The new normal

A glacial lake outburst flood in Hassanabad valley of Hunza causes displacement and relocation

Ghulam Abbas, 72, lives in Haram village in Hassanabad. On May 28, last month, he and other villagers noticed a gradual increase in water discharge from the snout of the Shishper glacier. The next day, the discharge increased to dangerous levels. A glacial lake that had developed on Shishper glacier had suddenly burst to release enormous amounts of water. The Gilgit Baltistan Disaster Management Authority (GBDMA) officials rushed in to move the vulnerable communities to safety.

Sixteen households from the village were moved to tents, situated 100ft away from the damaged houses. “We have been living in tents since May 28. When the water flow from Shishper glacier declines, we return to live in our homes. When the water flow increases and the chances of a glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) look imminent, we return to the tents,” says Abbas.

Hammad Naqi Khan, the CEO of World Wide Fund for Nature-Pakistan (WWF-Pakistan) who has been closely observing the situation says, “An ice-dammed glacial lake began to form in November 2018 and spread over an area of 0.026 square km. In January 2019, a prominent glacial lake appeared over an area of 0.057 square km. The volume of the lake recorded on May 31, 2019, was 18,827 cubic metres. The glacier is surging five to six metres per day and posing a real threat to 80 percent of the communities of Hassanabad.

Khan says that the morphometric parameters indicate that the Shishper basin is at a high-risk for flash floods. According to him, “The GLOF event on 28-29 May, 2020, is one of the many that have occurred on Shishper glacier. The summer season is a worrying time for the communities of Hassanabad, as Shishper glacier is not only triggering GLOFs but also surging by a few metres every day.”

The local communities are on the mercy of nature. Abbas says, “Some rations were distributed among us including 10kg flour, 5kg rice, 2kg pulses, 0.5kg milk powder. Today, on June 9, the ration has ended but we haven’t received fresh supplies. We are borrowing from people to make both ends meet.”

“The district administration is helping us and has promised to shift us to rental homes. So far, that has not happened.”

Abbas blames the GBDMA for not enacting a protection wall last year that he thinks could have protected them from the disaster. “GLOFs are damaging our homes. We repair them but they get damaged again.” Abbas says, “The vibration from the GLOF event causes cracks in our homes.”

Dr Zia Hashmi, who currently heads the Water Resources and Glaciology section at the Global Change Impact Studies Centre (GCISC), the research arm of Ministry of Climate Change outlines two major threats posed by Shishper glacier:

Blocking a stream and resulting in a GLOF event.

The average snout height of Shishper glacier is 100-150 metres. Its width is 200-300 metres. Currently, it is surging at less than 4 metres per day. It has the ability to accelerate and bulldoze anything that comes in its way. If the surging speed increases (a maximum speed of 40 metres a day was recorded in its early phases) the communities in Hassanabad will have to be relocated to safety.

Unabated global warming is leading to the shrinking of glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, also known as the Third Pole. Arun Bhakta Shrestha, the regional programme manager for River Basins & Cryosphere at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) witnessed the surging Shishper glacier upon his visit to Pakistan. Shrestha says not all glacial lakes are the same.

“The englacial water bodies that are present inside the glacier cannot be seen on the ground or from the satellite. They cannot be monitored and result in catastrophic flash floods often without prior warning. Ghulkin glacier is one example of such GLOFs every year,” Shrestha says, adding, “Then there are glacial lakes which are formed due to the surging of glaciers. They block tributary glaciers and their melt-water and tributary streams which form ice-dammed glacial lakes. When the water in such lakes accumulates, it either forms a passage and makes its way, or bursts at the impact of an incoming avalanche or earthquake.”

Regarding Shishper glacier, Shrestha says, “The lake was visible on-ground and could also be seen through the satellite. There was enough opportunity to predict the disaster and prepare for it.”

Shrestha says the entire northern region of Pakistan is “quite vulnerable to GLOFs and the frequency of such climate-induced events is high”.

“Most of the glaciers in Pakistan are at low altitude and the settlements are in close proximity to the glaciers. This makes them more vulnerabe,” he says.

Hammad Naqi Khan does not deny the role of human-led activities in the formation of lakes on Shishper glacier. According to him, “Extensive use of thermal generators contributes to black carbon deposits on Shishper glacier. Black carbon is a potent climate-warming component formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, which traps sunlight resulting in temperature increase and contributing to the fast melting of the glacier.”

