From Nature: “Objectively estimating trends in GLOF frequency is challenging as many lakes form in terrain with limited access, making fieldwork impractical. In the HKKHN, outburst floods from glacier lakes initiated mainly between 4,500 and 5,200 m above sea level and some attenuated rapidly, possibly escaping notice in human settlements several thousand vertical metres below. Reliable reports on 40 GLOFs since 1935 are selective. We mapped these GLOFs, originally compiled by regional initiatives, highlighting 32 cases in the Central and Eastern Himalayas in contrast to the very few cases in the northwestern Hindu Kush–Karakoram (HKK) and Nyainqentanglha Mountains. We speculate that these 40 reports preferentially covered large or destructive cases, which makes the assessment of their frequency problematic. In trying to account for this reporting bias, our objective is to estimate GLOF frequency and its changes from a systematic inventory covering the entire HKKHN.”
New Project Examines Changes in Peru’s River Systems
From Phys.org: “Remote communities in the Peruvian Andes, as well as communities downstream, depend on the water from melting glaciers and mountain ecosystems to provide them with food and power, and to support industry.
But climate change is increasingly putting that in jeopardy, posing a serious threat to future water resources and having potentially severe implications for the vulnerable populations living in river basins-fed by the glaciers.
Now a major research project is looking to establish the precise effects future changes in the glacial system might pose, and how agencies and the communities themselves can work together to mitigate the potential effects of changing water quantity and quality as the glacier retreat.”
Climate Change Likely to Impact Glacier-Fed Rivers in New Zealand
From International Journal of Climatology: “Future climate change is likely to alter the amount, seasonality and distribution of water available for economic use downstream of alpine areas, so there is a need to forecast glacier net mass loss when assessing future hydrological change. This issue is of considerable relevance to New Zealand, which relies heavily on hydro power for electricity generation. An important river system is the Waitaki, which contains eight hydro generating stations and has a significant input from seasonal snow and glacier melt. Thus, changes in glacier ice volume and atmospheric circulation have long term implications for energy production. The impacts of climate change on water resources are also critical for the Clutha River. This is New Zealand’s largest river with extensive hydro-electricity and irrigation assets. Third, there are close links between glaciers and the large tourism industry in New Zealand, which along with agriculture, is the major driver of the national economy. All these factors mean that there is growing economic concern as to what may happen in the future.”
The previously dry Barsuwat riverbed in Ishkoman, Pakistan, was inundated with flood waters from the melting Barsuwat glacier last month. The water triggered landslides that blocked the flow of the Immit River and formed an artificial lake. On July 18, a glacier lake outburst flood (GLOF) event originating from the artificial lake produced significant flooding in nearby villages in the Ishkoman Valley of the Ghizer district, Gilgit-Baltistan. Two people were killed during the initial rush of floodwaters, and around 1,000 people were evacuated to safer areas ahead of the GLOF by Community Emergency Response Teams (CERTs).
During the GLOF, the melting glacier released debris, including mud and stones, which damaged over 40 houses and cut off roadway access to upwards of 10 local villages. Part of the Karakoram Highway became submerged, while some smaller roads were washed away along with over a dozen vehicles and hundreds of cattle in the upstream areas.
The Barsuwat glacier has been melting more rapidly than normal due to a May heat wave in the region that killed 65 people in Karachi, Pakistan. According to Dawn, an online Pakistani newspaper, the deputy commissioner of Ghizer, Shuja Alam, said that the glacier started melting on July 17, the night before the flooding event, at about 7 p.m. The floodwaters have since waned as the ice and debris have melted and washed away.
The evacuation of the villagers prior to the GLOF event was made possible by a community-based flood early warning system in Gilgit Baltistan developed by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an organization that monitors glacier melt and the dams that can lead to lake formation and flooding.
Earlier in April, ICIMOD’s Director General David Molden had pledged “ongoing support to Pakistan’s government and community institutions” and highlighted the organization’s partnership in disaster risk management in Gilgit Baltistan as key to enabling locals to respond to the consequences of climate change, including an increase in glacial lakes and flooding events.
ICIMOD is currently collaborating with the Gilgit Baltistan Disaster Management Authority and the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat on disaster risk management in the area. These kinds of collaborations are becoming increasingly necessary as disasters like the one in July become more common. “Today, the fast melting glaciers pose the greatest disaster risk to Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. I see massive deforestation that the region has experienced over the decades as a major factor behind this situation,” Ghulam Rasul, director general of Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), told Dawn.
