Flood risk in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan heightens as monsoon season approaches, as the region sits on thousands of glaciers that face multiple challenges due to climate change.
What are glacial lakes and why are they dangerous?
Glacial lakes are formed when meltwater from glaciers accumulates in natural or artificial depressions. They can vary in size, shape and depth, but they all have one thing in common: they are unstable and prone to sudden outbursts.
A glacial lake outburst flood (GLOF) occurs when the natural or artificial dam that contains the lake fails or overflows due to various factors, such as heavy rainfall, landslides, earthquakes or ice avalanches. The result is a massive release of water and debris that can travel downstream at high speed and cause widespread destruction.
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According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Pakistan has more than 3,000 glacial lakes, of which 33 are at risk of bursting and putting 7 million people at risk. In 2022 alone, there have been 16 GLOF incidents in Gilgit-Baltistan, compared with just five in 2021.
How is climate change affecting the glaciers and the monsoon?
Pakistan is home to the largest concentration of glaciers outside the polar regions, sometimes referred to as the ‘third pole’. These glaciers are a vital source of water for millions of people who depend on them for drinking, irrigation and hydropower.
However, climate change is causing these glaciers to melt faster than they can replenish. According to a study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, which includes Pakistan, could lose up to two-thirds of its ice by 2100 under a high-emission scenario.
The melting of glaciers not only increases the volume and variability of water in the rivers, but also affects the timing and intensity of the monsoon. The monsoon is a seasonal wind system that brings heavy rainfall to South Asia from June to September. It is influenced by various factors, such as sea surface temperature, atmospheric pressure and land-sea contrast.
Climate change is making the air and sea temperatures rise, leading to more evaporation and more moisture in the atmosphere. This means that the monsoon rainfall can become more intense and unpredictable. Scientists predict that the average rainfall in the Indian summer monsoon season will increase due to climate change, but there will also be more variability and extremes.
What are the impacts and challenges of floods in Pakistan?
Natural disasters are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan as flood risk in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan has become so common over the years. The country has experienced several major floods in its history, such as the 2010 floods that affected 20 million people and caused $10 billion in damages. However, climate change is making floods more frequent and severe, posing multiple challenges for the people and the government.
One of the most immediate impacts of floods is the loss of lives, livelihoods and infrastructure. According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), the 2022 monsoon floods have killed 386 people, injured 1,030 and affected 8.9 million across 35 districts as of 6 January 2023. More than 205,000 people remain displaced from their homes, mostly in Sindh and Balochistan provinces. The floods have also damaged or destroyed more than 300,000 houses, 1.4 million acres of crops, 6,000 schools and 400 health facilities.
Another impact of floods is the increased risk of diseases and malnutrition. Floods can contaminate water sources, damage sanitation systems and create breeding grounds for mosquitoes and other vectors.
A long-term impact of floods is the loss of economic opportunities and development prospects. Floods can reduce agricultural output, disrupt industrial activities, damage transport networks and affect tourism. According to a report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank (WB), the 2010 floods reduced Pakistan’s GDP growth by 2 percentage points and increased its fiscal deficit by 0.5 percentage points in 2010-11. The report also estimated that the total recovery and reconstruction cost of the 2010 floods was $10.9 billion, equivalent to 6.3 percent of Pakistan’s GDP in 2009-10.
What are the possible solutions and actions to address the flood risk?
To cope with the increasing flood risk, Pakistan needs to adopt a comprehensive and integrated approach that combines structural and non-structural measures, as well as short-term and long-term strategies.
Structural measures refer to physical interventions that aim to reduce the exposure or vulnerability of people and assets to floods. These include building dams, dykes, embankments, spillways, drainage channels and other infrastructure that can control or divert the flow of water. These also include installing early warning systems, protective equipment and emergency shelters that can alert and protect people from floods.
- Non-structural measures refer to policy, institutional, social and environmental interventions that aim to enhance the resilience and adaptation of people and systems to floods. These include improving land use planning, disaster risk management, climate change mitigation and adaptation, water resource management, public awareness and education, community participation and social protection.
- Short-term strategies refer to actions that can be taken before, during and after a flood event to minimize its impacts and facilitate recovery. These include conducting hazard and vulnerability assessments, preparing contingency plans, mobilizing resources, coordinating response efforts, providing relief and humanitarian assistance, conducting damage and needs assessments and implementing recovery and reconstruction programs.
- Long-term strategies refer to actions that can be taken in the medium to long term to reduce the underlying causes and drivers of flood risk and promote sustainable development. These include addressing the root causes of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, enhancing the adaptive capacity of people and systems by promoting low-carbon and climate-resilient development, strengthening the governance and institutional capacity for disaster risk reduction and management, investing in research and innovation for flood risk reduction and management, and fostering regional and international cooperation for flood risk reduction and management.
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This distraction further hampers the government’s ability to address pressing issues, including climate change impacts. Inadequate infrastructure, a lack of early warning systems, and poor water management exacerbate the flood situation. Urgent action is needed, including increased funding for infrastructure, improved early warning systems, and sustainable water management practices.
Flood risk in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan is a serious challenge due to climate change. The melting of glaciers in Gilgit-Baltistan and the intensification of monsoon rains are increasing the frequency and severity of floods in the country. Floods have devastating impacts on lives, livelihoods, infrastructure, health, food security and economic development. To address this challenge, Pakistan needs to adopt a comprehensive and integrated approach that combines structural and non-structural measures, as well as short-term and long-term strategies. By doing so, Pakistan can not only reduce its flood risk, but also enhance its resilience and development prospects.