Addressing Glacial Hazards and Risks

Glaciers in the Indian Himalayan Region are the source of life and livelihood for millions of people who rely on rivers that originate from its peaks. The country is facing a severe water crisis, and rapid changes in the glacial and permafrost environments is worrying. Over the years, the thinning and retreating of Himalayan glaciers has resulted in the formation of new glacial lakes and enlargement of existing ones.

With shrinking glaciers, expanding glacial lakes and altered stability of surrounding moraines and ice walls, the potential threat of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) is evolving over time. GLOFs refer to the sudden discharge of a water reservoir that has formed either underneath, at the side, in front, within, or on the surface of a glacier. Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh are the regions most vulnerable to glacial hazards.

A media report calls a GLOF "a ticking time bomb... capable of releasing billions of cubic metres of glacial water, stored for decades, in a few short hours or even in a matter of minutes and virtually without warning to those living downstream." This was evident during the 2013 Kedarnath disaster when the Chorabari lake collapsed at its rim with devastating  impacts on communities and infrastructure, literally wiping away the entire temple town and reversing development gains.

As the Indian Himalayan Region is particularly sensitive to changes in global climate, and with residential, tourism and hydropower infrastructure expanding higher into alpine valleys, the need for the assessing and managing of glacial hazards by mainstreaming those into major policies was felt. National Disaster Management Authority constituted a Task Force of experts for preparing guidelines for the management of glacial hazards and risks, especially GLOFs.

For taking this agenda forward, the Authority in collaboration with Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Embassy ofSwitzerland in India, organised a two-day inception-cum-brainstorming workshop on July 3-4, 2019, on the assessment and management of glacial risks, particularly GLOFs. The outcomes and learnings from this workshop will eventually, lead to the formulation of national guidelines and conceptualisation of projects for glacial risks. These guidelines will focus on robust forward-looking planning and actions to ensure climate adaptation and sustainable mountain development. While drawing on international best practices and experience, these actions will be tailored to the local context for effectively reducing risk components of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability.

The technical sessions at the workshop established the context and priorities besides discussing specific case studies and experiences in managing glacial risks and hazards from Central Asia, Europe, Caucasus and Indian Himalayan States. Key messages and the way forward were also identified.

The workshop emphasised on the need for coordinated and collaborative top-down approach amongst all stakeholders besides capacity building of State administration and local communities to adapt to the changing climatic regime.

Members and senior officials of NDMA, representatives from the SDC, State Governments of Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh, Task Force experts from national as well as international academic institutions and other stakeholders participated in the workshop.

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