Hassanabad (Pakistan) (AFP) – As dawn broke over the Pakistani mountain village of Javed Rahi, a loud boom broke the silence and a torrent of water cascaded from the nearby molten glacier, followed by a thick cloud of smoke.
Rahi, a retired math teacher, was due to attend his nephew’s wedding the day the flood hit the village of Hassanabad.
“I expected the women and children to sing and dance… Instead, I heard them screaming in terror,” the 67-year-old said.
“It was like the end of the world.”
The flood – which came as a heatwave gripped South Asia in May – swept away nine houses in the village and damaged half a dozen others.
The water also washed away two small hydroelectric plants 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 of the poles.
Rising global temperatures linked to climate change are causing glaciers to melt rapidly, creating thousands of glacial lakes.
The government has warned that 33 of these lakes – all located in the dramatic Himalayan, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges that intersect in Pakistan – are at risk of bursting and releasing millions of cubic meters of water. water and debris in just a few hours. , as in Hassanabad.
At least 16 floods of glacial lakes linked to heat waves have already occurred 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 the recovery of affected communities a daunting task.
After the disaster that struck Hassanabad, Rahi and other villagers who lost their homes had to move to a nearby camp for displaced people.
Inside their makeshift tents are the few belongings they managed to salvage and mattresses to sleep on.
“We never thought we would fall from ragged wealth,” Rahi said.
No resources to move
Pakistan is the eighth most vulnerable country in the world to extreme weather caused by climate change, according to the Global Climate Risk Index compiled by environmental NGO Germanwatch.
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 United Nations Development Programme, the lack of information on glacial changes in Pakistan makes it difficult to predict the dangers that come with it.
Although Hassanabad had an early warning system in place – including cameras that monitor water flow in glacial lakes – villagers believed they lived high enough above the water to avoid any impact , according to local officials.
Zahida Sher, who lost her home in the Hassanabad flood, said the power of the water destroyed buildings that were previously considered safe.
“Our economy is agrarian and people don’t have enough resources to leave here,” said Sher, a researcher for a local development NGO.
Siddique Ullah Baig, disaster risk reduction analyst for the northern region, said around seven million people are vulnerable 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 unaware and unprepared for a possible disaster,” he told AFP .
“Evening of Horror”
Further north of Hassanabad is Passu, another precarious hamlet that has already lost around 70% of its population and area after being affected by 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 are given the respectful title of “dragons” due to their destructive power.
“The village of Passu lies in the mouth of these three dragons,” local scholar Ali Qurban Mughani said, pointing to the age-old bodies of dense ice that tower over the village.
As he spoke, workmen worked on a concrete protection wall on a riverbank – an attempt to protect the village from further erosion.
Kamran Iqbal has invested 500,000 rupees (about $2,400) which he borrowed from a local NGO to open a picnic spot for visitors with a breathtaking view.
The beauty of the glaciers has made the region one of the main tourist destinations in the country.
Business was booming until a “night of horror” last year when a flash flood washed away Iqbal’s investment.
Even the most ambitious international climate goals of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century could lead to the melting of a third of Pakistan’s glaciers, says the Nepal-based science organization the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, in a 2019 study.
“In 2040 we may start to face problems of (water) scarcity which could lead to drought and desertification – and before that we may have to deal with frequent and intense river flooding, and of course flash flooding,” said Aisha Khan, head of the Mountains and Glaciers Protection Organization, which studies glaciers in Pakistan.
“We are at the forefront”
Home to more than 220 million people, Pakistan claims to be responsible for less than one percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet it remains highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, depending 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 from Passu.
“But when it comes to the threats posed by climate change, we are at the forefront.”
Asif Sakhi, a political activist from Passu, said mountain communities were increasingly fearful of the perils posed by glaciers.
“This area belongs to the glaciers, we occupied it,” the 32-year-old said.
© 2022 AFP