Glacier-Melting Talk Cuts No Ice with Scientists

Map: CIA World Factbook

Pakistan’s plan to melt glaciers in an effort to deliver water to farmers in drought-stricken areas is drawing fire from scientists, the government’s own officials, and environmental groups, all of whom have a single warning: Don’t mess around with glaciers. [According to the Urdu Daily Jang of Karachi (May 4), the government has decided not to melt the glaciers—WPR]

The military government said on March 29 that it was considering melting glaciers in Pakistan’s northern areas, using lasers or charcoal, in order to solve a water crisis that has ballooned into a political problem across the country. The proposal came from the Agriculture Ministry, which is in a fix over severe damage, wreaked by years of drought, to major crops such as wheat in predominantly agricultural Pakistan.
Pakistan has already suffered more than US$1.5 billion in losses through lower crop yields and subsequent food imports, lost employment, and low industrial output, the government says.

“The financial loss will climb as water shortages delay the sowing of cotton,” a Finance Ministry official said.

“Our wheat crop is already damaged,” an Agriculture Ministry spokesman said. “Against the domestic requirement of 18 million tons, we are expecting a crop yield of no more than 13 to 14 million tons.”

The government has already barred rice growers in Sindh province from planting rice in the coming year for lack of water.

Pakistan depends on water from melted glacier and snow ranges—flowing into the Indus River system—to irrigate 80 percent of the 21.49 million hectares (48.8 million acres) of farmland through a network of canals. These frozen water reserves discharge an average of 140 million acre-feet of water every year. The rest comes from monsoon rains.
The glaciers and snow ranges are located in the Himalayan and Karakorum mountain ranges bordering China and India.
But, reports Hasnain Afzal, project director of the Snow and Ice Hydrology Project in Lahore, “There wasn’t any fresh snow in winter 2000 to melt into the river system. The summer of 2001 will see a tremendous decrease in water inflows in the irrigation network.”

The military government initially considered using lasers to melt glaciers, but the Army Engineer Corps and Atomic Energy Commission of Pakistan immediately threw out the proposal, arguing they may not be able to confine the melting to the identified glaciers.

The Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) also rejected lasers, saying using them may change temperature patterns in the ecologically sensitive area—causing flooding of unimaginable proportions.

“Use of lasers can destabilize glaciers,” said Pak-EPA Director General Asif Shujja Khan, who read about the proposal in the newspaper. “We would certainly order an environmental impact assessment of the whole activity if the government decided to go ahead with the plan,” he said.

Martin Smith, an official dealing with water management at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome, said he was not aware of anyone ever having melted glaciers, an important water source, for irrigation purposes.

Khalid Rashid, a former physicist with the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, totted up figures for an instant mathematical feasibility study. His conclusion: It will take 46 million conventional carbon dioxide lasers a full month to melt 30 million acre-feet of ice. But the amount of electrical energy needed to operate the lasers will require 230,000 thousand-megawatt power stations.

“Melting glaciers is not something we should try,” he said. “The Indus Valley civilization [named after the river Indus and comprising the provinces of Sindh and Punjab] depends on these glaciers. If we melt them, the whole country will become dry land with its rivers running only during the rainy season. Perhaps the idea is to cut the glaciers in pieces, and let these avalanche down to the lower-lying valleys, where higher temperatures will do the melting….I wonder.”

Despite doubts and opposition, the ambitious military leaders have not given up the plan.

Instead, scientists at the Pakistan Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (PCSIR) are looking at melting glaciers by spraying charcoal, which would raise the temperature.
“It is still far-fetched—we don’t know if we will be able to do it,” said a PCSIR scientist who did not want to be named. “Currently, we are only surveying the area and glacier hydrology.”

That certainly is news to Minister for Environment Omar Asghar Khan, who said his ministry does not know about any such plan.

“Unless we assess the environmental repercussions of such an activity, we can’t go ahead,” he told Gemini News Service.
Some independent environmentalists say that such human intervention for short-term gains could create irreversible long-term ecological problems. They want the government to consider the effects of global warming, which is causing Himalayan glaciers to melt.

“The government should rather focus on improving the water distribution system, conservation schemes, and efficient on-farm water use,” advises Ajaz Ahmed, a local environment journalist.

What is not in dispute is the urgent need for a solution. Meteorologists are forecasting that Pakistan will have only half the amount of water it normally has for agriculture and drinking until June.

“The country has received below normal rains for the past three years,” said Qamaruz Zaman, the Met Office chief in Islamabad. “The last year was the worst—we did not get any rains during the monsoons and hardly any fresh snow in the winter.”

In such circumstances, talk of melting glaciers has raised the hopes of thirsty farmers who have been staging protests in many parts of Pakistan. As farmer Ali Ashraf Khan wrote in a letter to the English-language newspaper Dawn, “Let us melt the glaciers before May in order to meet the impending crisis.”