'Maybe It Will Destroy Everything': Pakistan's Melting Glaciers Cause Alarm

Nov 24, 2019

For generations, farmers in the Harchi Valley in Pakistan's highlands enjoyed a close relationship with the glacier that snakes between two mountain peaks. It watered their fields, orchards and grazing lands.

Following local tradition, it has a name — Ultar — and a gender — male, because it is black owing to the debris that covers it (female glaciers are white, residents say).

Now, their relationship is unraveling as pollution and global warming cause the Ultar glacier to melt and form unstable lakes that could burst their icy banks at any moment. Already this summer, much of Harchi's lands were destroyed in glacial floods.

Shamim Banno, a 55-year-old farmer, was working her potato fields when a flood rushed by. Tremors jiggled the ground. Car-sized boulders tumbled down the nearby waterfall and smashed into the river below. The water rose, and she clung to a tree, shouting for her son, who was recording the flood on his smartphone, mesmerized.

Shamim Banno, 55, walks up the Harchi Valley after she finished milking her cow. Farmers in the Harchi Valley in Pakistan's highlands have enjoyed a close relationship with their glacier that snakes between two mountain peaks.
Diaa Hadid / NPR

"If I try to shout like that again, my teeth would fly out," she giggled on a recent day, covering her mouth, which contained about four teeth. The flood "was different from anything we'd seen before," she said. "I thought it was the end of the world."

That summer was already troubling, said Banno. The handmade wood-and-rope bridge that links Harchi's terraced slopes was washed away four times in surging glacial melt. One bridge, she said, should have lasted more than a decade.

Residents cross a handmade wood-and-rope bridge over the river in the Harchi Valley. This is the fifth bridge that residents built this year, after the first four were washed away. They said that before this summer, a bridge usually lasted a decade.
Diaa Hadid / NPR

Banno, who is illiterate and had not heard of climate change, said the bridge's fate scared the farmers. They began coming out in the mornings, "just looking, just watching the river," she said.

Pakistan's far north is an idyll of turquoise rivers coursing beneath slate mountains, with villages and orchards clinging to the steep slopes of the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram ranges that crisscross this territory. They hold more than 7,000 glaciers, which have long supplied water to the hundreds of thousands of people who live among them.

But they are melting at an accelerated pace, compared with nearly 50 years ago, when monitoring began. Some are shrinking. More than 3,000 glaciers have formed unstable lakes. At least 30 are at risk of bursting, which can trigger ice avalanches and flash floods that bring down water, debris and boulders.

Water canals carved and built into the mountainsides have long been used by residents to tap glacier melt to provide water for their villages. But as the glaciers behave more erratically — surging, shrinking and flooding — some of the canals have run dry.
Diaa Hadid / NPR

The situation is only expected to worsen because temperatures in mountainous areas are rising faster than the global average. And "if we stick to the present emission trends, we'll lose two-thirds of our glaciers," said David Molden, director general of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, who recently authored a 627-page study about the mountain ranges.

Even if warming is limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels, as called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its landmark 2018 report, the mountains will lose more than a third of their ice, largely held in glaciers, Molden said. "The direction is pretty clear on where we are going, and that's the alarming news."

The impact will reverberate downstream because glacial melt feeds the Indus River basin, Pakistan's main water source for over 200 million people as it courses toward the Arabian Sea. "By 2050, you'll get less and less water," Molden said.

Pakistan can do little to halt global greenhouse gas emissions, to which it contributes less than 1%, said Federal Minister for Climate Change Malik Amin Aslam.

"We need the world to wake up," he said, "and shift their political lethargy on climate change and start taking action."

Women and girls wash dishes at a communal tap in the village of Passu, with the snow-capped Karakoram mountains in the background. The village relies on a nearby glacier — also called Passu — to water their fields, pastures and orchards. But the glacier is shrinking, and it is threatening the very existence of their village.
Diaa Hadid / NPR

But regional factors are also accelerating glacier melt, including toxic smog that chokes South Asia through the winter. It is largely caused by vehicle emissions, farmers burning their crop stubble and brick kilns that emit dirty black smoke. Air pollution leaves dark soot on glaciers around the world.

