The effects of climate change have started to take a huge toll on the livelihood and quality of life of the people of the mountain areas of Pakistan. Since the last 6 years, Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) and flash floods have been posing a serious threat to a number of villages in Gojal Valley (Upper Hunza), damaging agricultural lands, infrastructure, homes and triggering food insecurity in the area. The frequency of GLOFs and flash floods in the valley have increased at an unprecedented rate over the last five years.
Gojal is surrounded by gigantic mountains and glaciers, and the glacier water always poses threat to the mountain inhabitants. Many times, the GLOFs have destroyed complete infrastructures, in particular road access to upper parts of the valley. A glacier situated between Ghulkin and
Hussain villages is the most dangerous GLOF site, which poses threat to both villages. GLOFs from the glacier have been damaging the Karakorum Highway for several years now, due to which the people travelling through the area have endured serious difficulties.
Likewise, another glacier situated between Gulmit and Ghulkin is posing a serious threat for both villages. The water flow has been noted to frequently change its course towards the villages, prompting the local people to take urgent, safety measures on self-help basis.
GLOF wrecks havoc to infrastructure
On May 25, 2014, an enormous GLOF from the Ghulkin-Hussaini glacier wrecked havoc to infrastructure on on the northern side of the main bridge located at the site. At least a half kilo meter of the KKH, two bridges besides several culverts were inundated.
The incident left commuters and locals of the area stranded on both sides of the flooded highway. No immediate response was taken by authorities; however, five days after the incident, authorities cleared the site and traffic resumed across the flooded highway.
On June 14, 2014, another massive GLOF hit the KKH on the southern side of the main bridge located at the same site, inundating three culverts and consequently blocking the highway. The voluble water utterly demolished the KKH. Yet again, hundreds of passengers were left stranded on both sides of the blocked highway. However, local volunteers and boy scouts were seen making way for the passengers to pass the blockade.
In 2015, another GLOF at the same site severely damaged and flooded, the KKH bringing traffic to a standstill. The flooding not only affected lives of people of the area, but also businessmen, tourists and travelers. Passengers, specifically vulnerable groups like the ailing, the elderly, women and children were more at risk. People were crossing the gushing flood water by foot.
The summer of 2015 was particularly frightening for the people of Gojal Valley, Upper Hunza, as heavy flash floods rammed into several villages, sending the inhabitants into panic for several days. Four bridges were washed away in Chipurson Valley and the Karakoram Highway was blocked near the Pak-China border at Khunjerab/Khunjerav.
The mid-night heavy rainfall, which was described as “frightening” by locals, triggered flooding in the River Hunza and several glacier streams. Flooding in the river between villages Ghalapan and Khyber annihilated the KKH, leaving travellers stranded on both sides of the blockade.
Flooding in Ayeenabad, Shishkat, washed away the construction material storage of a Chinese construction company. Floodwater reportedly entered several villages in Chipurson Valley, causing heavy damages.
Water level in the River Hunza surged, inundating the Karakoram Highway at Waadkhun near the Pakistan-China border and cutting the only land route between China and Pakistan.
Hot summers have expedited glacial meltdown in the Karakoram Range, increasing the water level of River Hunza to a very dangerous level.
History of GLOFs in Hussaini Gojal
On condition that historic records have been on hand, glaciers and glacial lakes have been a hazard to highways, bridges, people and property in Gojal Valley. GLOFs occur when glaciers condense and move forward and, in many instances, block side valleys causing river and meltwater to build up against an ice barrier. In some instances, as these glacial lakes grew, increasing hydrostatic pressure eventually causes the ice dam to lift or burst, resulting in heavy flooding towards downstream areas where it wreaks havoc by damaging highways, bridges and properties.
GLOFs and the resulting blockage of the KKH at the site between Hussaini and Ghulking villages in Gojal Valley are not new. Since the KKH has been constructed just over the Hussaini glacier, flooding has been witnesses at the site during the last 6 years. Local experts say that the last 2 GLOFs were comparatively powerful and damaging to public infrastructure and properties.
Moreover, discharge of water from the glacier near Ghulkin village has also prompted fear among the community. According to experts, unlike the previous flooding that took place in summer, extreme water flow was also noted in the winter of 2013 when the temperature remains in the negative.
According to FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance, the water in a lake formed on the Hussaini glacier has also increased to an alarming level. This could become a potential threat to the KKH, and bridges and culverts on the KKH in future. The GLOFs have damaged about two kilo meters of the KKH so far.
People of Gulmit take precautionary measures
Fearing GLOFs and flash floods, the people of village Gulmit took precautionary measure by building a safety wall on the edge of the flowing glacier water. They were supported by the FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance Pakistan and approved a grant for building of the safety wall.
Mountains and mountain ecologies are part of our life and future. They not only provide us the opportunities for adventure, but also good life. It is a high time for the government of Pakistan to make climate change a top priority. Capacity of the local people also need to be enhanced in order to make them more resilient to natural disasters. If we fail to take proper measures, climate change will take extreme tolls on our lives, especially on people living in the mountains. Climate change can trigger GLOFs and flash floods that would in turn prompt food insecurity, unrest and conflicts. It is a crucial time to save the mountains and glaciers of Pakistan from the ravages of climate change.