'We're very scared': Mountain communities in Pakistan fear for future as glaciers melt

ITV News' Asia Correspondent Debi Edward visited Passu, Pakistan, to see the impact climate change has had on the village, its residents and wildlife.

It took us 21 hours to reach Passu from Islamabad. Our flight up to the nearest city of Gilgit was cancelled so we had to drive the whole way instead.

We left at night and by dawn we were entering the foothills of the Karakorum Mountain range. The sun slowly revealed one of the most stunning landscapes and the highest peaks I’ve ever seen.

The Karakorum Mountain range is home to the famous K2 Mountain; the second-highest peak in the world after Mount Everest.

The foothills of the Karakorum mountain range. Credit: Marc Hofer

Thanks to Pakistan-China cooperation, the road conditions in that part of north-western Pakistan have improved. We were driving on the N35, which is known as the highest highway in the world as it reaches four-and-a-half thousand metres above sea level at the Khunjerab Pass, where there is a border crossing between Pakistan and China.

Landslides are a problem in this area, and we passed several places where there had been fresh rock falls. Climate change has also contributed to the frequency of the falls, and heightened the threat, particularly during wet seasons.

We had come to visit the Passu Glacier and find out what impact its melting is having on the area, and the wider country.

'The water tower of Asia'

Pakistan is considered the third pole because it has the largest number of glaciers outside of the polar regions. It has more than 7,000 glaciers spread across the Hindu Kush, Karakorum and Himalaya mountains. Collectively, they are known as the ‘water tower of Asia’, feeding into rivers which supply hundreds of millions of people. But global warming is melting those natural reservoirs, putting homes and livelihoods under threat.

When we first saw the Passu Glacier, it was a breath-taking sight. It is incredible to get so close to a true force of nature that has shaped the landscape around it. With our drone we were able to capture the hidden parts, deep in the valley where it sits like a jagged jewel.

We were accompanied to the glacier by one of the elders from Passu village. Twenty years ago, Amanullah Khan began working with local NGOs to monitor and mitigate the effects of the glaciers melting, and most recently he helped install an early warning system at the base of the glacier.

Amanullah Khan began working with local NGOs to monitor and mitigate the effects of the glaciers melting. Credit: Marc Hofer

Glacier melting has led to an increased number of glacial lakes which are at high risk of bursting, causing flash floods and landslides. The phenomenon is called a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) and because of the volume of water released, they not only destroy communities but wipe out infrastructure and irrigation channels.

Last year there was a GLOF further down the valley from Passu in Hunza. An ancient bridge was swept away, homes, buildings and two power plants were also damaged. The Pakistani Government said the occurrence of GLOFs has more than doubled in recent years.

The GLOF early warning system installed in Passu triggers an alarm when water from the glacier outflow reaches above a certain level. When the siren is heard, villagers would have just 30 to 40 minutes to get out of harm's way. For the past few years, they have been practising GLOF evacuations, taking only the few possessions they can carry with them.

Villages displaced

Amanullah Khan has lived in Passu village his whole life. He told me erosion from the increased glacier outflows has forced the village to shift time and again, and it’s now just a sliver of land compared to the sprawling dwelling that it used to be.

The village is the convergence point for several glaciers and with all of them melting faster, there has been a massive increase in water through the river basin, which is what has eaten away at their land. He pointed out the latest gabion walls they have built to try to prevent further erosion and protect the village, the last one was swept away a year after it was built. Hundreds of families have already left the area because of the effects of climate change.

Pakistan is facing an increased risk from a range of disasters, including heatwaves, droughts, floods, and melting glaciers. The country is hoping COP28 will ratify a loss and damage fund to help developing nations, like Pakistan, cover the costs of the climate change crises they are facing.

Last year, the country was devastated by the worst monsoon floods in its history, almost two thousand people were killed, and thirty-three million people were displaced.

The Pakistani Government has argued for developed nations to contribute to a loss and damage fund as they are the countries who have caused global warming, and which generate the most greenhouse gases. Pakistan contributes less than 2% to global emissions but it is one of the countries suffering the worst impacts and extreme weather events.

It is air pollutants, mostly coming from neighbouring nations India and China that is causing Pakistan’s glaciers to melt at a faster rate. A recent study predicted they could lose up to eighty per cent of their volume this century if global carbon emissions aren't rapidly reduced.

In the Gilgit Baltistan area alone it is estimated temperatures have risen by 0.6C in the last 35 years, while precipitation has decreased dramatically within the last decade. For Pakistan the temperature has increased by more than one degree.

'It is too late to stop the process of climate change'

The glaciers not only provide a lifeline for the population of Pakistan but they help sustain several rare species which inhabit the country’s majestic mountains. We were lucky enough to spot a herd of female markhors while we were filming at the glacier. Everyone, including the locals with us, stopped and marvelled at the animals, which are a national treasure and endangered species.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Pakistan told us the mountains are home to many flagship species like snow leopards, brown bears, and the Himalayan ibex, but because of climate change their habitats and ecosystems are being ruined too. There have been incidents of these carnivore species coming down the valley into villages, creating a conflict with humans when they have attacked livestock.

It will be up to the next generation to preserve Pakistan's breath-taking glaciers. Credit: Marc Hofer

It was a privilege to get so close to the Passu glacier that I could hear it cracking, and rocks falling. It gave you get a real sense of the scale and speed with which it is melting. When I was told it used to fill the entire valley where we were standing, you could see the extent to which it had retreated.

Amanullah showed us a marker that had been painted to record the edge of the glacier in 2016, it had shrunk at least 100 meters back from that point, in less than 10 years. I asked him about the future, and he said it was too late to stop the process of climate change, but he believed with help and some adaptations there was still a future for Passu village.

As we finished talking, children were returning home from the local school, it will soon be up to them to help preserve life in the majestic peaks of the Karakorum mountains. Pakistan is a country bestowed with natural resources, which have become a blessing and a curse.

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