However, Ken Hewitt, professor emeritus of the department of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, who spent his career studying glaciers in Northern Pakistan, warns of a greater threat to the region. “Bigger risks come from ice dams, of which there have been seven or more in the upper Ishkoman (Karambar tributary) since late 19th century,” he told GlacierHub.
He added that there is potential for one of these ice dams and resulting GLOFs from a recent advance of Chillinji Glacier. “Its terminus has advanced across the Karambar River, but not sealed a dam to date—though it has in the past,” Hewitt said.
News outlets in Pakistan have likened the July 2018 artificial lake formation in Ishkoman to the formation of Attabad Lake in Hunza River Valley, Pakistan, in January 2010. Attabad Lake was created after a natural rock landslide buried the village of Attabad and dammed the Hunza River. The lake grew to 21 kilometers across and over 109 meters deep.
The Ishkoman Valley lake is different, however, in that it does not have the same blockage characteristics that could withstand warming temperatures and height of the rising waters to form a permanent lake.
As the region looks to the future, Hewitt is keeping his eye on the Hasanabad Glacier in Hunza, about 50 kilometers downstream from Attabad, which is currently undergoing a massive surge. “It had the longest, fastest surge on record a century ago and is a unique glacier in other ways,” he said. He remains doubtful it will reach the Hunza River, but he cautions that it could form a dam on its large tributary, risking another GLOF in the region.
This week, we take a look at a video showing how Indian soldiers celebrate International Yoga Day. The Indian army holds a tradition of practicing yoga on Siachen Glacier every year on this day despite the on-going tension in the region.
Siachen Glacier is located in the eastern Karakoram range in the Himalayas and is 6,700 meters above sea level. The video can be found on YouTube and shows how the soliders celebrate even under the most intense conditions.
Glaciers in the High Mountains of Asia (HMA), like most mountain glaciers around the world, are retreating due to climate change. However, in the Karakoram mountains of northwest HMA, glaciers have remained stable, and in some cases, have actually advanced. A recently published study in Geophysical Research Letters delved into one of the potential drivers behind this climatic irregularity, irrigation.
The idea that irrigation, a human-induced change to the environment for agricultural production, could regionally counteract climate change, another human-driven change, might seem a bit far-fetched. And to Remco J. de Kok, Obbe A. Tuinenburg, and Walter W. Immerzeel, three of the authors of the study who spoke with GlacierHub, it did at first start out as a wild idea. Nevertheless, previous studies, including Tuineburg’s own Ph.D. thesis, found that evaporation from irrigation in India was being transported by atmospheric winds to Himalayan areas where it fell as snow or rain, likely contributing to the increased glacial mass observed.
The most famous of the advancing glacier areas is the Karakoram anomaly, first coined in 2005 by Ken Hewitt. According to Immerzeel, the term gained traction in subsequent remote sensing studies that partly confirmed the anomaly. As it turned out, the Karakoram range was not the only region with stable or advancing glaciers. Studies published in 2013 and 2017 also found positive mass balances in the Pamirs and the Kunlun Shan mountains northeast of the Karakorams.
Prior research pointed to atmospheric circulation patterns and a particularly seasonal pattern (precipitation was concentrated in winter). These studies were conducted across a large spatial scale, and therefore their proposed mechanisms should support stable and advancing glaciers uniformly across the region. Yet, the glaciers just south of Karakoram show some of the highest glacial melt rates in the region, notes de Kok, while at the same time glaciers in the Kunlun Shan region northeast of Karakoram exhibit positive mass balances. These differences in a relatively small geographical area led the authors to consider two hypotheses: either the glaciers are responding differently to similar climatic changes or that the glaciers are experiencing different climatic changes.
To assess these hypotheses, the authors selected China’s Tarim basin. According to de Kok, “It is adjacent to the areas of largest glacier growth and has some of the biggest increases in irrigation.” Next, the authors needed to assess whether recent irrigation increases in the basin were impacting neighboring mountain climates in a way that would be conducive to glacial growth.
The authors utilized a regional climate model known as the Weather Research and Forecasting model, or WRF for short. The model was run under two scenarios: a historical or stagnant scenario and a recent change scenario. The historical scenario represented the difference between model runs with modern irrigation and no irrigation, along with atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations (GHG) held at 1900 levels. On the other hand, the recent change scenario represented the intensification of irrigation over the period 2000 to 2010 and a concurrent increase in GHG concentrations.
By applying these two scenarios, the authors were able to more accurately depict climatic changes and evaluate whether the impact of irrigation is significant in comparison to climate change. The authors were then able to compare the two to see if either had a dominant influence on the regional climate.
