Guardians of the glaciers - life beside Pakistan’s vanishing ice

The rapid melting of Pakistan’s icy giants is creating hardships and challenges for the vulnerable communities dependent on them.

Pakistan glaciers
Trekkers hike down the Baltoro glacier in the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan. As the ice melts due to global warming, Pakistan's rivers are faced with flooding [Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters]
Trekkers hike down the Baltoro glacier in the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan. As the ice melts due to global warming, Pakistan's rivers are faced with flooding [Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters]

Skardu, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan - As we make our way towards Pakistan's first organic village, an intense one-hour trek along the rugged, steep and unfenced mountainside pathway from Mindoq-Khar, near Kharpocho Fort, my legs are shaking with a mix of fear and strain.

The sharp mountain edges stick out threateningly, and I am reminded of the soulful lyrics of Ali Zafar's Paharon Ki Qasam (Oaths of the Mountains), a tribute to the late Pakistani climbing hero, Muhammad Ali Sadpara from Skardu, who tragically lost his life in February 2021 while climbing the notorious Bottleneck gully which is just 300 metres (984 feet) below the summit of K2.

Above us, the sky is a brilliant shade of blue, adding to the surreal beauty of the landscape. As we gain a wider view of the Indus River Valley below us, our 44-year-old guide, Abbas Jaan, stops and draws our attention to the colour of the water.

"You can see the water turning a murky grey, carrying with it the particles from the retreating glaciers," he says, his eyes scanning the slow-flowing waves of this vital drinking water supply. “And even though it's grey," he adds, "the glacial water is mineral-rich and incredibly pure."

"But, year by year, these glaciers are melting fast. They are decreasing," he says, pointing towards the thousands of smaller glacier peaks that surround us in the far distance; some mountains are snow-covered while others are dry and brown.

The city of Skardu, from where we have departed, sits some 2,228 metres (7,310 feet) above sea level. It is the gateway to the Karakoram mountain range and some of the world's highest peaks such as K2, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum, making it a popular destination for trekkers and mountaineers who come to marvel at the breathtaking scenery.

Pakistan glaciers
Following the rugged, fenceless path to the organic village, Khari Nangsoq [Anam Hussain/Al Jazeera]

With a population of more than 200,000, the city boasts a rich cultural blend influenced by Tibetan, Balti and other Central Asian traditions, where diverse Islamic sects, including Noor Bakshi, Sunni and Shia, coexist.

But this region of Pakistan is also home to more than 7,000 glaciers - the largest number outside the earth’s polar regions.

These icy giants are far more than just a breathtaking natural spectacle; they are vital to the local ecosystem.

They serve as a crucial source of freshwater, sustaining agriculture and powering electricity generation through the meltwater that feeds into rivers.

Now, however, their existence is under threat.

A 2019 study (PDF) published in the Pakistan Geographical Review by Lahore College for Women University, highlights the increasingly unusual behaviour of glaciers in the Karakoram range, compared with glaciers in other parts of the world.

The Baltoro Glacier is a particular example. Spanning some 63km (39 miles) in length, the Baltoro is one of the longest glaciers in the world outside the polar regions. Its width varies, but generally ranges from two to three kilometres. The meltwater from the Baltoro Glaciers feeds the Shigar River, which is the main right-bank tributary of the Indus River Valley in the Skardu Valley.

It is an essential source of freshwater for this region and beyond, but the study showed that the glacier has been decreasing in size by 0.9 percent each year between 2003 and 2017.

The immediate effect of the shrinking glacier is a rise in water levels and even dangerous flooding in the Shigar River.

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

Locally, roads have been known to have become completely submerged when water levels rise too high, says Chris Lininger, founder and director of US-based travel company Epic Expeditions, who has been travelling across Pakistan's intricate terrains, including the Baltoro Glacier, since 2018.

“I actually had a problem coming out of a trip when the floods happened in 2022 because the road was just gone,” he says over a Zoom call. "Many [locals] are already in a low socioeconomic state, and when this happens, it's catastrophic for them."

But the extreme long-term effect will be even more deadly - the water will eventually dry up when the glacier is gone.

