A powerful earthquake that struck Pakistan and Afghanistan on Monday has not only led to the destruction of buildings or caused landslides but also resulted two glaciers in Karakorum to smash into pieces while leaving many others in cracks in Hunza valley. The Disaster Management Authority of Gilgit-Baltistan fears that cracks in the glaciers can become dangerous in case of more aftershocks in the area. The cracked glaciers are prone to rapid melting and the water thus released may result in the formation of more lakes in the area.
The incidents of cracking and even breaking away of glaciers from the mountains could become a frequent phenomenon in wake of such natural disasters. This is owed to the fact that Pakistan is situated in an earthquake-active region. These deadly earthquakes owe their origin to the colliding Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The resulting geological activity leads to unstable seismicity in the region. However, Monday’s earthquake appears difficult to understand in spite of it originating in one of the most seismically hazardous regions on Earth. Its origin is thought to be 210 km underground; too deep as to make it a bit mysterious according to experts. As previously mentioned, most earthquakes are caused by tectonic plates rubbing together, but scientists are not sure about the cause of this activity at such depths. Earthquakes like the one on Monday should evoke serious concern in Pakistan especially in terms of glaciers being cracked and the consequences therefrom.
The issue of glaciers that may serve as an unexpected source of water downstream becomes far important in the wake of global climate change that has led to an increase in temperatures. It is ironic that Pakistan’s contribution to global GHG (greenhouse gases) emissions is less than 1% (ca 350 million tons of CO2 equivalent; amongst the lowest in the world) but is more vulnerable to the impact because of location vis-à-vis Himalayan glaciers. Low GHG emissions from Pakistan could be related to relatively less fossil fuels per capita. Energy and agriculture sectors are the major contributors to GHGs i.e. 51% and 39%, respectively. As is usual CO2 and methane account for 54% and 36% of the total GHGs. The two main sectors mentioned i.e. energy and agriculture are expected to grow further as the human development index (HDI) improves with time. Thus at the local level measures need to be taken (as a responsible nation) to reduce emission of GHGs into the environment in spite of the fact that these may not play a significant role in mitigating the impact of global climate change on Pakistan vis-à-vis glaciers.
Following could be done to curtail GHG emissions without sacrificing national development programmes:
- Enhance vegetation and thereby increase the sink of CO2 (carbon sequestration). Once assimilated into the plant biomass, sequestered C must be kept out of the cycle on a long term basis. For this plant species are to be carefully selected not only in terms of high capacity to produce biomass within shorter time period but also in view of using the biomass in a profitable manner. There could be two good options to deal with the biomass thus produced:
- Conversion of biomass into gaseous, liquid and solid fuel through pyrolysis. The solid by-product i.e. biochar has multiple beneficial uses like fuel, and soil conditioner. In the later use, C sequestered in the form of biochar will remain in soil for thousands of years and thus withdrawn from the natural C cycle. The liquid or gaseous by-products of pyrolysis can conveniently be used as fuel. Handling of biomass in this manner on global level is gain popularity at a rapid pace and Pakistan can benefit from the international experience and expertise.
- If tree species are introduced such that the wood is used in fixtures as well as in construction, the C sequestered will enter into a fixed pool for centuries to come. This is being practiced at large scale in many countries.
- Methane is produced mainly from lowland agriculture (flooded rice, especially Basmati rice that is the speciality of Pakistan), marshlands, and animal farming. Methane generation and emissions can be reduced by adopting measures like:
- Reverting to upland agriculture and/or introducing crop varieties that do well under upland conditions.
- Reducing the use of meat by introducing a cut on animal slaughtering. For this approach serious lobbying and advocacy will be required to lure people towards preferential use of vegetables and pulses.
- Integration of climate change and energy policy objectives because today’s investment will lock in the infrastructure, fuel and technologies to be used in future. The building and transport infrastructure put in place today should meet the design needs of the future. Therefore, greater attention must be paid to energy efficiency requirements in building codes and long-term transport planning.
Melting and breaking apart of glaciers because of natural disasters is. Also, considering the geography of Pakistan, such natural disasters are expected to become an often, if not frequent, occurrence. Climate change projections are scenario based and fairly uncertain but there are strong indications that in South Asia, particularly in Pakistan, climate change is intensifying the above-mentioned hazards. Pakistan is already experiencing climate change impacts which are too visible to ignore. These include increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, including floods, droughts, cyclones, landslides triggered by heavy rains and urban flooding due to congestion of storm drainage.
Occurrence of floods due to torrential rains in the catchment areas upstream has been a common phenomenon in Pakistan with devastating consequences to settlements and agriculture. Contribution of glaciers could become an additional threat that may be considered serious in view of global climate change and frequent earthquakes. Resultant change in volumetric flow rates of rivers and flooding is a matter of great concern for Pakistan as most disasters or hazards that lead to destruction cannot be prevented. However, the impact can be minimized by preparedness and adaptation of appropriate measures on war footings that may include i) restrictions on settlements in flood-prone areas, ii) construction of dams, and iii) deepening of river beds etc.You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ for more updates. Otherwise fill in the subscription box above, or subscribe to our RSS Feed.