After running the models, the first apparent impacts of irrigation were an increase in evapotranspiration, a decrease in summer daytime temperatures, and an increase in atmospheric moisture directly over the basin.
Then things got interesting.
The model runs showed increased summer snowfall in Kunlun Shan, Pamir, and northeast Tibet. These increases were largest for the historical scenario with 1900 GHG levels and modern irrigation, showing that the increase was primarily caused by irrigation, not GHG. The authors also analyzed changes in net radiation, the difference between incoming solar and outgoing terrestrial radiation. Across most of HMA, net radiation increased; conversely, in Kunlun Shan, net radiation decreased. This decrease is a result of a decrease in incoming solar radiation due to increased cloud cover and the increase in snow cover, which has a high albedo.
The decrease in net radiation was found to counteract climate change’s enhanced greenhouse effect. Strikingly, when GHG were raised to current levels and irrigation was held at zero, the model results revealed an increase in net solar radiation across the entire region, signaling that irrigation is the principal reason for negative net radiation in Kunlun Shan.
While it was clear that increases in irrigation are leading to favorable conditions for glacier growth, where was this increased moisture coming from?
Model results pointed to the hypothesized Tarim basin as the main source of the increased moisture in the Kunlun Shan. The authors were able to corroborate this by conducting two model runs for the Tarim basin, one with no irrigation and one modern irrigation, while the rest of the region was held at modern levels. These runs revealed an increase in snowfall and a decrease in net radiation only when the Tarim basin had modern irrigation, confirming its influence.
The irrigation of the Tarim basin is creating an advantageous environment for glacial growth, but the study is unable to attribute just how much this mechanism is contributing to the positive mass balance of the Kunlun Shan, a topic that will be the focus of future research, according to de Kok.
There’s also the question of sustainability for the recent increase in irrigation in the region as groundwater becomes more and more stressed and adverse ecological impacts in the otherwise arid Tarim basin take hold. A future reduction in irrigation could be bad news for glaciers, as the authors note it might “mean that the anomalous glacier mass balance in Kunlun Shan is of temporary nature.” Nonetheless, in a world where melting glaciers have become the new norm, stable glaciers, even if fleeting, are a welcomed respite.
Known to many as the “roof of the world,” the Pamir Mountains are spread over one of the world’s most glaciated regions, cutting across parts of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and China. It is a region dominated by curtains of clouds, rocks, glacier ice, and snow, as well as pastoralists and their sheep.
Muztagh Ata, which translates directly to “ice-mountain-father” in the Uyghur language, is one of the region’s most picturesque peaks. Standing tall at over 7,509 meters, the mountain has a magnificent relationship to the lake at its feet. Located near China’s borders with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan, the glaciated peak is accessible through the marvel of engineering and perseverance that is the Karakoram Highway, the world’s highest international paved road. But it’s Photo Friday, so nobody has to try their luck on the Karakoram today.
In August 2016, Samar Khan, 26, became the first woman to cycle 800 kilometers to reach the Biafo Glacier in northern Pakistan, where she then rode at an elevation of 4,500 m on top of the glacier. Accomplishing one of the highest glacier rides in the world, she proved that glaciers can draw attention to some of society’s most entrenched issues, from climate change to women’s rights.
“In order to change the mindsets of our people, I chose to cycle on glaciers,” Khan told GlacierHub. “I wanted people to realize the importance of what we have, how to preserve it, and what our duties are toward these majestic landmarks.”
Khan reached Biafo Glacier after 15 days of cycling from Islamabad to Skardu, becoming the first Pakistani to accomplish the feat. She was accompanied by other cyclists at various times during her journey and was honored upon her arrival by the sports board of Gilgit-Baltistan. Prior to the Biafo trip, she had previously covered 1,000 km, cycling from Islamabad to the Pakistan-Chinese border.
Biafo Glacier, the third longest glacier outside the polar regions, required Kahn to disassemble her bike and carry the parts, helped by porters, for four or five days up ice and snow to reach the remote glacier before riding it. She camped near the glacier in dangerously cold conditions, telling Images, a Pakistani magazine, “Camping on the glacier was not easy. I was so cold that I couldn’t sleep and later slept with the porters in a cramped space.”
