Tuesday August 16, 2022

Shisper outburst

By Editorial Board
May 10, 2022

The sudden rise in temperatures in many parts of the region is already having terrifying consequences. On Monday night, the lake above Shisper glacier in Hunza burst due to an unprecedented rise in its water level, rising by 40 percent within 20 days due to the heatwave. The Integrated International Crisis Group for Mountain Development has termed this a perilous situation which needs to be tackled before it can destroy homes and lives. This glacial outburst is a stark reminder of how ill-prepared Pakistan is for such extreme climatic events. It is only after the outburst that the chief minister of Gilgit-Baltistan chaired a session to review the losses – the most stark being the complete destruction of Hassanabad Bridge, and the damage to the irrigation and drinking water systems and the two power houses that supplied electricity to those areas. Though the government has ordered immediate rehabilitation of the damaged or destroyed infrastructure in the region, it is likely to take months before a full rehabilitation takes place. For the time being, the government has asked the National Highway Authority (NHA) for its help in installing a steel bridge so that isolated and remote areas are once again connected.

Since nearly all large glaciers exist in Gilgit-Baltistan, the authorities should have been well prepared for this outcome. Given how much talk there has been regarding climate change and the threat of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF), all relevant departments and ministries would have been well aware about the dangers of such outbursts. So one wonders what precautionary measures the authorities had taken to prevent such outbursts and their resultant devastation. We have heard of multiple reports being prepared, but how have those reports been utilized for planning purposes? Such incidents spur the authorities to action but only after considerable losses to private and public property. While speeding up rehabilitation work is the need of the hour, the next question is how such outburst can be prevented, if at all. Even if prevention is not possible, at least better preparation can help local people avoid losses by timely relocation to safer areas. Glacial flooding does not take place overnight – but somehow timely action is missing. The RCC bridges that are visible everywhere in the affected region are prone to be swept away in the face of heavy waterflow. Why can’t we make use of the latest bridge construction designs and material that are strong enough to survive such floods?

There is no running away from the realities of climate change, whose impact will be felt most strongly by the Global South that has little hand in the making of the climate disaster the world is facing. If rapidly melting glaciers are to become the new normal,there is a need to keep a constant eye on the water volume that increases with the rising temperatures. There are over 3,000 glacial lakes in Gilgit-Baltistan – and 33 of them could burst soon. And, while there is an immediate need to provide food and medicines to the affected people right now, the government should also be ready with all the required emergency equipment in that region. Be it earthquakes,floods or fires, our local administrations are perennially lacking in equipment, machinery, relief and rescue operations – and most of all timely planning. While the ultimate solution to the climate change challenge has to come from the international community coming together, there are steps we should be taking as well. All development projects must be approved only after an environmental assessment is done and there should be no exceptions should the projects prove to be hazardous to the environment. This includes large projects which not only cause the displacement of tens of thousands of people but affect the ecosystem in numerous ways. Global estimates have shown that Pakistan is likely to be disproportionately affected by climate change but short-sighted politicians love announcing development projects whose employment benefits are immediate.Their impact on the environment emerges more slowly but the devastation is quick and long-lasting.