Pakistan glaciers
A helicopter flies past the escarpments of the Himalayas close to Skardu, Pakistan [Chris Jackson/Getty Images]
A helicopter flies past the escarpments of the Himalayas close to Skardu, Pakistan [Chris Jackson/Getty Images]

‘The mountains don’t care about anyone’

Muhammad Ali Sadpara's legacy looms large over the landscape surrounding Skardu, from where he braved the harsh conditions of the Baltoro glacier with only second-hand kit. As I imagine the daring paths he must have conquered, I am constantly alert to the risk of slipping and, during the start of this difficult trek, I resist the urge to even look up or around.

Locally known as Khari Nangsoq, the organic village we are trekking towards, is devoted to the preservation of the region’s traditional lifestyle.

As research from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) highlights, glacial melting here has been occurring since the early 1900s, largely, it says as a result of “human activities” such as industrial farming and burning fossil fuels which release carbon dioxide and other global warming gases into the atmosphere.

The organic and traditional farming practices employed by this village are part of an approach aimed at reversing the rise in greenhouse gases.

In 2006, the village gained some attention when the United Kingdom's then-Prince Charles, now king, and Prince Karim Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims, as well as a notable philanthropist and business magnate, visited.

Our guide escorting us to the village, Abbas, is dressed casually in blue jeans and a white shirt. Alongside him is his 16-year-old son, Yasir Abbas, with a cap playfully turned backwards atop his head and a blue backpack. Together, they carry forward their family’s tour-guiding business here.

As father and son lead the way with confident strides, I and my trekking partner, Afzaal Hussain, 34, a digital marketing expert, sport professional and, like me, a curious traveller from Lahore, find ourselves taking baby steps.

"The mountains don't care about anyone. Respect them, and they will respect you back. Indeed, each step needs to be soft and cautious," says Afzaal.

Pakistan glaciers
The guides, Abbas and his 16-year-old son, Yasir. 'Without the glaciers, our existence is at stake,' says Abbas [Anam Hussain/Al Jazeera]

Along the way, we learn more about the melting glaciers. Abbas says he has witnessed firsthand the dramatic changes taking place here. Soon, he worries, there could be a sharp reduction in the amount of water here as a result of the shrinking glaciers. “Without them, without water, our very existence would be at stake. The glaciers are the backbone of our region," he adds.

This looming crisis in the Hindu Kush Himalayas region, which the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) last year described as a pivotal "global asset" and the "water tower of Asia" in its own report (PDF), is already becoming apparent.

In the summer of 2023, Skardu suffered a rare water shortage when the Satpara Dam, which stores and releases water run-off from the glaciers, ran low. "Last summer was the first time in my life that I witnessed such a significant water shortage in the Satpara Dam,” Sadpara says. “It's a direct consequence of the melting glaciers and reduced water flow.”

Ten years before, in 2013, Pakistan's Federal Minister for Science and Technology, Zahid Hamid, had addressed the inaugural ceremony of the International Conference on Plants, People, and Climate, and warned: "By the year 2035, the country will no longer have water reserves in the form of glaciers."

And, even before that, a 2008 report from the Pakistan Meteorological Department (PDF), warned that the Siachen Glacier, located in the eastern Karakoram range of the Himalayan mountains and stretching for more than 70km (43 miles), "has lost about 2km of its length and 17 percent of its ice mass since 1989".

Skardu as it sits at the foot of the mountains (AJ Labs)

Our guide, Abbas, who is intimately familiar with the Siachen and Baltoro glaciers, seems sorrowful when he says, "I've seen glaciers retreat by at least one kilometre in just a few years."

As well as guiding visitors to this area, he also actively participates in research initiatives and projects and aims to educate visitors about the fragile ecosystems and environmental challenges facing these majestic landscapes.

In July 2018, the Government of Pakistan and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), launched a five-year, $37m project to invest in early warning systems, training on glacial lake outburst flooding (GLOF), preparedness and response, and the construction of new protective infrastructure. "This project operated under my supervision in Skardu," Abbas explains. "I served as their guide for two years, during which they worked directly on these glaciers."

