Melting Mountains, Mounting Challenges Pakistanis Face Life Without Glaciers

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A Shadow on the Snows: Pakistan’s Melting Glaciers Threaten a Way of Life

A Treacherous Trek to Pakistan’s First Organic Village

The unforgiving mountain path stretched before me, a rugged, steep climb that snaked along the unforgiving slopes of Mindoq-Khar, near Skardu’s historic Kharpocho Fort. The one-hour trek tested my endurance, but the fear that gripped my legs was a mere echo compared to the awe-inspiring beauty that surrounded me. The sharp mountain edges, jutting out like a formidable challenge, brought to mind the melancholic lyrics of Ali Zafar’s “Paharon Ki Qasam” (Oaths of the Mountains), a poignant tribute to the fallen Pakistani mountaineering hero, Muhammad Ali Sadpara, who lost his life on K2’s notorious Bottleneck gully just a few years ago.

A Changing Landscape: Crystal Clear Waters and Murky Realities

As we ascended, the vastness of the Indus River Valley unfolded beneath us, a breathtaking panorama painted in shades of emerald and gold. But a note of concern entered the picture when our guide, Abbas Jaan, a seasoned 44-year-old with a deep connection to these mountains, pointed towards the river.

“See how the water is turning a murky gray?” he said, his voice etched with worry. “That’s the glacial retreat at work, carrying particles downstream.” He paused, then added, “Even in its altered state, the glacial water remains a vital source of life. It’s rich in minerals and surprisingly pure.”

A shadow flickered across his face as he continued, “But these glaciers, these magnificent giants, are melting at an alarming rate. Every year, they shrink a little more.” A vast expanse of snow-capped peaks stretched into the distance, a testament to the region’s glacial crown. Yet, amidst the white brilliance, mountains stood bare and brown, stark reminders of the changing landscape.

Skardu: A Gateway to Adventure and a Region Under Threat

Our journey began in Skardu, a bustling city perched 2,228 meters (7,310 feet) above sea level. This historic gateway to the mighty Karakoram mountains, home to K2, Broad Peak, and Gasherbrum, is a haven for trekkers and mountaineers seeking adventure amidst breathtaking scenery. Beyond its natural allure, Skardu boasts a rich cultural tapestry, a vibrant blend of Tibetan, Balti, and Central Asian influences, where diverse Islamic sects like Noor Bakshi, Sunni, and Shia coexist peacefully.

But beneath the surface of this cultural kaleidoscope lies a stark reality. This region, cradled in the lap of the Himalayas, is also home to over 7,000 glaciers – the most extensive collection outside the Earth’s polar regions. These icy giants are much more than a visual spectacle; they are the lifeblood of the ecosystem. They are the source of freshwater that sustains agriculture, generates hydroelectric power through meltwater-fed rivers, and plays a vital role in maintaining the delicate ecological balance.

Glaciers map

The position of the Baltoro and Sachien glaciers in Pakistan (AJ Labs)

A Disappearing Source of Life: Shrinking Glaciers and Rising Concerns

However, this vital resource is under siege. A 2019 study published in the Pakistan Geographical Review by Lahore College for Women University revealed a disturbing trend – the glaciers in the Karakoram range are behaving differently compared to their counterparts in other parts of the world. The Baltoro Glacier, a titan among them, stretches an impressive 63 kilometers (39 miles) and feeds the Shigar River, a crucial tributary of the Indus River that sustains the Skardu Valley and beyond. But the study paints a grim picture: between 2003 and 2017, the Baltoro Glacier has shrunk by a staggering 0.9% annually.

The immediate consequence of this glacial retreat is a rise in water levels, leading to dangerous floods in the Shigar River. Chris Lininger, founder of the US-based travel company Epic Expeditions, has witnessed this firsthand. Since 2018, he has been exploring the intricate landscapes of Pakistan, including the Baltoro Glacier.

“I was caught in a flood once,” he recounts over a Zoom call, his voice carrying the weight of his experience. “The rising water levels completely submerged the road, leaving people stranded. Many in these communities are already struggling financially, and such events are catastrophic.”

But the long-term threat is far more daunting. Once the glaciers disappear, the source of freshwater will vanish, leaving behind a parched and desolate landscape. This is not just a looming threat; it’s a stark reality staring down the communities nestled amidst these majestic mountains.

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