Molden said governments are not acting to prevent this. "If they stopped all air pollution, you'd see the impacts tomorrow," he said.

So in ways big and small, hundreds of thousands of residents are scrambling to adjust. In the Harchi Valley, workers contracted by the local government are planning for the next glacial floods. They are building a road to give vehicles access to the river to remove large debris, like boulders. By the river, they have built stone walls to stop future surges from washing away their land.

Workers build stone walls along parts of the riverbank in Harchi Valley, hoping that will prevent future glacial floods from washing away more land.
Diaa Hadid / NPR

Down a valley on a recent day, government-contracted workers raced to dismantle a wood-and-rope bridge that was being nosed by a surging, 9-mile-long glacier called Shishper. Authorities want to save infrastructure, like this bridge, said supervisor Ali Ahmad Jan. But they have to work quickly, he said, gesturing to the creaking, black, bloblike glacier.

Residents of the nearby hamlet of Gulmit are waiting for U.N. funding to build a dam to block a glacier that lurked over their village's 31 homes. The United Nations is running a $37 million program to help residents adjust.

Shishper, a 9-mile-long, black glacier, is edging toward a wood-and-rope bridge that government-contracted workers are racing to dismantle.
Diaa Hadid / NPR

Community leader Shawkat Ali, 53, said the glacier used to water the community's fields but now it threatens to wash them away. He spoke in Gulmit's communal hall, where residents were celebrating a wedding. Women and men sat on a rug-strewn floor, passing around tea and candies.

And another glacier they once relied on — called Passu — is shrinking. A local scientist, Sitara Parveen, assistant professor of geography at Fatima Jinnah Girls Degree College, who studies glacial melt and its local impact, recently led NPR to that glacier. It lies, as if within a giant bowl, between two mountains. And that bowl, once full, is emptying out.

Parveen pointed to where the glacier appeared to have peaks, like whipped cream, suggesting it was melting and cracking. "My children used to play there," she said. Now it is too dangerous.

Farther up the mountains, villagers are grafting new glaciers to replace the dried-up ones, said Rashid, a Gulmit resident who only has one name.

Gulmit residents sit around a brazier, used for heating and cooking, in a communal hall where they were celebrating a wedding.
Diaa Hadid / NPR

Rashid, a U.N. employee who helps administer the development project, said villagers are using an indigenous technique he called "the mating process." "You must have male and female glaciers," he said. (He said those efforts were not among those supported by the U.N. so far.)

Rashid said residents mix the material from both glaciers, add other bulking material like debris, cement and salt, and then plant the baby glacier in shaded mountainsides, where it attracts more moisture. "It grows within five years," he said.

The Passu glacier, on the Karakoram highway that connects Pakistan to China, is shrinking, endangering the villages that rely on its melt.
Diaa Hadid / NPR

Molden and Parveen said there is no evidence that the process works. But it shows residents are desperate, said Parveen.

Banno, the farmer, said they live in fear of the land that once nurtured them and the seasons they once relied on.

"The land will warm, and the water will come," she said of the upcoming summer. "Maybe it will destroy everything again. Maybe it will take my life."

Already this summer, much of the Harchi Valley has been destroyed in flooding from the glaciers that residents have long depended on.
Diaa Hadid / NPR

Nazim Ullah Baig contributed to this report.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Residents of Pakistan's highlands have long enjoyed a close relationship with the glaciers tucked into the mountains around them. Those glaciers water their fields, orchards and pastures. They even give them names and genders - male and female - and try to make them. But climate change is scrambling that relationship.

NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from the Harchi Valley.

IBADAT SHAH: I Ibadat Shah. Today I double eight.

NAZIM ULLAH BAIG: Eighty-eight.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Eighty-eight years old.

SHAH: Eighty-eight - old.

HADID: You don't look a day over 60.