Recognizing that climate change is impacting the glaciers, Khan plans to keep cycling. “I will be cycling on other glaciers, summiting peaks, and documenting it all to create awareness about climate change and its effect on our environment,” she said. “I am going for a peak summit of 6,250 m in Arandu (Karakoram Range), Skardu, and Gilgit-Baltistan on May 14th.” Gilgit-Baltistan is a mountainous administrative territory of Pakistan, home to five peaks of at least 8,000 m in height.
Sadaffe Abid, co-founder of CIRCLE, a Pakistan-based women’s rights group focused on improving women’s socioeconomic status, talked to GlacierHub about Ms. Khan’s achievement. “It’s not common at all. It’s very challenging. For a Pakistani women, it is very unusual, as women don’t ride bicycles or motorbikes. Their mobility is extremely constrained. So, it’s a big deal and its setting new milestones,” she said.
“I am the first Pak girl to break stereotypes and cycle to northern Pakistan,” Samar Khan told CIRCLE in an interview posted on Facebook.
Khan has faced sexism and violence by going against the norms in Pakistan. She recounted a story to CIRCLE about her engagement to a man. When she met his family, they gave her a list of demands including not speaking Pashto and not using social media or her cell phone. When she refused, she was beaten and thrown out of a car. She ended up in the ICU and became depressed before eventually finding cycling.
“Steps taken like this boost the confidence of other ladies in underprivileged areas and make them aware about their basic rights,” Khan said. “It makes them realize their strengths and capabilities. The change begins when they start trusting themselves instead of listening to the patriarchal society.”
Khan told GlacierHub that she also faced criticism and disbelief of her accomplishment from other sources. “There was a trekking community who criticized my way of exploring Biafo Glacier, the most challenging and rough terrain for trekkers. I was going there on my cycle, which was really hard for them to accept,” she said. “But the mainstream media supported my efforts, and many international tourists have been attracted to the Karakoram ranges after my expedition. They have seen that Pakistan is the safest place for pursuing such activities.”
In the future, Kahn hopes to pursue her goal of making the Pakistani cycling team and qualifying for the Olympics so she can win a gold medal for Pakistan.
“Thank you Samar Khan for your courage, creativity and determination,” added Abid. “Women are Pakistan’s most untapped resource. When women grow, families prosper and nations progress.”
From The Nation: “Pakistani cyclist Samar Khan is the first women in the world to ride cycle on the 4,500 meter high Biafo Glacier in the Karakoram Mountains of Gilgit Baltistan. With the passion of cycling, she raised her voice for social injustice and created awareness in the community to change the perception of people related to adventure sports and to bring the ‘Cycling Revolution’ to Pakistan like other countries to lessen the accidents, pollution and to bring healthy lifestyle.”
From The Cryosphere: “The glaciers of the Cordillera Blanca Peru are rapidly retreating as a result of climate change, altering timing, quantity and quality of water available to downstream users. Furthermore, increases in the number and size of proglacial lakes associated with these melting glaciers is increasing potential exposure to glacier lake outburst floods (GLOFs)… Most satellite data are too coarse for studying small mountain glaciers and are often affected by cloud cover, while traditional airborne photogrammetry and LiDAR are costly. Recent developments have made Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) a viable and potentially transformative method for studying glacier change at high spatial resolution, on demand and at relatively low cost. Using a custom designed hexacopter built for high altitude (4000 – 6000 masl) operation we completed repeat aerial surveys (2014 and 2015) of the debris covered Llaca glacier tongue and proglacial lake system.”
Learn more about using drones to study glacier dynamics here.
Two Glaciers Given Legal Status
From Times of India: “Ten days after it declared the rivers Ganga and Yamuna as ‘living entities’, Uttarakhand high court (HC) on Friday declared the glaciers from where the two rivers originate, Gangotri and Yamunotri respectively, as legal entities as well. The order delivered by Justices Rajiv Sharma and Alok Singh, who had also passed the order on the two rivers on March 20, said that the glaciers will have “the status of a legal person, with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities of a living person.” This, the court said, was being done “in order to preserve and conserve them.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Scientists had long assumed that India and China—two of the world’s leading sources of black carbon pollution—were responsible for what fell on the glaciers in Tibet and the Himalayas[….] Instead, he found that a lot of the black carbon is local. While power plants in China and fires in India do contribute black carbon, in the remote interior of the Tibetan Plateau it appears to come mostly from burning yak dung and other immediate sources.”
Click here to read more about the small but mighty power of yak dung.
Pakistan expands glacier monitoring in effort to cut disaster risk
“Pakistan will invest $8.5 million to expand a network of glacier monitoring stations tracking the pace of glacial melt in the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges, in an effort to strengthen early warning systems and reduce the impact of flooding in the South Asian country.”
