For centuries the villagers of the Hindu Kush mountains have had to live in the shadow of their valley glaciers that provide them with precious melt water for their terraced fields and fruit orchards. As their populations expanded and moved into more remote valleys where there were no glaciers close by and the snow melt was not enough to provide water for crops, villagers began to “grow glaciers” in these high altitude regions. According to local legend, “male” and “female” glaciers were combined to grow glaciers on the sides of mountains so that villagers could benefit from their offspring. In fact, in some valleys growing glaciers in this manner became crucial to survival.
Today, high above the rocky Bindu “Gol” or valley in Chitral, which is located on the way to Mastuj, lies the manmade Bindu glacier. “This was an artificially seeded glacier that was made in 1840 by our forefathers”, explains Siraj, a local villager. “There was no water in our area and so they decided to grow a glacier a hundred feet above the settlement”. He says there is no one left in the village with the knowledge of how to grow a glacier today, but in the past they heard that “cow manure, salt and straw” were combined to “plant” the glacier. “It took three years for it to grow into a glacier and then it kept growing”. Now it is so big that there was a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) in August 2010, which ended up blocking the Chitral River below the valley for twelve hours since so much debris had come down with the flood. When the water of the river finally broke free, it swept away bridges and damaged the town of Reshun. Given rising temperatures in the mountains in the summers, GLOFs are becoming more frequent and the people of Chitral are worried since almost every valley has at least one glacier. GLOFs are caused when the water melts underneath the glacier, forming a lake which eventually bursts out of the moraine and ice holding it back.
From the settlements located below, it takes around 10 hours to reach the top of the white glacier that is located in a part of the mountain that receives no sunshine until noon. Drongagh is one of the bigger settlements in the valley. To get there you have to cross the Chitral River and the devastation from the 2010 flood is evident in the form of large boulders that swept away a chunk of the metal road to Mastuj. There is now just a dirt track as that section of the road is yet to be repaired.
“We felt the ground shaking and heard the roar of the water and we ran out of our homes”, recalled Abdul Jabbar, one of the local villagers. The flood destroyed a few homes, many orchards and cultivated fields and around 20 water channels. Only one person died in Shogran village as she was swept away while chasing her livestock. A large number of livestock were lost and the villagers of Bindu Gol are still reeling from the after effects of the calamity. “We need to study this glacier — we believe it might burst again and we definitely need an early warning system to save lives and our livestock”, explained Abdul Jabbar.
Bindu Gol has actually been selected by the UNDP-Pakistan as one of the demonstration sites for an internationally funded project that aims to reduce risks and vulnerabilities from GLOFs and snowmelt flash floods in Northern Pakistan by developing the human and technical capacity of the vulnerable local communities to understand and respond to the GLOF risks. The implementation of the project that comes under the new Ministry of Climate Change, began in October this year and the project will end in 2015. It is a multi-million dollar project and the local people hope to get some allocation for building infrastructure like check dams and alternative plantations.
“There are hardly any trees in this valley since we don’t have gas and need fuel wood during the long winter months. People now have to climb up to bring down old juniper trees and other vegetation like Artemisia from near the glacier. All this deforestation increases the risk of floods. Perhaps if we had alternative fuel wood we could save the remaining juniper patches and vegetation on the slopes. We also need retention walls and check dams as when it rains, the torrents destabilise the glacier’s tail end”, pointed out a village elder at a community meeting. The communities here are well educated and organised and meet once a month to discuss their problems. Thanks to the work of several development organisations in the area, the people are used to solving their problems through collective efforts. But of course, it is a poor area and most people seek jobs outside the valley while the rest are subsistence farmers.
One of the office bearers of the local community organisation explained: “The people here are happy that such a big project has come to our valley. We have so many problems here, many caused by the 2010 flood when so much of our infrastructure was damaged. We are hoping that some of our problems will be solved. Unfortunately, we were not consulted during the design of the project. Still we hope to get something benefit from it”. The people have to survive here in harsh climatic conditions and life is very tough, especially given the new threat of climate change. Rising temperatures are causing heat waves in the summer months and the local villagers attribute these heat waves (made worse by the barren rocks) to the rapid melting of their glacier. Ironically, their forefathers had planted this glacier so that they could benefit from it and now, thanks to global warming, it threatens their very survival.