Pakistan glaciers
Satpara Lake where the dam, which stores and releases water runoff from the glaciers, ran low causing water shortages in Skardu last summer [Anam Hussain/Al Jazeera]
Satpara Lake where the dam, which stores and releases water runoff from the glaciers, ran low causing water shortages in Skardu last summer [Anam Hussain/Al Jazeera]

Plastic peril

The sun casts a warm, golden hue over the vast expanse of the landscape as we continue our journey along the edgeless tracks. We cross small, rickety wooden bridges that creak under our weight and navigate a sloping, desert-like trail.

Trees sprout from the sand at odd angles, their roots clinging to the earth, seemingly challenging gravity and adding to the mystical allure of the scenery.

As we teeter on along the path, a young boy dressed in a neat school uniform, about eight years old, strides confidently past us at a brisk pace. His heavy backpack, filled with books, does not seem to slow him down.

He pauses just ahead of us and tells us proudly, "This is my way to school in Skardu city every day from my home in Khari Nangsoq." Then, seemingly unaware of the changes occurring around him - the retreating glaciers that are slowly reshaping the landscape and threatening the very environment that sustains his community - he joyfully skips off down the trail ahead.

We marvel at his ease in navigating this challenging terrain, contrasting sharply with our own heavy breathing, and Abbas explains, "Because you were born at ground level, your lungs are a normal size. But those of us born at high altitudes have larger lung volumes."

Pakistan glaciers
'There's a magic here and that magic needs to be protected': Chris Lininger and his team collect rubbish from the mountainside. Plastic focuses the heat of the sun and exacerbates the problem of global warming here [Courtesy of Chris Lininger]

Meanwhile, Yasir picks up rubbish left behind by previous trekkers and puts it in the bin nearby. "Taking care of our environment is everyone's responsibility, and I want to do my part," he says.

This might seem a small gesture to some, but rubbish left abandoned on the mountainside is a large part of the problem facing the glaciers.

When plastic rubbish is left lying on the ground or in the shrubbery, it absorbs the heat from the sun and can accelerate glacier melt, according to scientists. Dark-coloured plastics are a particular problem - they absorb more solar radiation, leading to localised heating and melting of the glacier surface.

Abbas says that when trekkers take horses along the glacier areas, the waste they leave behind stains the pristine ice, causing a permanent discolouration on the land.

“This reminds us of the lasting impact human activities can have on delicate ecosystems," he says.

Glacier map
The Siachen glacier, in the eastern Karakoram mountain range, stretches for more than 70km (AJ Labs)

Later, after the journey is over, Chris Lininger of US-based Epic Expeditions tells me over a Zoom call that "Rubbish is a big problem, especially in the Baltoro and Central Karakoram National Park. You see Coca-Cola bottles.

“During our treks, we also like to organise glacier clean-ups with local porters and pay them to assist. It sends a message that littering isn't acceptable, and it encourages other companies to be mindful, too. It's an ongoing effort," he says.

One solution would be for tourists to pay a levy to help reduce rubbish, he suggests. "Nepal collects rubbish deposit payments from expeditions. It's pretty standard, that's how national parks generate income. I also think Pakistan can take an example from Nepal and maybe make the visa process a bit easier and charge more money for the visas as Nepal does and use that money.

"There's a magic there and that magic needs to be protected."

Pakistan glaciers
Snow along the route from Skardu to Khari Nangsoq [Anam Hussain/Al Jazeera]
Snow along the route from Skardu to Khari Nangsoq [Anam Hussain/Al Jazeera]

Learning from our ancestors

As we finally arrive at our destination, a wooden signboard greets us with the words: "Welcome to the first organic village."

The air here is noticeably cooler than it was back in Skardu and the sounds of gushing water and birds chirping create a soothing melody.

Traditional stone-and-wooden houses dot the landscape, complemented by a treehouse restaurant. Small streams of water flow through, undoubtedly from glacier melts, reflecting the community's sustainable lifestyle and close connection to the surrounding environment. The village is surrounded by fields in which the villagers cultivate a variety of organic fruits and vegetables, including apricots, mulberries and potatoes.

Pakistan glaciers
The entrance to the organic village [Anam Hussain/Al Jazeera]

Yasir explains, "This village employs traditional methods of cultivation, relying on bulls and cows instead of modern machinery, to minimise environmental impact.”

