environments caused by climate warming.”

What are the implications of this study? Find out here.


Preliminary Study Looks at Relationship Between Glacial Lakes and Zooplankton

 Study looks to find why glacial lakes may be low in Zooplankton. (Photo: Macroscopic Solutions/Flickr)
Study looks to find why glacial lakes may be low in zooplankton. (Photo: Macroscopic Solutions)

From Polish Journal of Environmental Studies:

“Zooplankton communities can be affected by glacial influence. In marine environments zooplankton mortality, mainly associated with the chemical properties of the ice, has been found in areas close to ice fields.”

Find out which characteristic of glacial lakes is affecting zooplankton.

Photo Friday: 10 Indian soldiers were killed in an avalanche

In the Himalayan region, at least 10 Indian soldiers were dead due to an avalanche which engulfed their station near the Siachen Glacier. The India’s Defense Ministry made an announcement on Thursday. After the accident, Indian Army and Air Force personnel were sent to the accident spot to search for possible survivors even though temperatures on the Siachen glacier range from -25 C to -42 C.

“It is with deepest regret that we have to state that chances of finding any survivors are now very remote,” the ministry said in a statement.  Earlier in January, an avalanche hit a patrol party and four soldiers were dead in this accident. On the Siachen Glacier, the border between India and Pakistan, extreme weather conditions have already killed many soldiers stationed here. “Since 1984, India has lost 869 troops due to the extreme weather events,” said S. D. Goswami, a spokesperson for the Indian Army’s Northern Command.

The most recent news indicates that the soldiers who were trapped in the avalanche all died. Public opinion in India remains strongly in favor of maintaining this base, despite the ongoing loss of life that it entails.

Researchers Question Glacier Study

This article has been republished on GlacierHub and was originally posted on the personal blog of Joseph Michael Shea. Shea is a glacier hydrologist with the International Center for Integrated Mountain (ICIMOD) and is currently based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Follow him on Twitter here

A paper published last year in the Indian journal Current Science (pdf) has recently been raised in the Indian parliament. A number of scientists have been rightfully critical of this paper in different online forums. In this post, I’m going to take a quick look at the results of the paper, which are surprising to anyone familiar with the current state of Himalayan glaciology.

Why are the results surprising? Based on a sample of 2018 glaciers, the paper’s authors suggest that nearly 87% of the glaciers in the region have stable snouts, while 12% have retreating termini, and < 1% are advancing.

There are a number of issues with these figures, which lead the authors to the incorrect conclusion  that glaciers in the region are actually in steady state. In no particular order, these issues are:

  1. Glacier snout position is determined by a complex range of factors, including climate, dynamics, and lag times. Over short periods (i.e. less than 10 years, as in this paper) the behaviour of the terminus may not be indicative of the overall health of a glacier.
  2. Glacier retreat is a very different thing from glacier mass loss. Glaciers lose mass primarily due to downwasting (surface lowering), not terminus retreat. And study after study has confirmed that glaciers across the region (except for the Karakoram) are losing mass.
  3. The position of the terminus on debris-covered glaciers can be  difficult to interpret, and it will not respond to climate change in the same way as the terminus on clean (debris-free) glaciers. The authors do not distinguish between debris-covered and clean glaciers in their terminus assessments.
  4. Its not clear how the 2018 glaciers were sampled. There are over 54,000 glaciers in the HKH region, and while a 3% sample size is not too bad, biased sampling for debris-covered or large glaciers make extrapolations to the entire population problematic.

Finally, the “stable” glacier examples given in the paper actually show glaciers in retreat! Here is a Landsat pair (data available at from 2001 and 2014 for the Gangotri Glacier, in the Garwhal Himalaya (Figure 7 in theCurrent Science paper):


Not only is the  Gangotri (the main north-flowing glacier in the center of the image) in retreat, but you can also literally see the downwasting occur as the distance between the active ice surface and the large lateral moraines gets bigger. Smaller glaciers throughout the region also appear to be in retreat.

