Rapid melting of glaciers in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh indicate how global warming coupled with unplanned development and pollution are taking toll on these ‘water towers’.
Glaciers are an important part of our eco-system. These compressed masses of snow are the main source of water. Changes in these glaciers are bound to affect regional water availability and hydrological regimes. Retreating glaciers are putting an estimated 15 million people around the world at risk of destructive flooding events.
The Himalayas comprising Hindu Kush, Kunlun Shan, Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges function as water towers of Asia. The glacier-fed rivers originating from the Himalaya mountain ranges comprise the largest river run-off from any single location in the globe.
J&K and Ladakh house some of the largest glaciers in the Hindu Kush region. The Kolahoi Glacier is the main source of water for river Jhelum— considered to be the lifeline of Kashmir.
Studies indicate that Kolahoi, the largest glacier of Kashmir valley’s Jhelum Basin, is retreating rapidly due to spurt rise in temperature triggered by global warming and extreme pollution. Thajiwas, Hoksar, Nehnar, Shishram, and glaciers around Harmukh are also retreating slowly.
Glaciologists on the basis of studies state that during the last few years, glacier melting in Kashmir and Ladakh region has been highest as compared to the rest of the Himalaya and the Alps.
Kolahoi Glacier has lost almost 23 percent of its area since 1962 and has fragmented into smaller parts. In the last over a decade, the average mass balance of the glacier has increased recently.
Kolahai is losing mass at the rate of about 1.0 m water equivalent annually, which is significantly higher than the glaciers in the rest of the Himalayas.
Experts fear that mass loss of glaciers is expected to exacerbate in future as a result of projected climate changes. Subsequently this will further diminish the stream flow of trans-boundary rivers emanating from the region.
The problem is compounded by below-normal snowfall during last winter accompanied by high winter temperatures. Summer heat waves contributed significantly to high glacier melting.
Experts blame unprecedented increase in temperature, deforestation, increasing human activities, constructions in eco-fragile zones and high levels of pollution caused by the emission of greenhouse gases by vehicles and cement plants for retreating of Kolhai Glacier. The glacier has developed several crevasses and cracks over the years.
Prominent earth scientist, Prof Shakil Romshoo, who has been studying glaciers, cautions that given the projected climate change across the Kashmir Himalayan region, “glacier mass loss could enhance with serious implications for regional water availability. He states that this will also hit hydrological regimes and trans-boundary sharing of waters emanating from the region, particularly during the lean period, when glacier melt dominates the stream flow.
Food, energy, and water security as well as the dependent livelihoods particularly downstream will be significantly impacted by the melting of glaciers. It is also projected that the glacier-melt contribution to stream flow in the Indus Basin will further diminish in the future. This will have an impact on the hydrograph, especially during summer and autumn seasons.
Retreating of glaciers has created glacial lakes in various mountain ranges of J&K besides Ladakh making the Himalayan regions vulnerable to Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOF).
GLOF can be disastrous for downstream populations due to sudden outburst of a glacial lake dammed by loose moraine material. The glacial lake outbursts can be catastrophic – destroying downstream infrastructure, resulting in fatalities and affecting livelihoods of mountain communities.
Besides glacier recession, the prevailing warming scenario over the Himalaya makes communities and infrastructure more vulnerable to cryosphere-related hazards that were previously not experienced in the past.
These include GLOF, rock-ice avalanches, glacier detachments, permafrost degradation-induced rock failures and debris flows.
In the northwestern Himalayan regions of J&K and Ladakh, Leh and Kargil districts are more exposed to GLOF risk with 180 proglacial lakes most of which are expanding in area. On the basis of extensive scientific studies, two proglacial lakes in the upstream of Vishaw in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district are susceptible to GLOFs that might affect Asthal village downstream.
Gya village located some 74 km from Leh experienced moderate GLOFs in August 2016 affecting built-up and agriculture downstream.
Another high-intensity GLOFs was experienced in Rumbak in Leh that destroyed three bridges and washed away several kilometers of roads in August 2021.
Drang Drung is the largest glacier in Zanskar and one of the fast-receding glaciers in Himalaya since the ice front is emptying into the Proglacial Lake. The lake started forming after 2008, currently spreading over 17 hectares and is projected to expand to 39 hectares.
Conducting studies on glaciers, Dr Irfan Rashid, senior assistant professor of Department of Geo-informatics, University of Kashmir (KU) states that while the number of proglacial lakes are high in Ladakh, downstream areas in Kashmir valley are more vulnerable owing to high population and greater area under infrastructure.
“Sudden glacial lake outburst floods often destroy the downstream infrastructure, resulting in fatalities and affecting livelihoods of mountain communities.”
While GLOFs may be triggered by a host of geomorphic and meteorological factors, studies suggest that earthquakes exacerbate cryosphere-related hazard cascade processes including glacial lake failures translating into GLOFs and rock-ice avalanches.
This should set alarm bells ringing given the fact that there are around 5300 glacial lakes, thousands of ice-cliffs and permafrost on unstable steep slopes in the Indus Basin of which Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh regions are part of.
On September 7, 2014, massive flow of water from higher reaches following heavy rainfall led to overflowing in Jhelum, Chenab, and Tawi basins causing devastating floods in J&K.
In January 2015, an artificial lake was created due to landslides in the Phutkal area of Zanskar in Kargil. Experts had warned that delay in addressing the issue could cause "catastrophic flash floods" in downstream areas of Zanskar Valley.
Two months later, a high-level team from the National Disaster Management Authority created a channel to drain accumulated water, but to no avail. On May 7, 2015, the artificial lake burst triggering flash floods washing away several bridges and caused extensive damage to houses.
Three million Indians live in areas where GLOFs could happen at any time, the first global assessment of such areas has found globally, 90 million people across 30 countries live in 1089 basins containing glacial lakes. Of these, 15 million (16.6 percent) live within 50 km of a glacial lake.
Majority of the globally exposed population amounting to 9.3 million (62 percent) are located in the region of High Mountain Asia (HMA). India, Pakistan, Peru and China accounted for more than 50 percent of the globally exposed population to GLOFs.
According to Centre for Science and Environment and Down to Earth’s State of India’s Environment 2022, here has been a 40 percent increase in water spread area in India, China and Nepal, posing a huge threat to seven Indian states and Union Territories including Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh.
In Kedarnath area in Uttarakhand, an estimated 5700 people, mostly pilgrims, died on June 16, 2013, due to heavy rains, cloudburst, and outburst from Chorabari Lake.
On February 7, 2021, a part of the Nanda Devi Glacier broke off at Joshimath in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, killing at least seven people and leaving around 150 missing and feared dead. The flash flood breached two hydropower projects near the Naina Devi National Park, about 300 kilometers north of Dehradun.
To prevent disasters in J&K and Ladakh due to melting of glaciers and Glacial Lakes Outburst Flooding, Government must take measures to conserve the fragile environment to protect critical ecological systems including glaciers. It is imperative to monitor these glacial lakes by field and satellite-based studies and assess risk associated with the bursting of these dammed lakes.
This way the people living downstream can be warned in time and necessary mitigation measures initiated to minimise damage in eventuality of outbursts.
Hydropower and other river engineering structures downstream must be designed to withstand disastrous surges of water and debris associated with the bursting of the glacier lakes particularly in the Chenab valley which houses several hydropower projects.
We can’t reverse the irreparable damage done to glaciers but prevent further degradation. We have to own and protect nature’s creations be it glaciers, rivers, water bodies and forests as our survival depends on these natural assets.
Author is Executive Editor, Greater Kashmir
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.