In addition, the absence of vehicle pollution underscores the village's commitment to environmental sustainability.

The villagers keep yaks, sheep and goats which graze freely on the lush green pastures, contributing to the natural balance of the environment and providing valuable resources for the community.

As Abbas looks at the animals, he becomes reflective, "Glacier melting has also put certain species at risk of extinction. For example, the Snow Leopard, which relies on snow and glaciers, is particularly affected."

Pakistan is one of only 12 countries that are home to these elusive cats, and 80 percent of their habitat in the country is located in Gilgit-Baltistan. Melting glaciers have reduced the availability of freshwater and disrupted the delicate balance of the ecosystem, impacting the Snow Leopard's prey and habitat.

As we explore the organic village, we find various sustainable farming practices, including innovative water conservation and irrigation practices and the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar.

Pakistan glaciers
The treehouse at the organic village [Anam Hussain/Al Jazeera]

Abbas introduces us to Hassan, a respected elder who owns the village's only treehouse. He tells us, "Sustainability is more than a trend here; it's a generational responsibility to protect our unique ecosystem."

We learn of an ancient potato storage method, through which farmers bury potatoes in the frozen earth before winter, keeping them fresh for months due to the natural insulation. The method is thought to have originated from the region’s harsh winter climate.

For now, the organic village of Khari Nangsoq serves as a symbol of hope, resilience and the possibility of a harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. While it may not directly slow down the harm to glaciers, it does highlight the importance of adopting sustainable practices and traditional wisdom when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change.

Before we bid farewell, Hassan treats us to a delicious spread of mulberry jam with bread, thick apricot juice and freshly caught trout from the local glacial streams.

As we walk back, Abbas shares his thoughts on the urgent need for global action. "While it's heartening to see efforts like the organic village, it's crucial for the international community to step up and take collective action. Climate change is a global issue, and we need global solutions."

Pakistan glaciers
A view from the Siachen glacier, which is one of the world's largest outside the polar regions and sits at 8,000 metres (26,250 feet) high [Behlul Cetinkaya/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]
A view from the Siachen glacier, which is one of the world's largest outside the polar regions and sits at 8,000 metres (26,250 feet) high [Behlul Cetinkaya/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

‘At first, you don’t realise’

Back at our hotel in Skardu, a diverse group of trekkers has gathered below in the garden, visible through the large glass windows of the dining room where we are sipping our tea.

With their gear spread out on the ground, they're preparing for an ambitious 25-day trek in the Karakoram mountain range, along the Baltoro Glacier to the Gondogoro Pass - south of K2, linking the Gondogoro Glacier to the southwest with the Vigne Glacier to the northeast.

The trek will be led by Victor Saunders, a distinguished British climber who has completed some of the world's most challenging mountaineering routes.

At 63km long, the Baltoro glacier is one of the world's largest outside the polar regions (AJ Labs)

Intrigued by the sight of a large group of foreign trekkers - a rarity in Pakistan's tourism landscape - Afzaal decides to head down to the garden, and I join him.

Around us, the crisp air is filled with the sounds of clinking carabiners, harnesses and helmets. The towering majesty of the mountains and tall green trees form a breathtaking backdrop as conversations begin to unfold.

Afzaal, carrying a camera around his neck, captures the group with the stunning Karakoram range behind them. "Seeing so many passionate travellers here gives me hope and excitement for the future of tourism in our country, " he says. "It also fosters cultural exchange and understanding."

Victor explains that he has been visiting Pakistan since the 1970s and has also witnessed a great deal of change in the glacial region.

His eyes framed by black-rimmed glasses and dressed in a light blue t-shirt, Saunders explains, "Walking up the Baltoro towards Concordia and K2 Base Camp, you can really see the enormous changes.

"The glaciers have definitely receded, they've noticeably gotten thinner," he says, with a hint of sadness.

Pakistan glaciers
Local men sit on the mountaintop across from the Spantik Peak, which sits at 7,400 metres (24,300 feet) in the Karakoram range in Pakistan and where mountaineers say shepherding outposts have been deserted because of a lack of water [Mian Khursheed/For The Washington Post via Getty Images]

He also highlights some of the effects observed in the local community due to the changes in the glacier and landscape.