The authors also use the example of Siachen Glacier in the Karakoram Range (Figure 8 in the Current Science paper). This is the terminus of a massive glacier system (ca. 700 km²) and the Landsat pairs I pulled from 2000 and 2013 also appear to show retreat and deflation at the terminus:


Bottom line: the Current Science paper is simply not credible. The conclusion that > 80% of glaciers in the region are stable is based on incorrect interpretations of satellite imagery, a possibly biased sampling method, and an unjustified reliance on short-term changes in terminus position as an indicator of glacier health.

Glacier Stars in New Bollywood Film

It is not unusual for the viewer of a Bollywood movie to be transported to the pyramids of Egypt, the Swiss Alps, or even the metropolis of midtown Manhattan, as the backdrop for actors’ most intense emotion–whether that is romantic love or a sense of being lost in the world. Recently, the Thajiwas glacier, in disputed territory between India and Pakistan, became the set for Bajrangi Bhaijan, a Bollywood movie that explores relations between the two countries through the story of a young girl and a good Samaritan.

The movie, released this summer, stars Salman Khan and is directed by Kabir Khan. It tells of the heroic quest of Pawan (played by Salman Khan) to return a lost young girl to her parents. But Shahida, the young girl, (played by Harshaali Malhotra), cannot speak—she is mute. As Pawan and Shahida journey, Pawan must try to communicate with her and find out where she is from. He eventually learns that he must go to Pakistan to return Shahida to her family.

Actor Salman Khan. Credit: Bollywood Hungama
Actor Salman Khan. Credit: Bollywood Hungama

Shahida’s home is in the Pakistani Himalayas, but to get there, she and Pawan must cross through the varied geography of India, from the Thar Desert in the north of the country, to the mountainous region near the Thajiwas. The greenery of mountain grasses combined with the snow-covered Himalayas has been referred to as “Asia’s Switzerland”—Shahida actually tries to communicate where she is from with a photo of what turns out to be Switzerland during the movie.

Once he gets close to Shahida’s home, Pawan is captured by the Pakistani authorities, whom he defied by illegally crossing the border. A Pakistani security agent is forced to confront a conflict between the justice of Pawan’s mission and his duty to his higher ups–corrupt government bureaucrats who want to portray Pawan as an Indian black agent. He decides to let Pawan go. Pawan is escorted by thousands of supporters who force the border agents, at a made-up border crossing at the Thajiwas, to let Pawan return.

In reality, the Thajiwas glacier, and the locations where the scenery were filmed, are located in India, not Pakistan. The region is in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, which is a disputed area between India and Pakistan (GlacierHub in 2014 covered the conflict between India and Pakistan in glacier-covered territory here and here). The relationship between the two countries and the competing religious identities is a major theme of the movie. The beautiful scenery is depicted as belonging to both countries and being part of a shared cultural heritage, challenging the political status quo.

The Himalayas are shared between India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, China, and Bhutan, so this region is vulnerable to the political instability between these countries. However, tension between these countries does not deter tourists, who flocked to the Kashmir Valley at a rate of 1.4 million in 2011/2012. The Thajiwas glacier and its nearby town of Sonamarg are major tourist attractions, with sledding and pony rides that enable tourists to explore the region, which is inaccessible to cars after a certain point. The movie shows the beauty of this area as well as the surrounding landscape, including the alpine forests, which draw tourists every year. The local economy depends on these tourist dollars, which generally come in during the summer.

Thajiwas Glacier, Credit:
Thajiwas Glacier, Credit:

Filming in this location presented logistical challenges due to the elevation and accessibility. The scene shot at the glacier involved 7,000 extras, who needed to be transported to the area. Though the movie depicts the area as a border crossing, there is no actual crossing there, and a combination of a set construction and CGI were used. A promotional video of the making of the movie shows a brief glimpse of the set being built and the crew shooting and positioning at various locations in the snow and on the glacier. Though several stories covered the feat of filming in the location, there was no mention of the environmental impact of having such as large operation take place on the glacier.

The director, Kabir Khan, stated at a press conference that he is “always looking out for locations that are inaccessible…it was about an hour’s trek from the nearest road. But that’s what makes it special—that’s how you reach special locations, and ultimately when you see it on the screen all that trouble taken to reach that location is worth it.”

