The beautiful Bagrote Valley is not far from Gilgit town, only around two hours drive away, but the road to Bagrote is a narrow, winding track that wraps around a mountain and the going is slow. Even before one reaches the main village of Bagrote with its green terraced fields and fruit orchards, one can see the valley glaciers in the distance.

Gleaming white ice packed onto the sides of the valley, they glisten as the sun hits them. They don’t look menacing from afar but when you get up close to the main village you see the water raging out from a large dark hole in the large Hinarchi glacier, which ends just above the village. In fact, you can walk right up to the glacier, crossing a small wooden bridge over the swirling water. Here the glacier is covered with debris but if you dig deep, pure white ice emerges and the villagers often come up here to take ice down to their homes in the summers. It is strange to stand on the glacier and look down at the village just below — as temperatures get warmer around the world, will this glacier start melting faster? Any large flood will end up devastating the picturesque village below.

“Here, glaciers and humans have to live together and it can be quite dangerous. We have at least four big glaciers in this valley alone: Hinarchi, Dubani, Gargo and Barcha glaciers. Glacial lake outburst floods (or GLOFs as they are now called) happen regularly. These massive floods bring down a lot of debris and damage homes, orchards, bridges and roads,” explains Syed Zahid Hussein. He is a local who is now the field manager of the UNDP and Ministry of Climate Change’s jointly implemented project entitled “Reducing risks and vulnerabilities from glacier lake outburst floods in Northern Pakistan”. The project has selected Bagrote Valley as one of two demonstration sites (the other is in Chitral).

This multi-million dollar project (total cost around $7.6 million) is one of the earliest projects to be funded by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change’s Adaptation Fund and its proposal was approved in June 2010. Scientists say that warming trends in the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges have been greater than the global average, which is leading to the rapid melting of valley glaciers.

According to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Pakistan has a vast glacial area that covers about 15,000 square km comprising 5,000 glaciers. A large number of glacial lakes have formed in Northern Pakistan and 52 lakes have been categorised as “potentially dangerous”. The breaching of the ice containing the glacier lakes, known as GLOFs, leads to a release of water and debris at large volumes, which causes devastation downstream.

The objective of this project which began its implementation phase around three months ago and will end in April 2015, is to reduce the risks of GLOFs in the regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral by developing the human and technical capacity of both public institutions and vulnerable local communities to understand and address immediate GLOF risks. The project envisions spending around 20 per cent of its funding on institutional strengthening, while 80 per cent will be spent on community-related climate risk preparedness to help vulnerable local communities adapt to growing climate change pressures.

Bagrote Valley was selected due to the high risk it faces from the melting valley glaciers in the summers. “In the 1970s, there was a huge GLOF event here”, recalls Hussein. “It devastated a lot of homes and many livestock were lost. In fact, people had to abandon their fields and move because they were covered with so many boulders and debris”.

He says that more lakes are now forming underneath the glaciers so there could be another GLOF soon. “The Pakistan Meteorological Department is working on the research component of this project and they are going to make an inventory of all the glaciers and lakes in Bagrote and do the hazard mapping for the valley. They have also set up two weather stations near the glaciers to record daily data like temperature, precipitation, etc”.

It will take a minimum of 10 years of weather data collection, however, to analyse the climate variability in the area and see the trends of climate change. In the meantime, the community is hoping for some tangible benefits from the project before it ends, like the promised early warning system (to let them know beforehand when to vacate their homes) and adaptation structures like gabion walls (to safeguard their fields and homes from floods). “There are around 1,200 households in Bagrote and we need an early warning system to protect our lives and our livestock. We also need protective bunds and alternative energy sources so we don’t cut our forests near the glaciers (to prevent the accelerated melting of the glaciers). The community here is very cooperative, but the expectations from this project are very high and we do need to see some physical structures on the ground that will be beneficial for us”, says Shahid Ali, General Secretary of community based Dubani Development Organisation in Bagrote Valley.

According to Khaleel Ahmed, the national project manger, “We have a five-year plan to work with the communities and build up their disaster management plans and install early warning systems. The project started late due to some delays but as it continues, 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 — this project focuses on capacity building and knowledge sharing. It is a scientific project and we want to learn the lessons and replicate them”. It is hoped that the lessons learnt by the project can be used to implement other similar projects in the North of Pakistan and indeed across the region where other countries like Bhutan and Nepal are facing similar problems from GLOFs.

Samjwal Ratna Bajracharya, a remote sensing specialist who works for ICIMOD in Nepal, however, warns: “Unless there is complete ownership of the project by the local community, its sustainability will be impacted. In Nepal, two similar internationally funded GLOF projects have failed in Rolwaling Valley and Dudhhophi Valley because there was no ownership by the local communities. The expensive early warning systems that were installed (one a sophisticated siren system and the other a high tech camera system) to warn the local communities should the threat of a GLOF arise were not sustainable. Once the project cycles ended, the systems were left behind with no one to run them or maintain them properly”.

The UNDP intends to make a concerted effort to engage the local communities through a well-designed communication strategy. They would like to communicate the project’s objectives and the science behind it in Bagrote Valley so there is no confusion about the project. Although the local communities and NGOs were not involved in the project design from the very beginning they can still ensure its long-term sustainability. Northern Pakistan is special because the communities here are highly organised and educated thanks to the extensive work done by the Aga Khan Development Network in the region. So this project has a high chance of success if the local communities are involved in every aspect, from monitoring the glaciers to designing early warning systems to evolving disaster management plans at the valley level.

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