Glacial lakes make J&K vulnerable to flash floods

With rapid melting of glaciers creating glacial lakes in various mountain ranges of Jammu and Kashmir, state government has failed to devise a mechanism to avert disasters even as environmentalists have warned of flash floods due to outburst of these lakes.

Studies have shown that most of the glaciers in J&K are receding due to climate change at an average rate of 20 metres per annum. Melting glaciers erode land and fill up the space creating glacial lakes.

Experts said there are more than 100 glacial lakes spread across different mountain ranges of the state, most of them in Ladakh and Chenab valley. 

“The number and size of these lakes has shown an increase over the time due to the enhanced melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas under the changing climate. About 15 of these glacial lakes, particularly in the Ladakh, Korakoram and Chenab regions of the state are vulnerable to outburst and the consequent flooding,” Prof. Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, head, Department of Earth Sciences, Kashmir University told Greater Kashmir.

He cautioned that sudden disastrous large water flow charged with debris caused by an outburst of a glacial lake due to the failure of the damming moraines can bring about catastrophic damages to the life and property downstream.

Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF) is one of the major causes of flash floods.

“Therefore, the vulnerable landscapes in the vicinity of the river courses in the entire state need to be identified and monitored regularly beforehand by the concerned government agencies in order to avoid the 2013 Kedarnath-like disaster in the state of Jammu and Kashmir,” he said. 

In January 2015, an artificial lake was created due to landslides in Phutkal area of Zanskar in Kargil. Experts had warned that delay in addressing the issue can cause “catastrophic flashfloods” in downstream areas of Zanskar Valley. Two months later, a high-level team from National Disaster Management Authority created a channel to drain the accumulated water, but to no avail. On May 7, 2015, the artificial lake burst triggering flashfloods washing away several bridges and caused extensive damage to houses.

Experts said depletion of glaciers in Upper Indus Basin (Hindukush Himalayas, Karakoram and the Himalayan mountain ranges is highest among those in the Kashmir valley.

“There are several scientific studies to preempt sudden burst of glacial lakes,” Romshoo said. He said the information about these highly dynamic vulnerable glacial lakes should form the basis for developing a monitoring mechanism to avoid consequent damage to infrastructure as was witnessed in Phuktal in the Zanaskar region. 

He recommended detailed field and satellite-based studies to map and monitor glacier lakes “so that the administration and public are not caught unaware in the eventuality of any Glacial Lake outburst flooding in the mountainous Kashmir Himalayan region.” 

Prof Romshoo said Chenab valley is most vulnerable to outburst of glacial lakes. “It is important to assess the risk associated with the bursting of the glacier lakes so that the existing and pipeline hydropower and other river engineering infrastructure downstream in Chenab valley are designed to withstand the eventuality of disastrous surges of the water and debris associated with the bursting of the glacier lakes.”  

He said since the development of the hydropower projects envisages huge financial investment, it is essential to consider the risks and hazards of all the potential glacier lakes existing in the Chenab valley. 

Prof Romshoo said for rainfall-based flood forecasting due to the extreme weather events, as was witnessed during the September 2014, there is need to strengthen the scanty network of observation stations for hydrological and meteorological data in all the river basins of the state. 

He suggested that setting up a Flood Early Warning System (FEWS) needs to be taken up on priority by the government.  

“State Disaster Management Authority needs to be given administrative shape down to the Panchayat level so that it becomes the nodal agency in the state for inventory, monitoring, dissemination and coordination for all disaster related matters including the hydro-meteorological disasters,” he added. 

Director State Disaster Management Authority (SDMA), Aamir Ali said there is an action plan in State Disaster Management Policy to prevent flash floods due to outburst of glacial lakes. 

“The glacial lakes are formed usually in higher reaches and cut off areas and it is difficult to physically reach there. We can only act if we see indicators of formation of glacial lakes like decrease in flow in streams. We can track glacial lakes via satellite imagery or using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and make intervention to prevent flash floods”, he said.  

“But we don’t have real time facility of getting satellite imageries to monitor glacial lakes and request organisations like National Remote Sensing Centre to provide us the live or deferred feed,” he added.

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