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'Calamity is coming' as Pakistan struggles with climate change

Updated Dec 10, 2015 01:26pm

KARACHI: The sprawling megacity lies crumbling, desiccated by another deadly heatwave, its millions of inhabitants suffering life-threatening water shortages and unable to buy bread that has become too expensive to eat.

It sounds like the stuff of dystopian fiction but it could be the reality Pakistan is facing.

With melting glaciers and a surging population — Pakistan's climate change time bomb is already ticking.

A general view of Passu glacier is seen in Pakistan's Gojal Valley. — AFP
A general view of Passu glacier is seen in Pakistan's Gojal Valley. — AFP

In a nation facing violence and an unprecedented energy shortage slowing economic growth, the environment is a subject little discussed.

But the warning signs are there ─ including catastrophic floods which displaced millions, and a deadly heatwave this summer in Karachi which killed 1,200 people.

Three of the world's most spectacular mountain ranges intersect in the north of Pakistan: the Himalayas, the Hindu Khush and the Karakoram, forming the largest reservoir of ice outside the poles.

A Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) employee overlooks the Passu glacier in the Gojal Valley. — AFP
A Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) employee overlooks the Passu glacier in the Gojal Valley. — AFP

The mountain glaciers feed into the Indus River and its tributaries to irrigate the rest of the country, winding through the breadbasket of central Punjab and stretching south to finally merge with the Arabian Sea near Karachi.

The future of Pakistan, whose population the United Nations predicts will surge past 300 million people by 2050, can be read in part by the melting of glaciers like Passu, at the gateway to China.

From its magnificent rocky slopes, the glacial melt is obvious.

A Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) employee takes observations at a glacier monitoring station, set at an elevation of 4,500 meters, at the 26km-long Passu glacier in the Gojal Valley. — AFP
A Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) employee takes observations at a glacier monitoring station, set at an elevation of 4,500 meters, at the 26km-long Passu glacier in the Gojal Valley. — AFP

"When we would come here 25 years ago, the glacier reached that rock up there," explains Javed Akhtar, indicating an area some 500 metres from the tip of the ice.

Akhtar, his face bronzed by the sun, is a villager who has been employed by a team of glaciologists measuring the impact of climate change.

A Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) employee takes observations at a glacier monitoring station, set at an elevation of 4,500 meters, at the 26km-long Passu glacier in the Gojal Valley. — AFP
A Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) employee takes observations at a glacier monitoring station, set at an elevation of 4,500 meters, at the 26km-long Passu glacier in the Gojal Valley. — AFP

Temperatures in northern Pakistan have increased by 1.9 degrees Celsius in the past century, authorities say, causing "glof" — glacial lake outburst floods, where the dams of such lakes abruptly rupture, sending water cascading down the slopes. Today, thirty glacial lakes are under observation in the north.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), such mass loss of water is "projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges".

Pakistani residents board boats used to cross Attabad Lake, which was formed following a landslide in January 2010, in Pakistan's Gojal Valley. — AFP
Pakistani residents board boats used to cross Attabad Lake, which was formed following a landslide in January 2010, in Pakistan's Gojal Valley. — AFP

Most of the country is fed by the lush, fertile plains of one such region: Punjab.

The breadbasket

Despite its growing population, Pakistan remains self-sufficient in agricultural terms, largely thanks to the rich Punjabi soil.

But in recent years the province has seen unprecedented, deadly floods that wipe out millions of acres of prime farmland.

Boats are moored in Attabad Lake, which was formed following a landslide in January 2010, in Pakistan's Gojal Valley. — AFP
Boats are moored in Attabad Lake, which was formed following a landslide in January 2010, in Pakistan's Gojal Valley. — AFP

The disasters are caused by monsoon rains, but are a bellwether for the havoc that melting glaciers could cause, with any variation in water levels threatening farmers' crops.

"When there is too much water it's not good for rice, and when there is not enough, that's also bad. And it's the same for wheat," says farmer Mohsin Ameen Chattha during a walk through his family land just outside of Lahore.

A partially-submerged house is seen in Attabad Lake, which was formed following a landslide in January 2010, in Pakistan's Gojal Valley. — AFP
A partially-submerged house is seen in Attabad Lake, which was formed following a landslide in January 2010, in Pakistan's Gojal Valley. — AFP

Surplus monsoon water is mostly stored in the country's two large reservoirs, the Tarbela and the Mangla dams — but, warns Ghulam Rasul, director general of the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD), the supply would hardly last 30 days. "That is not sufficient," he says.

Throughout the rest of the year, farmers rely on the rivers, primarily the glacier-fed Indus, to irrigate their land. For now, the production of rice and wheat is still rising.

But if the glaciers were to one day disappear, "we would be totally dependent on the monsoon. And already it varies," says Rasul. "All this has an impact on food security" for the country, he added.

A Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) employee takes observations at a glacier monitoring station, set at an elevation of 4,500 meters, at the 26km-long Passu glacier in the Gojal Valley. — AFP
A Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) employee takes observations at a glacier monitoring station, set at an elevation of 4,500 meters, at the 26km-long Passu glacier in the Gojal Valley. — AFP

If its daily wheat production should no longer suffice, the country would have to begin importing wheat — driving the price of bread up.

Karachi: The perfect storm?

Like the Indus, the ominous warning signs all culminate around Karachi.

The city draws almost all of its water from the river and already fails to meet even half of the 4 billion litres a day its inhabitants require, in part because of its inadequate pump network.

By 2050 the IPCC predicts a decrease in the freshwater supply of South Asia, particularly in large river basins such as the Indus.

A Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) employee takes observations at a glacier monitoring station, set at an elevation of 4,500 meters, at the 26km-long Passu glacier in the Gojal Valley. — AFP
A Pakistan Meteorological Department (PMD) employee takes observations at a glacier monitoring station, set at an elevation of 4,500 meters, at the 26km-long Passu glacier in the Gojal Valley. — AFP

That means Karachi will somehow have to manage its growing population with even less water ─ a population with a significant poverty rate that will also struggle should food prices rise.

"In the long term, it is a huge challenge," says Syed Mashkoor ul-Hasnain of the Karachi Water Company.

To make matters worse, the meteorologist Rasul predicted changes in atmospheric pressure over the Arabian Sea that could reduce the breezes that currently temper the sweltering heat of the coastal city.

In June an unprecedented heatwave took 1,200 lives, mostly in poor neighbourhoods of Karachi — heat traps with their massive concrete buildings, lack of shade, and the absence of aqueducts.

Could it have been a taste of the future? Back on the Passu Glacier, the research assistant Javed Akhtar is unequivocal.

"A calamity is coming," he warns.

Pakistani residents board boats used to cross Attabad Lake, which was formed following a landslide in January 2010, in Pakistan's Gojal Valley. — AFP
Pakistani residents board boats used to cross Attabad Lake, which was formed following a landslide in January 2010, in Pakistan's Gojal Valley. — AFP

Also read: Is Karachi experiencing climate change?