The view from Pakistan: new lakes form another risk in the Karakorum

Our correspondent Ian Packham reports exclusively for Environment Journal from Pakistan, as he travels around the country by foot tracking the effects of the climate crisis. 

If my walk through the Karakorum has proved anything, it’s that these mountains remain largely untamed. Though individual peaks have been conquered, the Karakorum is one of few parts of the world which we haven’t been able to drastically alter – deliberately in any case. 

The Karakorum Highway may pass through on its way to China, but it twists and turns around the mountains following the routes that rivers have carved out over thousands of years. Population centres don’t get bigger than villages, whose buildings are often composed of timber or round river stones held in place with river mud. But lives here are already being affected – and cut short – by the impact of a changing climate, as I discover following the Hunza River south from the village of Passu. 

The obvious visual is that of a collapsed bridge at Hasanabad, destroyed by flooding in April, a video of which made it to international broadcasters. A member of the tourist police, who haunt odd corners of the country on the lookout for confused travellers, guides me around it’s stout, modern concrete piers, which now stand at odd angles in the river bed. Fully-grown trees lie on their sides, still partially tied to the earth by their roots. 

The policeman points out the temporary bridge with a 20 ton maximum vehicle weight limit, the sort that is used in wartime by armies, which has been put in place just up river. A dusty track taking over from the black tar of the Karakorum Highway links to it. Elsewhere, my route is met with smaller landslips, covering the road surface in a mix of mud and debris. One is so fresh a bulldozer co-opted into action is still on the scene. 

These are very real demonstrations of the power of flowing water in this part of the world. But they are only the equivalent of a mosquito compared to the Punjab’s black winged kites if fears in the region are ever realised. 

The cause is that temperatures in the Himalayas are rising three times faster than the global average. They rose 1.5°C between 1975 and 2005. Increases in temperature not only risk uncontrolled glacier melt, but also alter local weather patterns. Warmer air can hold more water, leading to heavier rain. This in turn results in destabilization of the steep slopes common to the Karakorum. You don’t stand beneath a rock wall here, even if it’s the only shade you can find. 

In what remains of Attabad, they know this only too well. It was January 2010, and a landslide destroyed much of the village. Twenty-one people died. It could have been 20,000, since the landslide blocked the flow of the Hunza River, causing a build-up of water which threatened to send a tsunami downstream at any moment. As the level of the new lake rose, around 1,000 homes, largely belonging to small scale farmers and their families, were lost along with the fields they cultivated. 

Eventually, Pakistan’s skilled military engineers managed to create a spillway which siphoned off excess water, stabilising the level of Attabad Lake – as it became known – and reinstituting the river’s flow. 

Scientists in Pakistan believe the landslide was only possible because of changing weather patterns, meaning what happened to Attabad isn’t likely to be a one-off. In fact, since 2018, 3,000 lakes have formed in the region due to a mix of landslides and glacial melt. Thirty-three are currently causing concern, with a new monitoring program being put in place – money that could be better spent in a country with limited government funds. 

The irony is that because of its developmental status, Pakistan has contributed very little to climate change. Yet, it is one of the countries deemed to be most affected, with landslides just one of a number of growing emergencies that must be countered. Perhaps Babur, a resident of nearby Nasirabad summed it up best when he said to me ‘the weather is bad now.’ Already, Pakistan is feeling the impact of climate change it has very little responsibility for.  


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