A factual diagnosis of the disaster is important in order to develop a concrete contingency plan.
In the past few days, the internet was rife with speculation that fast-melting glaciers have caused the recent deluge in Pakistan.
One-third of the South Asian country of more than 220 million people is under water as massive flooding submerged hundreds of villages and towns, displacing millions and killing more than 1,200 people.
Contrary to the theory of melting glaciers, the devastation has been brought by prolonged monsoon downpours, which occur annually in the subcontinent region that includes India, experts say.
However, the volume of rainfall this year was something people had not seen in a lifetime, raising concerns about the worsening impact of climate crisis.
“These floods were mostly the result of southbound rains,” says Dr Shafqat Munir, a research fellow at Islamabad-based think tank, Sustainable Development Policy Institute.
“To be very clear, the glaciers had nothing to do with the recent floods,” he tells TRT World.
Pinpointing the exact cause for the unprecedented floods is of utmost importance as Islamabad and the international community focus on preparing a contingency plan to battle such a natural disaster in the future.
Screaming headlines such as ‘Pakistan’s melting glaciers are erupting and worsening floods’ can undermine efforts and investments needed to battle the ravages of climate change.
Pakistan contributes less than 1 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, environment experts count it among the most vulnerable to the fallout of rising sea levels and rapidly shifting weather patterns.
Glacial lake threat still real
Much to the disbelief of residents in Swat and Gilgit-Baltistan, the tourist hotspots in Pakistan’s north, water tributaries overflowed, dragging human-sized boulders down the hills, washing away markets and homes.
“What happened in Swat and Gilgit was a cloudburst. If the floods were caused by melting glaciers then the downstream dams would have filled with water. That didn’t happen,” says Munir.
Mangla Dam built on the Jhelum River, which collects water from the melting snows of the Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges, still hasn’t been completely filled, he says.
But videos shared on social media in which bridges could be seen swept away by muddy deluges triggered a debate about thousands of glaciers in the country's mountainous north. The fear of more downstream towns and cities getting flooded by melting glaciers became palpable.
With more than 7,000 glaciers, Pakistan is known as the third pole – having the most number of moving snow mountains outside of the Antarctic and Arctic polar caps.
Rising temperatures cause glaciers to melt and the runoff creates glacial lakes that can burst anytime and cause flash floods in towns spread across foothills.
The phenomenon known as the Glacial Lake Outburst Flood (GLOF) hit the Hunza district in May this year when a heatwave swept across the country.
“Such flash floods unleash widespread destruction for communities in the downstream valleys,” says Dr Parvaiz Naim, an Islamabad-based ecologist.
“Nonetheless, such floods have so far been of local significance only because of the relatively small volumes of water (discharge),” he tells TRT World.
The May flash floods were the result of a breach at the Shisper glacial lake, which is less than half a square kilometer in size. It released probably around 50 million cubic meter of water.
But that was enough to wash away a major bridge on the Karakoram Highway, submerge a hydropower plant and destroy houses, says Naim.
Glaciers melt and move all the time, causing the lakes to form and, at occasions, burst violently. In Pakistan, the monitoring of the effects of climate change on glaciers is a relatively new phenomenon, says Naim.
Water authorities keep track of glacial melt using telemetric stations but that’s done to regulate the water flow of hydropower dams.
Yet the “available evidence suggests that the formation of glacial lakes has probably increased in recent years. This increases the flooding risk for downstream communities,” he says.
This year has been particularly testing for Pakistanis when it comes to dealing with weather changes. The ‘monster monsoon’ of July-August was followed by an intense heat wave in May.
In southern Sindh province, people are still stranded in villages and fields inundated by the floods. Rescue workers are struggling to reach them.
“The major concern is the timing of the annual summer glacial melt. If the glacial melt peak coincides with the monsoon rainfall peak, then we need much more than a few more boats!” says Naim.