Click here to learn more about Pakistan’s new glacial monitoring research program.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 www.earthexplorer.usgs.gov) 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.
This Photo Friday, GlacierHub shares photos of the Bagrote Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan, the northernmost region of Pakistan.
These photos, taken by photographer Farman Karim Baig, illustrate the wide diversity of glacial landscapes: these photos of the valley highlight the contrast between the snowy, mountainous peaks of the nearby Hinarche Glacier and the stark, dry, low-lying valley foreground. The valley is also filled with forest and rivers.
Many thanks to photographer Farman Karim Baig and the Pamir Times for allowing us to share his photos of the region.
Glacier and river dynamics shaped irrigation systems and land use practices in Pakistan since the late 1700’s, according to a new paper by Sitara Parveen and his colleagues. These systems and practices can still be observed hundreds of years later, but they face severe challenges from glacier retreat.
Upper Hunza is located in the western Karakoram, Pakistan. The Hunza River flows north to south, and is joined by the Shimshal River from the northeast, and by the Batura, Passu, Ghulkin and Gulmit glaciers from the west. The melt runoff from the four glaciers supports approximately 20,000 people in Upper Hunza, and nurtures crops and orchards cultivated by villagers.
Steady and stable agricultural production requires constant and sufficient melt-water supply from glaciers and snowfields. The interactions between hydrological conditions and human communities in Upper Hunza are characterized by various aspects, including the arid environment of human settlements at lower altitudes, the dynamics of snow and ice cover at higher altitudes, the flexible water use practices, and diverse socio-economic conditions.
Upper Hunza is well known for its sophisticated irrigation systems. The earliest recorded irrigation channels in the valley date back to at least 1780 and diverted water from the Batura Glacier. To study the impacts of environmental and socio-economic dynamics on irrigation systems, Parveen and his colleagues examined the irrigation systems in three villages—Passu, Borith, Ghulkin—which are fed by different water sources.
In Passu Village, the largest settlement is located on three fluvial terraces at an elevation of about 2500m above sea level. Over the past 400 years, natural disasters have driven villagers to higher ground. They have also made several attempts to recover and rehabilitate barren land for crop cultivation. In 1983, a project to expand irrigable land was implemented by sourcing water from the Batura Glacier, however, the operation of this project was disturbed by the ups and downs in the volume of melt-water. Despite that, each household received one field on each terrace and 53% of the project area is transformed to irrigated fields.
In Borith, the main water sources are the Passu and Ghulkin glaciers. The community has made efforts to secure access to water due to frequent water crisis caused by glacier retreat since the 1950s. The northern part of Borith used to be served by Lake Ghyper Zhui, which began to shrink in the 1940s as the Passu Glacier started to become thinner with melting. Several attempts were then made to conserve the melt water flow into the lake, with the expansion of natural irrigation channels through daily excavation works. However, all the efforts turned futile as soon as the glacial runoff proved to be insufficient and the land returned to a barren state.
Lower Borith sources all of its water from Ghulkin Glacier. Since 1960, many channels have been constructed, adjusted and constantly maintained to divert water in response to the continuous thinning of the glacier, which is highly labor-intensive. As the majority of households migrated from the community due to ongoing declining water resources, an increasing number of fields have gone idle. New pipelines were installed in 2013, but the problem of shifting water sources still remains.
Ghulkin is located between two glaciers—Ghulkin and Gulmit. The village is also facing water shortage due to increasing glacier down-wasting. The problem is even more aggravated by the dispute over water use rights between the original inhabitants and the relatively new immigrants. A water management committee was thus established, but does not function well because the original settlers upstream often ignore the arrangement, leaving the downstream people helpless. Some villages constructed new irrigation channels and cultivated different, drought-tolerant crops.
The dynamics of glaciers and rivers in Upper Hunza have a considerable impact on local adaptation practices and land use patterns. The fluctuation in water supply is one of the major constraints in local communities. Glacier related natural disasters further contribute to the vulnerability of local irrigation systems and livelihoods as well. To make it even worse, the villages lack a sufficient work force to maintain the irrigation systems and manage the problems brought by glacier dynamics, such as equitable water distribution.
Communities of Upper Hunza have experienced substantial external interventions over the past century, and the impacts of glaciers and rivers will extend into the future. The study conducted by Parveen et al. sheds light on irrigation construction and improvement, especially for high mountain areas. Other high mountain communities can also learn from the lessons of Upper Hunza when coping with the effects of climate change.