Khan warns that if Shishper glacier continues to surge, in only a few years, “it can force the major communities of Hassanabad valley to migrate.”

“The issue of climate-induced migration must be dealt with by the government. The mountain communities must be compensated for the loss of homes and livelihoods,” he adds.

Malik Amin Aslam Khan, the advisor to the PM on Climate Change, finds the role of climate change in exacerbating glacial lake outburst floods in northern Pakistan. He says, “Pakistan has to remain vigilant to such disruptive incidents, especially in extremely vulnerable zones, such as the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.”

“Such climate incidents need to be handled with adaptive planning and preparedness,” adds Amin.

Shrestha recommends ‘downstream measures’ to prevent the loss of lives and livelihoods. He suggests that the government set up Local Glacier Watch Groups and cameras to detect any changes indicating the possibility of GLOFs.

“Certain villages may be very vulnerable and may have to be relocated. These decisions would be tough, as no one would want to leave their ancestral homeland,” he says.

Shrestha says, “To mitigate the threats posed by glacial lakes to the downstream communities and infrastructure, there should be stabilisation measures, a combination of engineering and bioengineering solutions. In the case of Shishper glacier, monitoring using satellite imagery and the establishment of early warning systems is very important.”

He proposes a two-fold climate action approach for Pakistan that could help to tackle the challenge of rapidly forming glacial lakes:

At the global and regional level, mitigation of climate change by reducing GHG emissions to limit the temperature rise to 1.5ºC as envisioned in the Paris Agreement. Even a 2ºC scenario could be devastating, as two-third of glaciers in the HKH would melt away.

At the local level, adaptation to climate change and resilience building through specific initiatives i.e. early warning systems, promotion of clean energy in the mountains, reducing deforestation and land-use regulation.

The government and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pakistan are implementing a $37 million project named Scaling Up of GLOF Risk Reduction in Northern Pakistan (GLOF-II) project. The project aims to empower communities to identify and manage risks associated with GLOFs.

Amin says the GLOF-II project will help to prevent “loss of lives and livelihoods through 40 early warning stations and through enhancing the involvement and integration of local communities.”

Dr Hashmi says that the more the Shishper snout surges forward, the more “it becomes exposed to melting temperatures, especially during the summer. This will increase melting thus making the net snout advance minimal or even negative.”

He adds, “The low-intensity GLOF incidents on June 23, 2019, and May 29, 2020, were certainly not the last in the Shimshal valley - historically known for glacier and snow-related hazards.”

Since 2018, the Shishper glacier is continuously in the surge phase. It doesn’t end here, more is yet to come. Hashmi adds, “The matter is beyond the domain of Gilgit-Baltistan government. A comprehensive (science-based) policy needs to be announced on glacier-induced hazards.”

Dr Hashmi also recalls his meetings with Prof Kenneth Hewitt, a brilliant glaciologist who was the first to coin the term Karakoram Anomaly that describes how glaciers in the central Karakoram are stable (or advancing) as compared to declining glaciers around the world. Hashmi says, “Hewitt has told us that this part of the HKH i.e. Hunza region is historically hazardous and prone to glacier surge and GLOF events.”

“Hewitt emphasized the need to enhance research related to surging glaciers, which is still not very well researched,” Says Hashmi.

In the wake of Covid-19, the government must step up climate action, as the glaciers continue to recede. The glacial lakes present an imminent threat not only to the mountain communities but also to downstream communities in the Punjab and Sindh, who are vulnerable to flooding.

A significant increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events has made it impossible for Abbas to continue living in his ancestral homeland. “Since 2016, we have been demanding compensation from the government, so we can build houses elsewhere,” says Abbas.

Unfortunately, the government hasn’t paid much heed to his demand.

Abbas makes it an offer. “The government can take our houses and agricultural plains in Hassanabad valley and allocate us land somewhere safe, so that we can build new homes.”

Even if the government has nothing to offer, the vulnerable communities may be left with no option but to migrate to save their lives and to look for better livelihood opportunities. Climate-induced migration is also taking place in other parts of northern Pakistan. It is the new normal.


The writer is a 2018 Chevening Scholar with a masters in international journalism from Cardiff University. He is the recipient of 2019 Environmental Journalist award and 2015 Young Environmental Journalist award by Singapore Environment Council (SEC). He tweets @SyedMAbubakar and can be reached via [email protected]

The new normal: A glacial lake outburst flood in Hassanabad valley of Hunza causes displacement and relocation