"The routes have changed a little bit. For example, If you go up to Spantik peak from Nagar Valley or from the Hunza area, there were previously villagers with shepherding outlets. For instance, there was one above Hopar in the Nagar Valley that had to be abandoned. The glacier had shifted so significantly that accessing water became impossible for them."

These outlets, integral to the community's livelihood and local pastoral tradition, not only provide income but are also deeply rooted in the region's culture. The glacier shifts disrupt more than just the environment; they threaten the economy and way of life that has sustained the community for generations.

Victor explains the glacier's subtle, yet dramatic, changes. "Unless you're actually looking at the tongue [the narrow, projecting end] of the glacier, you don't really notice. When you look at your old photographs or diaries, you suddenly realise that there's an extra kilometre to walk, and the paths you once walked in have suddenly become much more difficult. You used to be able to first walk into K2 Base Camp just on a flat glacier. Now, when you come to Concordia, you have to cross quite deep ice ravines, ice valleys."

He likens these changes to "watching an ageing parent with Alzheimer's, where the changes every year are very small. However, if you were to return after 10 years, the differences would seem very big. It's like what happens when your parents begin to age and become forgetful. At first, you don't realise."

Pakistan glaciers
A view of the Shigar Valley, close to Skardu in Pakistan [Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images]
A view of the Shigar Valley, close to Skardu in Pakistan [Emeric Fohlen/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

‘A lot of water comes’

"I've been trekking to the Baltoro Glacier since 1994, so it's been 30 years now," says Wazir, a local guide who will be accompanying Victor's group on their expedition. He is from the district of Shigar, a one-and-a-half-hour drive from Skardu city, speaking in Urdu in the soft Balti accent. Wearing a blue shalwar kameez, he seems to blend seamlessly into the mountainous landscape.

"We walk for at least seven to eight hours a day to reach K2 base camp and the glacier points," he explains, sitting on the floor and sorting through the climbing gear.

Working with Victor for this expedition, Wazir's local expertise is crucial for navigating the challenging terrain.

He is also eager to talk about the glaciers and the effect their melting is having on his own community.

"Bohat ziyaada paani ata hai," he tells us: “A lot of water comes.”

Pakistan glaciers
Wazir, a local guide who is preparing a trek with a group of climbers, explains how the Shigar River close to his home is overwhelmed by melting ice from the glaciers in the summer months. 'It tears away at the land that it has nourished all year, carrying away precious soil, crops, and fields in its path,' he says [Anam Hussain/Al Jazeera]

The area he lives in near the town of Shigar is surrounded by fields of wheat and potatoes which stretch along the winding riverbanks, he says. But in recent years as the warm months of July and August have arrived, the glaciers have released an overwhelming rush of water which has threatened on occasion to overwhelm the communities there.

“The water sweeps down from the mountains with incredible force, filling up the Shigar River,” Wazir explains. “It tears away at the land that it has nourished all year, carrying away precious soil, crops, and fields in its path.

He is heartbroken, he says, to know that it is the very glaciers which he loves so dearly and which have sustained the communities of his home for so long that are now threatening their existence.

(AJ Labs)

"In Shigar, the homes of the people are often destroyed by floods triggered by these glacial melts, sending stones and dirt surging from the river outside. There's little we can do on our own. The government needs to implement strategies to address these issues, but so far, nothing has been done."

These guides and mountaineers, who are witnessing firsthand the alarming changes to this terrain are the ones ringing the warning bells, demanding global attention, advocacy, and action. As Pakistan's glaciers continue their retreat, the human stories from these icy landscapes serve as reminders of the interconnectedness of human beings, their culture and the environment that sustains - or threatens - them.

For our guide, Abbas, these glaciers hold a significance that goes far beyond just supporting livelihoods and sustaining the ecosystem; they are deeply woven into his identity and heritage.

"I am a man who grew up around these glaciers," he says. "To me, they're more than just ice and water; they're the backdrop of my childhood, where our water comes from, and a symbol of our connection to the land."

Source: Al Jazeera