Pakistan, UN seek to cut risk of glacial lake floods

by Rina Saeed Khan | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 28 January 2013 13:27 GMT
A joint project aims to protect vulnerable mountain communities from the threat of floods caused by melting glaciers

DRONGAGH, Pakistan (AlertNet) - Abdul Jabbar was in his house in the Bindu Gol valley of Pakistan’s northern Chitral district when a glacial lake burst through the ridge holding it back high above.

“We felt the ground shaking and heard the roar of the water, and we ran out of our homes,” he said. The 2010 flood destroyed a few dwellings in his village of Drongagh, as well as many orchards, cultivated fields and water channels. “One person died in Shogram village when she chased after her livestock and was swept away by the water,” Jabbar recalled.

The boulders and rocks deposited by the massive flood also blocked the Chitral River at the base of the valley for 12 hours. When the river finally broke through, it swept away bridges and damaged settlements downstream.

As temperatures in Pakistan’s mountain regions rise and glacial lake outbursts become more common, people in Chitral - where every valley has at least one glacier - are becoming more anxious. “We need to study this glacier,” said Jabbar. “We believe the melting ice underneath the glacier might burst through again.”

The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) and Pakistan’s Ministry of Climate Change have chosen Bindu Gol valley as one of two sites for a new project to reduce the risks of glacial lake flooding in northern Pakistan. This $7.6 million project is one of the first initiatives to be funded by the U.N.-backed Adaptation Fund, which finances programmes that help developing countries adapt to the negative effects of climate change.

The other project site is the picturesque valley of Bagrote in the northern mountain region of Gilgit-Baltistan, which is home to half a dozen glaciers. In Bagrote, glaciers and humans exist in close proximity, but the warming climate is bringing more dangerous conditions for the valley’s inhabitants.

Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) are happening regularly, caused by glaciers melting in the summer months. Floods occur when the natural dams - formed of ice or glacial sediment - containing the lakes are breached. They can occur quite suddenly, carry a lot of debris and cause considerable damage.


“Glacial flood events are more frequent now in Bagrote, destroying houses, livestock, graveyards and orchards. The community’s expectations from this project are high,” explained Shahid Ali, the head of a community-based organisation in the valley.

The literacy rate in Bagrote is much higher than in the rest of Pakistan, with many young college graduates. The community has adopted a cooperative approach to tackling its problems.

“We live in the shadow of at least five glaciers in Bagrote. There are around 1,200 households here, and we need an early warning system to protect our lives and our livestock,” said Ali. Walls are also required to protect homes and fields from floods, as are alternative energy sources so that people no longer cut down forests near the glaciers, which could cause accelerated melting, he added.

The goal of the GLOF project - which began last year and is due to be completed in 2015 - is to develop the ability of public institutions and vulnerable communities to understand and address the risks of glacial lake floods.

It plans to work with local people to draw up disaster management plans and install early warning systems. But not everyone is satisfied with the initial design of the project.

Ijaz Ahmed, a community forest officer in Chitral, said it seems too focused on soft methods like research, adding that the area is already one of the best-researched parts of Pakistan. “I don’t see how the local community will benefit without engineering structures and provision for slope stabilisation,” he said.

Officials from the Ministry of Climate Change and the UNDP say it is too early to start finding fault with the project, as it only started last summer.

“We will raise awareness about GLOFs and conduct training for capacity-building and install an early warning system,” said the project’s national manager Khaleel Ahmed. “If structures like check dams and gabion walls lead to risk reduction then we can build them.”


Designed by the UNDP and based on an earlier regional project to tackle glacial floods, the north Pakistan project was among the first four proposals to get the green light from the Adaptation Fund in late 2010. The hope is that it can serve as a model for other GLOF projects in the mountains of South Asia.

Glacial outburst flooding threatens communities across the Hindu Kush-Himalayan-Karakoram mountain ranges. Back in 2005, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) compiled an inventory of Pakistan’s 5,000 glaciers across an area covering 15,000 square km. It found that 52 glacial lakes were in a potentially dangerous condition.

Due to government restructuring and funding delays, the Pakistan GLOF project now has just three years to complete its activities. As roads to the two sites are cut off in winter by heavy snowfall, work will be further limited to the summer and autumn months.

Last August, a central office was set up in Islamabad, as well as two field offices in Gilgit and Chitral towns on the premises of the Pakistan Meteorology Department (PMD), which will carry out research for the project.

In July the PMD set up one weather station in Chitral, the first of its kind in the area, and two weather stations in Bagrote valley, manned by trained volunteers from nearby villages.  It has also submitted a request for three automatic stations.

The next step is to assess the glacial lakes, hidden beneath the glaciers in both valleys, by taking a team of geologists and hydrologists to the two field sites.

“In time, with the data we collect, we can even advise local people on how to improve their crops and agricultural practices,” explained Manzoor Ahmed from the PMD in Chitral. This will require a minimum of 10 years of data analysis, he added.


Despite the potential benefits of the project for local residents, some feel that its objectives have not been communicated clearly enough.

“They keep saying it’s a scientific project, but they have not explained what they want to do on the ground for us,” commented one villager at a community meeting in Bagrote.

Managers acknowledge that more information needs to be provided at the local level, but emphasise that efforts are being made to let people know what is happening and invite them to participate.  

Mujtaba Hussain, deputy secretary in the Ministry of Climate Change, said an initial workshop had been held in Gilgit where all the main groups affected by the project were invited to contribute their views. And according to UNDP officials, three calls for proposals have been advertised in national newspapers.

“The awareness level of the people will increase. This is different from other projects in the area, which focus on saving forests and conservation work or building water channels – this project focuses on capacity building and knowledge sharing,” said project manager Ahmed.  The lessons learned will be applied elsewhere, he added.

Experiences in Nepal underline the importance of taking local people into account. Here, two internationally funded GLOF projects failed in Rolwaling and Dudhhophi valleys due to a lack of community ownership.

After the projects were completed, there was no one local who could run or maintain the expensive early warning systems installed, which relied on sophisticated sirens and high-tech cameras, according to ICIMOD.

In northern Pakistan, where communities are highly educated and well-organised, the success of the project will depend on whether they participate in its various activities, from monitoring glaciers and building early warning systems, to putting together disaster management plans for their valleys.

Rina Saeed Khan writes on climate changes issues from Islamabad

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