Affordable Measures

02 Dec 2013

Tsho Rolpa Glacial Lake, one of the lakes potentially dangerous for GLOF Tsho Rolpa Glacial Lake, one of the lakes potentially dangerous for GLOF. Photo by Deepak KC / UNDP Nepal

GLOF risk reduction effort should focus on innovating affordable community-led measures

Shoko Noda

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region in Asia is home to over 200 million people. In addition over a billion people downstream depend on the rivers and waterways that are fed by these glaciers. As the impacts of climate change become apparent, glaciers in these mountain ranges appear increasingly vulnerable to changing climactic conditions.

Loss of glaciers means loss of critical storehouse of freshwater for future generations. It also means an increase in the glacial related disasters, such as glacial lake outbursts floods (GLOFs). Thousands of glacial lakes have already been formed behind the thinning and unstable ice dams. The sudden collapse of such dams can cause catastrophic floods that destroy lives, forests, property, farms and infrastructure. The devastating power of GLOFs can reach hundreds of kilometers downstream uprooting communities and infrastructure in their wake.

Even large scale international assistance may not be adequate to address the enormous scope of the challenge. There are over 20,000 glacial lakes in the Himalayas and in Nepal alone 3 are considered to be in potentially dangerous state, according to a 2009 study by International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). As the global temperature rise many more glacial lakes would join the danger list. This calls for broad partnership to develop affordable and easily replicable solutions to the glacial lakes and accompanying challenges.

Catastrophic event like a GLOF can reverse many decades of development gains and can cause serious setbacks in socio-economic progress. The ensuing flood from glacial lake outburst in Dig Tsho Lake in Nepal in 1985 is a dramatic reminder of the tragedy in the making.

With discussion on impact of climate change gaining prominence, the focus, of late, has been rightly on the receding glaciers and the threat from GLOF. But the challenge so far has been the ability to identify and develop scientifically sound, affordable and cost-effective options for GLOF risk reduction.

Most mountain communities are not technologically sophisticated and installing expensive technology raises serious questions about maintenance and sustainability.

Reducing threat from GLOFs is an expensive undertaking at the moment. But it need not be that way. Encouraging innovation that leads to affordable and quickly replicable models should be the focus. This would require collaboration and partnership between knowledge organizations, scientific institutions and development partners to develop simple and effective technology that is easy to install to reduce water from glacial lakes and is more cost effective to maintain. Educating the communities on installing low-tech community based early warning system should also be a priority.