Police, tourists and locals watched helplessly as an enormous bridge on the Karakoram Highway that connects Pakistan to China was torn apart by melting waters from the Shishper Glacier in Hunza, Pakistan.
Large concrete blocks of the Hassanabad bridge crumbled on Sunday and were immediately swept away by forceful tides from a melting 1,300-metre-wide, and 600-metre-tall, glacier just 2 miles away.
The catastrophic flood engulfed houses, acres of farm land and two hydropower projects that powered the area.
“[Villagers’] lands have been destroyed, their houses have been damaged,” civil defence officer Javed Iqbal told VICE World News. “We have shifted all internally displaced people to a tent village and provided them with food rations along with other basic necessities.”
Pakistan, nearly double the size of California, has 7,253 glaciers, the highest number of glaciers outside the polar regions, but it also has one of the hottest cities in the world. Global warming is a stark reality lived by communities close to Pakistan’s melting glaciers.
“Glacial outburst floods are nothing new here, but because of climate change we can expect more, because temperatures will rise further in the South Asia region,” Muhammad Zia, water resources and glaciology department head at the Global Change Impact Studies Centre, told VICE World News.
Pakistan just recorded its hottest April since 1961. Since mid-March the country has been in the clutches of a brutal heatwave. On April 30, the city of Jacobabad, known as one of the hottest places on earth, hit a peak temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius).
In Pakistan’s mountainous north, local populations constantly face threats of flash flooding. But increasingly frequent heat waves have intensified the risks.
Over time, glaciers in the country’s Himalayan, Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountains have experienced accelerated melting rates that have spawned thousands of glacial lakes in the region. These lakes are susceptible to sudden hazardous flooding known as glacial outburst floods. According to the United Nations, 33 lakes in the region are especially vulnerable.
The phenomenon occurs when a sudden outburst of water is discharged from a glacial lake due to a dam failure or a breach. In the latest incident, rising temperatures over the past month led to excessive snow and ice to melt near an ice-dammed lake by the area’s Shishper glacier, which likely caused the breach and led to the overflow of water.
In April, the Pakistan Meteorological Department sent a warning to the region’s disaster management authorities that flooding could occur due to rising temperatures. Ahead of the incident, disaster authorities conducted community awareness protocols along with relocations of the local population and stockpiling of food rations.
Concern for Pakistan’s rapidly melting glaciers has been shared by its climate change minister, Sherry Rehman, who tweeted, “Pakistan has the highest number of glaciers outside the polar region and many are losing mass due to high global temperatures… we need global leaders to reduce emissions.”
Pakistan has already warmed by around 2.1 degrees Fahrenheit (1.2 Celsius) since the preindustrial era. According to Berkeley Earth, the country’s heat increase may reach 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit (3.5 Celsius) by 2100.
“Climate change is life-threatening in Pakistan. Unlike many other parts of the world where you can be provided some adaptation measures, that is lacking here. Whether it is a matter of droughts which are being experienced in the lower parts of the country or glacial lake floods, it all comes down to threats to human life,” said Zia.
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