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Chitral floods: Why melting glaciers may not be the cause

As widespread flooding devastates large parts of the Chitral District, paralysing life in Mustuj, Lot Koh and the Kalash valleys, government experts are putting most of the blame on what, in climate change lingo, is described as “Glacial Lake Outburst Floods” or GLOFs.

GLOFs are floods caused by valley glaciers melting because of warmer temperatures in the summer months, and forming lakes – hidden or visible – which then break out of the moraine and ice that dams them. The water gushes below into the valleys at great speeds, destroying everything in its path.

A couple of years ago, I visited Sonughure village in north Chitral to witness the devastation caused by a GLOF earlier. Around half the village had been wiped out and the ground was covered with huge boulders and sand (brought down by the flood), which rendered it unusable for agriculture.

The local villagers were worried about the possibility of their valley glacier, perched high above on a mountain ridge, melting again because of high temperatures in the summers.

Last week, the National Disaster Management Authority issued a fresh GLOF warning. However, in the recent floods in Chitral, eyewitnesses have reported another phenomenon altogether.

Read on: Lost livestock: Bleak days ahead for flood-affected Chitralis

Glacial melt or monsoon rains?
Zainab Alam, a mother of three, told me that she had never seen it rain like this in Chitral before; nonstop rains every day for weeks. And she has spent every summer of her life in Chitral, where her family runs a hotel, the imposing Hindu Kush mountains located above Chitral town.

Zainab’s father, Siraj-ul-Mulk, who has been a pilot for most of his life and can recognise monsoon clouds, suggested that the monsoon has shifted to higher altitudes from upper Punjab all the way to Chitral, Skardu and Gilgit; it is now penetrating the north of Pakistan.

The Hindu Kush range which passes through Chitral, is made up of towering mountains with little greenery; when it rains, the water rushes off the steep slopes and below into the nullahs, streams and rivers cutting through the mountains.

Siraj doesn’t believe that the floods were caused due to melting glaciers. He claims that Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) pilots who fly to Chitral told him that the clouds spread from Skardu to Chitral, and that they had never seen this cloud formation at this time of the year before.

The floods have caused immense damage to large parts of the district, destroying homes, bridges, roads, orchards, standing crops and water channels and killing hundreds of livestock. The newer concrete bridges could not withstand the floods like the earlier suspension bridges.

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