Watch the trailer here: (click CC for subtitles)

Roundup: French Presidential Visit, Trek Itinerary, and Dangerous Glacial Lakes

French president visits glacier to witness climate change

Francois Hollande
Iceland’s President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, right, and France’s President Francois Hollande, left, talk on the Solheimajokull glacier, in Iceland on Oct. 16 (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, Pool).

“PARIS — The French president took a few steps on an Icelandic glacier Friday to experience firsthand the damage caused by global warming, ahead of major U.N. talks on climate change in Paris this year. Francois Hollande went to the shrinking Solheimajokull glacier, where the ice has retreated by more than 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) since annual measurements began in 1931.”

To read more about the President’s visit, click here.


How to find Yosemite’s disappearing glacier

Lyell Glacier
Photo of Lyell Glacier from 1903 on site at Lyell Glacier last week in high country of Yosemite National Park (Courtesy of Josh Helling, The Chronicle)

“The Lyell Glacier, once a mile wide and Yosemite’s largest glacier when measured by John Muir in 1872, could melt off and disappear in as soon as five years, according to park geologist Greg Stock, if warm temperatures at high elevations continue. Chronicle outdoors writer Tom Stienstra visited the park to report on the glacier’s vanishing. This is the trek itinerary.”

Click here to read more.


Global warming creating dangerous glacier lakes in Himalayas, finds study

Life-threatening flood from Chorabari lake in 2013 (Courtesy of the Hindustan Times)
Life-threatening flood from Chorabari lake in 2013 (Courtesy of the Hindustan Times)

“As the black clouds heavily pregnant with water vapour hovered over Dehradun on June 15, 2013, it looked ominous. Around 13,000 feet above the sea level, rain was already tanking up Chorabari Lake, a water body created by melting glaciers. On June 16 midnight, the heavy rain caused the lake’s rock bank to collapse, sending down a flash flood that swept through the holy Himalayan pilgrimage site Kedarnath, killing 5,000 people.

There are 1,266 such Chorabari lakes in Uttarakhand’s Himalayan regions, some of which have been created fresh by the rapid retreat of glaciers due to global warming, found a study by Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, an autonomous body of the central government.”

To read more about the study’s findings, click here.


India’s Hydroelectric Plans Threaten Local Comunities


Indigenous Buddhist tribes in northeast India are protesting government plans to build fifteen new hydroelectric sites along their settlement region. The Monpa tribe, which lives along the Tawang river basin in over 234 scattered settlements in Arunachal Pradesh, fears that the hydroelectric projects will affect their religious sites and monasteries, as well as the region’s springs, and biological diversity, which carry large cultural significance for the tribe. The region is also at risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), which could have hazardous impacts on hydroelectric projects.

Black Cranes
Black-necked cranes by a lake in Tibet. Courtesy of Purbu Zhaxi/Xinhua Press/Corbis

The government is proceeding with the construction of one particularly contentious hydroelectric site: a 780MW station along the Nyamjang Chhu river that threatens a cultural and religiously significant migration site of endangered black-necked cranes. This site will occupy the middle of a 3-km stretch of the Nyamjang Chhu river, which is partially fed by the region’s glaciers and along which eight black-necked cranes reside during their winter migration.  The Monpa eagerly await the birds’ arrival, and revere their species as the reincarnation of the sixth Dalai Lama.

In late July of 2015, the Save Mon Region Federation sent a letter to the Expert Appraisal Committee of the ministry, accusing NJC Hydropower, the independent company building the Nyanjan Chhu hydroelectric site, of purposely concealing information about the black-necked cranes’ wintering site. Allegedly, the company didn’t cooperate with the study’s researchers until the end of winter, when the black-necked cranes had left their wintering site.

A Monpa monk spins prayer wheels at Tawang monastery
A Monpa monk spins prayer wheels at Tawang monastery. Photo courtesy of Anupam Nath/AP

“The hydroelectric projects will totally destroy natural habitats in the region,” Asad Rahmani, scientific adviser of the Bombay Natural History Society, told the Guardian. “When planning such projects, we’re not paying attention to their impact on local culture. The electricity is for people like us in the cities, but all the damage is suffered by the local people.”