SHAH: (Laughter).

HADID: Ibadat Shah clambers down a steep valley to show me his terraces.

SHAH: Hard work with design-making.

HADID: He's planted them with orchards. You can hear our guide Nazim Ullah Baig translating.

ULLAH BAIG: Walnut trees, cherry trees, apple trees, grapes and apricot trees.

HADID: Down by the river, the bottom terraces are missing.

Was there land there?

ULLAH BAIG: Yeah, yeah.

HADID: They were swept away in floods that surged through this valley in the summer. In their place is silt and boulders. As we chat, Shah's cheerful neighbor stops by.

(CROSSTALK, LAUGHTER)

HADID: What's your name?

SHAMIM BANNO: Shamim Banno.

HADID: She's just finished milking her cow. And Banno says in her 55 years, she's never seen anything like those floods.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

BANNO: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: She says she thought it was the end of the world. She was working her potato crop when tremors jiggled the ground. Car-sized boulders crashed down the waterfall. The water turned black. Banno clung to a tree, and she shouted for her son. She says, if I shout like that again, my teeth would fly out.

BANNO: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

BANNO: (Laughter).

HADID: She covers her mouth and giggles. She's only got about four teeth. That flood was likely caused when an unstable lake formed on their local glacier. It's called Ultar. And when that lake burst, it caused flash flooding. And across northern Pakistan, where three great mountain ranges meet - the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram - residents have long relied on the 7,000 glaciers nestled here for their livelihoods. They treat them like living beings. But now they're melting faster than ever before. They're shrinking. About half of them are forming unstable lakes. At least 30 might burst.

DAVID MOLDEN: The main driving factor is global warming.

HADID: That's David Molden. He's the director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. It focuses on these ranges.

MOLDEN: We got some of the best glaciologists together from the region looking at what's happening to the glaciers.

HADID: He says the mountains are heating up faster than the plains below.

MOLDEN: If we stick to the present emission trends, we'll lose two-thirds of our glaciers.

HADID: We wanted to see what a shrinking glacier looks like. So we scrambled up a nearby mountain to see the Ultar glacier. Glaciers can be black or white. The Ultar is black because of all the rock and dust and dirt and soot it has absorbed.

Well, we've just climbed up. Let me tell you what we can see. There's a ravine. That black thing is the glacier. So with me is Nazim, the guide. Where was it before this glacier?

ULLAH BAIG: The glacier was there. Now it's almost around 50 meters big.

HADID: Ultar is shrinking, and residents are taking action to adapt.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORKERS CLEARING PATH)

HADID: In the Harchi Valley, they're preparing for the next big flood. Workers are preparing a path so cars can reach this area to clear debris faster. They're fortifying parts of the riverbank to prevent the next flood from washing away more land. In other villages, folks are planting trees to slow down flash floods. They're also installing early monitoring systems. One village, Gulmit, is waiting for the U.N. to fund a supporting wall to block the path of a glacier that threatens to flood and wash them away. A resident, Rashid - he's only got one name - says in some villages where their glaciers have dried up, they're trying to grow new ones using a local technique.

RASHID: The mating process.

HADID: The mating process. He says they mate male and female glaciers.

RASHID: In Glacier grafting, you must have male and female glacier. The glaciers which is covered by mud or other material, that is male. The glacier which is clean, that is female.

HADID: He says residents collect hundreds of pounds of glacial ice and transport it to a shady mountainside, where they hope it will take root and form a new glacier.

So it's like you could plant it, and it will grow.

RASHID: ...Grow. It grow within five years.

MOLDEN: Scientists I spoke to say there is no proof that it works. But it shows how desperate residents are. And they're confused, like Banno, that farmer in the Harchi Valley.

BANNO: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: She says she's unsure if all their efforts to lessen the severity of the next flood will work.

BANNO: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: She says she's not sure if it's worth staying on the land if she has to live in fear of it. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, the Harchi Valley.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL LASWELL AND JAH WOBBLE'S "6TH CHAMBER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.