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Melting glaciers threaten northern Pakistan – International News News – Report by AFR

As dawn broke over Javed Rahi’s Pakistani mountain village, a loud bang broke the silence and a torrent of water tumbled from the melting glacier nearby, followed by a thick plume of smoke.

Rahi, a retired math teacher, was due to attend his nephew’s wedding on the day the flood rushed through the village of Hassanabad.

“I expected women and children to sing and dance … Instead, I heard them scream in fear,” said the 67-year-old.

The flood, which hit in May as a heat wave swept South Asia, swept away nine houses in the village and damaged half a dozen others.

The water also washed away two small hydroelectric power stations and a bridge that connected the remote community to the outside world.

Pakistan is home to more than 7,000 glaciers, more than anywhere else on earth outside the poles.

Rising global temperatures coupled with climate change are rapidly melting glaciers and creating thousands of glacial lakes.

The government has warned that 33 of these lakes – all located in the spectacular Himalayan, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges that intersect in Pakistan – risk bursting within hours, releasing millions of cubic meters of water and debris, as in Hassanabad.

At least 16 such glacial lake-related heatwave floods have occurred so far this year, compared to an average of five or six a year, the Pakistani government said earlier this week.

The devastation caused by such floods makes salvage an arduous task for affected communities.

After the disaster struck Hassanabad, Rahi and other villagers who had lost their homes had to move to a nearby camp for displaced people.

Their makeshift tents contain the few belongings they were able to salvage and mattresses to sleep on.

“We never thought that we would go from wealth to rags,” Rahi said.

– No resources to move –

According to the Global Climate Risk Index compiled by the environmental NGO Germanwatch, Pakistan is the eighth country in the world most affected by extreme weather events caused by climate change.

The country is experiencing earlier, hotter and more frequent heat waves, with temperatures already reaching 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit) this year.

Floods and droughts in recent years have killed and displaced thousands of people, destroyed livelihoods and damaged infrastructure.

According to the UN Development Program, a lack of information on glacier changes in Pakistan makes it difficult to predict the dangers they pose.

Although Hassanabad had an early warning system in place – including cameras monitoring water flow in glacial lakes – villagers believed they lived high enough above the water to avoid any impact, local officials said.

Zahida Sher, who lost her home in the Hassanabad flood, said the force of the water destroyed buildings previously thought to be safe.

The mountain communities depend on theirsLivestock, orchards, farms and tourism to survive, but climate change threatens everything.

“Our economy is agrarian and people don’t have enough resources to move from here,” said Sher, a researcher for a local development NGO.

Siddique Ullah Baig, a disaster risk reduction analyst in the northern region, said around seven million people are exposed to such events, but many are unaware of the seriousness of the threat.

“People are still building houses in areas that have been declared a red zone for flooding. Our people are not aware and ready to deal with a potential disaster,” he told AFP.

– ‘Horror Night’ –

Further north of Hassanabad is Passu, another precarious hamlet that has already lost around 70 percent of its population and area to flooding and natural river erosion.

The village is sandwiched between the White Glacier to the south, the Batura Glacier to the north, and the Hunza River to the east – three forces that have earned the respectful title of “Dragon” for their destructive power.

“The village of Passu lies in the mouths of these three dragons,” said local scholar Ali Qurban Mughani, pointing to the centuries-old bodies of dense ice that tower over the village.

As he spoke, workers were working on a protective concrete wall on a riverbank in an attempt to protect the village from further erosion.

Kamran Iqbal invested 500,000 rupees (about US$2,400) borrowed from a local NGO to open a picnic area for visitors with stunning views.

The beauty of the glaciers has made the region one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations.

The business thrived until a “horrific night” last year when a flash flood washed away Iqbal’s investment.

Even the most ambitious international climate targets to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century could lead to the melting of a third of Pakistan’s glaciers, the Nepal-based science organization International Center for Integrated Mountain Development said in a 2019 study.

“In 2040 we could face problems of (water) scarcity that could lead to drought and desertification – and before that we may have to deal with frequent and intense river flooding and of course flash floods,” said Aisha Khan, Director of the Mountain and Glacier Protection Organization, which studies glaciers in Pakistan.

– “We are at the top” –

Pakistan is home to more than 220 million people and says it is responsible for less than 1 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Nonetheless, it remains highly vulnerable to the effects of climate change due to its reliance on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and natural resources.

“There are no factories or industries here that can cause pollution… We have a clean environment,” said Amanullah Khan, a 60-year-old village elder in Passu.

“But when it comes to the threats of climate change, we’re at the forefront.”

Asif Sakhi, a political activist from Passu, said mountain communities are increasingly afraid of the dangers posed by glaciers.

“This area belongs to the glaciers, we occupied it,” said the 32-year-old.

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