In addition to going ahead with the highly disputed site placement, the Dehli government has plans for another fourteen proposed hydroelectric projects in the Tawang region. These projects are part of major government efforts to bring power to the 300 million people living without electricity by 2022. The government will also increase solar, wind and coal generation in the next seven years.

“We don’t need so many hydel projects to meet the electricity demand of our people,” Save Mon Region Federation’s general secretary, Lobsang Gyatso, told the Times of India. “Small hydro-projects would suffice. All these large dams are meant to generate electricity to be sold outside, at the cost of our livelihoods and ecology.”

To express concerns about the new hydroelectric plans, villagers in the Tawang region organized a large rally in December of 2012. The protesters alleged that the government had developed hydroelectric projects with private utility developers without proper consent from the residents in the region. The region currently maintains a ban against public gathering.

In addition, the relatively unexplored, mountainous region in the Eastern Himalayas is especially prone to the risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs), as are most regions of this type, which poses risky problems to hydroelectric development.

GLOFs are one of the major hazards of mountainous, glacial regions, especially those susceptible to climate change. Tawang’s lakes and rivers are mainly supplied by snowmelt and the melting glaciers of the Himalayas. The lakes, while usually dammed by end-moraines, have a tendency to flash flood, which induces large volumes of flowing water, large quantities of sediment runoff, as well as potential flowing boulders and the risk of washing away mountain valleys. GLOFs are often responsible for catastrophic flooding, large losses of property, and human life.

While the region’s dams have a combined capacity of about 2800 MW of power, a recent study stated that GLOFs and their associated risk are likely to have a “direct impact” on the commissioned hydropower projects in the region, as well as on the Monpa population living downstream of the glacial lakes and hydroelectric projects.

The study aimed to detect potential dangerous lakes to proposed hydroelectric sites, as well as to quantify the volume of water discharge and to predict the hydrograph, or rate of flow versus time, at the lake sites at risk of GLOFs.  The researchers estimated that at peak flow, flooding at one particular dammed lake likely of flooding would take as little as an hour and ten minutes to reach a downstream hydroelectric site, posing great risk to the site. Despite promises from the governmental parliament, no public consultation on the Tawang river basin study report has yet been held.

The Monpa protestors remain focused on the threats the hydroelectric sites pose to their cultural and religious traditions. Each of the 234 Tawang settlements along the river will be affected by at least one hydropower plant, and construction for the sites will demolish roughly 615 acres of forest. Monpa residents also fear the disruption of sacred pilgrimage sites and springs.

Glacier Lake Bursts in Bhutan

Upper drainage of Mochu, showing glacier lakes. (Source: Google Earth)
Upper drainage of Mochu, showing glacier lakes. (Source: Google Earth)

On the morning of Sunday 28 June, an earthquake in India caused a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood in northern Bhutan.  Local residents alerted officials, who activated warning systems and ordered evacuations downstream. Rivers  rose to high levels, but no fatalities occurred. By Monday night, the rivers had begun to fall.

Map of 27 June earthquake, courtesy of the USGS
Map of 28 June earthquake, courtesy of the USGS

The United States Geological Survey reported an earthquake of 5.5 on the modified Richter scale at 7:05 AM local time, at 17km north-northeast of the town of Basugaon, in Assam State, India and 22 km south of the town of Gelephu in  Sarpang District, Bhutan.

Light to moderate shaking was reported from Nepal and Bangladesh as well as Bhutan and India. Sonam Choden in Thimphu in western Bhutan reported on Facebook “the earthquake rocked my husband right back on to sleeping.” Sangay Wangchuk, who lives in Jakar in central Bhutan, wrote “Ap Naka wags its tail again.” Ap Naka means “father earthquake,” referring to the common belief that the earth is held by a giant male spirit whose movements cause earthquakes.

The immediate damage in Bhutan was negligible, and even in India it was slight. Three persons sustained minor injuries when an old wall collapsed near the railway station in Kokrajhar, Assam, injuring three people. At an ancient temple in Chirang district, Assam, a sculpture of a lion was knocked off its base.

