Tajikistan: Melting glaciers pose growing threat in the Pamirs

KHOROG, 25 June 2007 (IRIN) - Changing climatic conditions and warming temperatures are increasing the risk of natural hazards posed by melting glaciers in the Pamir mountains of eastern Tajikistan.

"Climate change is bringing various challenges to the life of the local population. In the last five years we have observed a rise in local temperatures of up to three degrees centigrade here," said Kurbonbek Rustambekov, a hydrometeorologist in Tajikistan's Gorno Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAP), an area encompassing the Pamirs.

In Tajikistan the impact of climate change is mostly observed on glaciers, say officials.

There are six large glaciers in the Pamirs. Two of them - Medvejiy, and another called the Russian Geographic Society (RGS) glacier - have been posing a threat to villagers living in GBAP's Vanj District for the past decade. The RGS glacier is 21km long, 300-400 metres wide and 150 metres high.

"Medvejiy is from the family of pulsing glaciers. These kinds of glacier slip down after an amount of new ice has accumulated on the top of the glacier. Thus Medvejiy moves periodically downhill every 12-15 years," said Aleksandr Fianev, a senior expert at Tajikistan's Institute of Water issues and Glaciers.

The Fedchenko glacier is a large glacier in the Pamirs in central Tajikistan. The glacier is long and narrow, currently 77km long and covering over 700sqkm. It is the longest glacier in the world outside of the polar regions. The maximum thickness of the glacier is 1,000 metres, and the volume of the Fedchenko and its dozens of tributaries is estimated at 144 cu. km - about a third of the volume of Lake Erie, the 10th largest lake in the world and one of the Great Lakes of North America.

The Tajik government has recently expressed concern that the Fedchenko and other Pamir glaciers have been shrinking due to global warming and that continuing temperature increases could endanger that nation's water supply and increase the risk of natural disasters, including floods and landslides.

"Emergency situation"

The Medvejiy and RGS glaciers are slipping towards Poi Mazor village in the area, about 200km west of Khorog, the provincial capital, local officials say.

Observations in April 2007 indicated that the RGS Glacier moved five metres in only 10 days.

"This is an emergency situation. The Ministry of Emergency Situations is establishing an observation point close to the glacier borders," Gulshod Nasrulloev, deputy head of the provincial emergency department, told IRIN in Khorog.

"But there is no equipment to observe the danger. We put a stick in one point and measure every day the distance from the glacier to that stick. That's how we measure the movement of the glacier," Nasrulloev said.

The danger is that the glacier could block the River Abdulkhahor just 15 metres away, and a glacial lake could be formed. The lake would eventually burst its banks as the glacier melted, experts said - and when the lake bursts it could sweep away 4,600 people and 18 villages.

"We provided a helicopter to assess the situation and the danger the glacier poses. In partnership with the Ministry of Emergency we set up a radio (VHF/Codan) link with Poi Mazor village as well as other downstream villages in Vanj District," said Abdulhamid Gayosov of the Disaster Response Team with the US non-governmental organisation Focus.

In August 2002, 24 people died and 70 homes were destroyed after part of a glacier melted and caused a landslide in the area's Roshtkala District.

"The entire GBAP region is prone to various natural disasters. From time to time big parts of the mountain fall down on the villages or landslides and avalanches happen. There have been many disasters. Thus we are planning to establish Emergency Committees in 40 sub-districts. Members of the committees will be trained to deal with different emergency situations," Gayosov added.

UNEP warning on glaciers

The future of hundreds of millions of people across the world will be affected by reductions in snow cover, sea ice, glaciers, permafrost and lake ice, a UN Environment Programme (UNEP) report launched on World Environment Day on 4 June said.

An estimated 40 percent of the world's population could be affected by loss of snow and glaciers in the mountains of Asia, said UNEP in its report Global Outlook for Ice and Snow.

The report highlighted that lakes would be formed as a result of melting glaciers, thus increasing the risks of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs). Such lakes could potentially release up to 100 million cu. m. of water at speeds of up to 10,000 metres a second down into vulnerable valleys.

Mountain regions at risk include the Himalayas, Tien Shan and the Pamirs of Tajikistan but also the Andes and the European Alps, the report added.