'Maybe It Will Destroy Everything': Pakistan's Melting Glaciers Cause Alarm Pollution and global warming are causing glaciers to melt and form unstable lakes in the north of the country. NPR visits a valley where farms were destroyed by glacial floods.

'Maybe It Will Destroy Everything': Pakistan's Melting Glaciers Cause Alarm

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Residents of Pakistan's highlands have long enjoyed a close relationship with the glaciers tucked into the mountains around them. Those glaciers water their fields, orchards and pastures. They even give them names and genders - male and female - and try to make them. But climate change is scrambling that relationship.

NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from the Harchi Valley.

IBADAT SHAH: I Ibadat Shah. Today I double eight.

NAZIM ULLAH BAIG: Eighty-eight.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Eighty-eight years old.

SHAH: Eighty-eight - old.

HADID: You don't look a day over 60.

SHAH: (Laughter).

HADID: Ibadat Shah clambers down a steep valley to show me his terraces.

SHAH: Hard work with design-making.

HADID: He's planted them with orchards. You can hear our guide Nazim Ullah Baig translating.

ULLAH BAIG: Walnut trees, cherry trees, apple trees, grapes and apricot trees.

HADID: Down by the river, the bottom terraces are missing.

Was there land there?

ULLAH BAIG: Yeah, yeah.

HADID: They were swept away in floods that surged through this valley in the summer. In their place is silt and boulders. As we chat, Shah's cheerful neighbor stops by.


HADID: What's your name?

SHAMIM BANNO: Shamim Banno.

HADID: She's just finished milking her cow. And Banno says in her 55 years, she's never seen anything like those floods.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

BANNO: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: She says she thought it was the end of the world. She was working her potato crop when tremors jiggled the ground. Car-sized boulders crashed down the waterfall. The water turned black. Banno clung to a tree, and she shouted for her son. She says, if I shout like that again, my teeth would fly out.

BANNO: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).

BANNO: (Laughter).

HADID: She covers her mouth and giggles. She's only got about four teeth. That flood was likely caused when an unstable lake formed on their local glacier. It's called Ultar. And when that lake burst, it caused flash flooding. And across northern Pakistan, where three great mountain ranges meet - the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram - residents have long relied on the 7,000 glaciers nestled here for their livelihoods. They treat them like living beings. But now they're melting faster than ever before. They're shrinking. About half of them are forming unstable lakes. At least 30 might burst.

DAVID MOLDEN: The main driving factor is global warming.

HADID: That's David Molden. He's the director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. It focuses on these ranges.

MOLDEN: We got some of the best glaciologists together from the region looking at what's happening to the glaciers.

HADID: He says the mountains are heating up faster than the plains below.

MOLDEN: If we stick to the present emission trends, we'll lose two-thirds of our glaciers.

HADID: We wanted to see what a shrinking glacier looks like. So we scrambled up a nearby mountain to see the Ultar glacier. Glaciers can be black or white. The Ultar is black because of all the rock and dust and dirt and soot it has absorbed.

Well, we've just climbed up. Let me tell you what we can see. There's a ravine. That black thing is the glacier. So with me is Nazim, the guide. Where was it before this glacier?

ULLAH BAIG: The glacier was there. Now it's almost around 50 meters big.

HADID: Ultar is shrinking, and residents are taking action to adapt.


HADID: In the Harchi Valley, they're preparing for the next big flood. Workers are preparing a path so cars can reach this area to clear debris faster. They're fortifying parts of the riverbank to prevent the next flood from washing away more land. In other villages, folks are planting trees to slow down flash floods. They're also installing early monitoring systems. One village, Gulmit, is waiting for the U.N. to fund a supporting wall to block the path of a glacier that threatens to flood and wash them away. A resident, Rashid - he's only got one name - says in some villages where their glaciers have dried up, they're trying to grow new ones using a local technique.

RASHID: The mating process.

HADID: The mating process. He says they mate male and female glaciers.

RASHID: In Glacier grafting, you must have male and female glacier. The glaciers which is covered by mud or other material, that is male. The glacier which is clean, that is female.

HADID: He says residents collect hundreds of pounds of glacial ice and transport it to a shady mountainside, where they hope it will take root and form a new glacier.

So it's like you could plant it, and it will grow.

RASHID: ...Grow. It grow within five years.

MOLDEN: Scientists I spoke to say there is no proof that it works. But it shows how desperate residents are. And they're confused, like Banno, that farmer in the Harchi Valley.

BANNO: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: She says she's unsure if all their efforts to lessen the severity of the next flood will work.

BANNO: (Foreign language spoken).

HADID: She says she's not sure if it's worth staying on the land if she has to live in fear of it. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, the Harchi Valley.


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