A glacial lake, Lemthang Tsho, located about 95 km northwest of the epicenter, burst later that day. This lake, also known as Shinchila Tsho, is located in Laya County in Gasa District in northern Bhutan, close to the border with China.   According to Kuensel, Kinley Dorji, a county official  in Laya, stated that mushroom collectors in the high pastures near glaciers had called him to let him know about the outburst from the lake, which is one of the sources of the Mochu, a major river of Central Bhutan. He, in turn, alerted district officials in Gasa and in Punakha and Wangdue, two large districts downstream on the Mochu. He also spoke with police, hospitals and officials at a large hydroelectric station at Punatsangchu.

Flooding on the Mochu River, courtesy of Kuensel via Facebook
Flooding on the Mochu River, courtesy of Kuensel via Facebook

Officials at the three major gauges along the Mochu monitored the water levels closely. They began sounding the sirens around 6:30 pm, even before the rivers reached the level for alerts, because they were concerned about additional risks from the monsoon rains, which had been heavy during the preceding weeks. The sirens caused panic among many residents, and they were turned off after more than an hour. The Prime Minster ordered evacuations along the Mochu River and at the hydropower station at 9:30pm, and reports suggest that these were largely complete within an hour. Patients at a hospital close to the river were moved to a military hospital at higher ground.

The river peaked late that evening, with high waters at Punakha a bit before midnight and at Wangdue later on. Fortunately, the towns were not damaged. The historic fortress or dzong of Punakha had been partially destroyed by a glacier lake outburst flood in 1994, so residents were concerned. The residents returned to their homes the next morning. Power, which had been cut in Punakha, was also restored.

Teams traveled through the area on 29 and 30 June to examine the damage. They reported that six wooden bridges had been washed out, isolating some villages and Laya town, and impeding the assessment efforts. Several groups of mushroom collectors were stranded on the far side of the now-empty Lemthang Tsho lake.

Karma Dupchu , the chief of the Hydrology Division within Department of Hydrometeorology,  will send a delegation to the glacier lakes high in the Mochu drainage, to see which of them burst, and to assess the relative importance of the earthquake and the heavy rains in causing the flood.

Rebuilding efforts already began by 30 June, as shown by a tweet from the Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay




A Dying Glacier, a Drought-Stricken Village, and a Good View

In the course of researching my new book, “Fire and Ice: Soot, Solidarity and Survival on the Roof of the World”, I traveled to many communities living in the shadow of retreating snow and ice. I talked to Sherpa villagers who fear potential glacial lake outburst floods in Nepal’s Khumbu Valley, and with Naxi people adapting to drought conditions not far from the increasingly bare flanks of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in China’s Yunnan Province.

One of the two small, shrinking glaciers atop the mountains above Kumik.

But nowhere did I find the consequences of the Himalaya’s shrinking glaciers and snowfields as stark or sobering as in Kumik, a cluster of 39 households hugging a hillside in northwest India. Kumik is one of the oldest communities in the remote Zanskar Valley, and the first there to be abandoned due to a changing climate.

Zanskar lies in the “rain shadow” formed by the Great Himalayan Range, where the only source of water – and therefore life – is melting snow and ice. The villagers of Zanskar long ago developed a sophisticated water-sharing system, to irrigate their fields of barley, peas, wheat and fodder grasses. But physics threatens to overwhelm this cultural ingenuity.

“There are loud indicators that these glaciers are melting,” Shakeel Romshoo, a glaciologist at the University of Kashmir, told me. He has studied glaciers in Zanskar and other parts of the state of Jammu and Kashmir since the mid-1980s. “Out of 365 glaciers in the Zanskar region that were there in 1969, about 6 of these glaciers are not there.” As in, completely gone. “I would say, all the glaciers I have seen, they are showing the recession.” Ulrich Kamp, of the University of Montana, measured thirteen glaciers in Zanskar, combining field measurements of glacier topography with thermal imaging and remote sensing data. “Most of the glaciers in the Greater Himalaya Range in Zanskar are receding since at least the 1970s,” he and his colleagues concluded.

