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The big meltdown: Glaciers on the retreat

April 08, 2013

AWAY from the din of politics and the immediacy of militant strife, a disaster of enormous proportions is silently evolving in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan mountains up north, one that could in time impact the length and breadth of Pakistan. The peaks are home to some 15,000 glaciers which, as a result of rising temperatures, are retreating at an alarming rate of almost 40 to 60 metres a decade, leaving behind glacial lakes in their wake. Fifty-two such lakes, an inherently unstable phenomenon that can trigger devastating flash floods, have been classified as dangerous to human settlements. Parts of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral have already suffered floods on this count in 2010. The melting of the glaciers will also ultimately lead to a rise in sea levels, threatening coastal areas and cities such as Karachi. These facts were highlighted recently at a meeting to review the progress of a four-year project between the government and international organisations to deal with the fallout of climate change in Pakistan.

By most estimates, Pakistan will be one of the countries hardest hit by climate change. It is therefore encouraging that the government is taking steps such as setting up meteorological observatories at sites vulnerable to glacial lake outburst floods and the planned establishment of automated weather stations in the area which should lead to improved data collection, an essential requirement for a well-calibrated response. The project also aims to develop the capacity of the communities at risk. Given the widespread repercussions of climate change on all of Pakistan, the media could also play its part by highlighting the dangers posed by activities such as deforestation and the destruction of mangroves and encouraging environmentally friendly practices so that we are better prepared to meet the challenge.