Kumik’s sole irrigation source is a single stream of meltwater.

Kumik is on the sharp edge of this troubling trend. Its sole lifeline is one small stream coursing down from the glacier-capped mountain of Sultan Largo. This lifeline is frequently severed by the double whammy of declining snowfall and earlier, warmer springs. The stream now often dries up by August, before the harvest.

Ishay Paldan, the oldest resident of Kumik, has watched as the snowfields and small glaciers on the mountains above have steadily retreated over the course of his lifetime. “When I was a child, we had no problems with water,” he told me on my first visit. The view from his window shows just how much things have changed: the snowline that once almost came down to the edge of Kumik is now several kilometers distant.

Kumik’s chronic state of drought became so acute in the summer of 2000 that the entire community gathered and made a painful decision. They would leave their ancient homes, and start over somewhere else.

The government offered them a dusty, wind-scoured patch of desert – a couple miles and almost a thousand feet below – where they could start over. So they began to dig a canal, five miles long, to bring water from the Lungnak River. They gathered stones and mixed mud bricks. They started to build a new village from scratch, hoping to green this no-man’s-land long known as Marthang, “the red place.”

A villager hacks a new canal out of the hard earth of Marthang, (the “red place”) in the shadow of the retreating glaciers of the Great Himalayan Range.

Since my first visit in 2008, I have spent many happy days with the people of Kumik, listening to their stories in the old village they are slowly leaving, and working alongside them in the new one they are slowly coaxing from the desert floor. The villagers are more prone to cracking jokes about the tough spot they’re in, and singing songs as they hack canals out of the dry earth, than to dwelling on their bad luck. “Kumik is like a small flower that grows high in the mountains, and only needs little water!” goes a folk song that I heard the villagers sing late one night.

This stoic good cheer in the face of their slow-motion catastrophe has puzzled and inspired me in equal measure – enough to spend a few years writing a book that tries to ferret out and understand the physical and other forces behind their eviction (spoiler alert: black carbon, a.k.a. soot, is a primary culprit), and that also seeks to share the profound lessons of their resilience for the rest of us living downstream.

One interpretation of “Kumik” says it is a combination of the words kun and mik in the local language, meaning “all is visible.” Every time I go back, it strikes me how apt that name is. Looking up at the ragged, beleaguered patches of snow and ice on Sultan Largo, and down at the modest village taking shape in the “red place,” it seems as though the human consequences of our planet-warming pollution are made all too plain.

And it seems as though the logical response – bold, collective, hope-infused action – is revealed with just as much clarity.

Experts in collective, cooperative action, the people of Kumik are building a new village – one they hope will be more resilient to their changing climate.

Roundup: Climate Science and International Adaptation

Integration of Glacier and Snow

“Energy budget-based distributed modeling of snow and glacier melt runoff is essential in a hydrologic model to accurately describe hydrologic processes in cold regions and high-altitude catchments. We developed herein an integrated modeling system with an energy budget-based multilayer scheme for clean glaciers, a single-layer scheme for debris-covered glaciers, and multilayer scheme for seasonal snow over glacier, soil, and forest within a distributed biosphere hydrological modeling framework.”

Read more of the article here.



Climate Science on Glaciers

“The 2001–2013 sum of positive temperatures (SPT) record, as a proxy of snow/ice ablation, has been obtained for the high-mountain glaciarized Munku-Sardyk massif, East Sayan Mountains, using daily NCEP/NCAR reanalysis data. The SPT (and ice melt) demonstrates a significant decreasing trend, with the highest values in 2001, 2002, and 2007, and the lowest in 2013. We have investigated relationships between potential summer ablation and synoptic-scale conditions over the study area.”

Read more of this article here.


International Adaptation to Glacier Retreat

“The transboundary Himalayan Rivers flowing through Bhutan to India and Bangladesh constitute an enormous asset for economic development in a region which contains the largest number of poor people in the world. However, the rapid retreat of Himalayan glaciers has made South Asia vulnerable to variety of water-related natural hazards and disasters such as floods, landslides, and glacial lake outburst.”

Read more of this book chapter here.