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How retreat of Machoi glacier impacting lives in Kashmir?

03:54 PM Mar 15, 2023 IST | Wahid Bhat
how retreat of machoi glacier impacting lives in kashmir

The Himalayan glaciers, which act as vital water reservoirs for nearly two billion people in South Asia, have undergone significant changes in recent decades, posing a threat to the water supply and safety of the entire Indian subcontinent. The melting of glaciers in the Kashmir Himalayas, in particular, is occurring at an alarming pace.

The Machoi glacier is situated in north-western Kashmir’s Drass region, with elevations ranging between 3,762 meters and 5,050 meters above sea level. This glacier is in close proximity to the Srinagar-Kargil Highway, making it vulnerable to traffic pollution and other harmful emissions.

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The Gangotri Glacier, the most extensive glacier in the Ganges basin, is presently encountering a worrisome problem of melting snow. This could have severe consequences for the river systems that depend on it. Photo Credit: Wahid Bhat/Ground Report

Machoi glacier retreated by 29%

According to a study, scientists have found that the glaciers in the north-western Himalayan region of Kashmir are disappearing at a faster rate than other parts of the Himalayan arc.

The study, which utilized satellite data, fieldwork photographs, and ground-based observations, revealed that the Machoi glacier in Kashmir decreased by 29% in size from 1972 to 2019.

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Experienced significant retreat

Senior Assistant Professor Department of Geoinformatics, Dr. Irfan Rashid speaking to groundreport.in said that the researchers used both remote sensing methods and field observations to analyze the glacier retreat.

‘The results of the study showed that the Machoi Glacier has experienced significant retreat over the past five decades. Between 1972 and 2019, the glacier retreated by approximately 1.88 KM2, with an average retreat rate of 29%, Machoi Glacier, which is the source of River Sindh’ Irfan added.

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He expressed concern over the alarming increase in de-glaciation in the region. He highlighted the major causes responsible for this phenomenon.

Machoi Glacier in the Himalayas melting at an unprecedented rate due to rising temperatures. This not only threatens the region’s fragile ecosystem but also poses a significant risk to the communities dependent on it for water supply. Photo Credit: Wahid Bhat/Ground Report

Irfan said, on average, glaciers lose 0.75% of their area each year, and rising temperatures are the primary driver of glacial melting in the area. However, he suggested that factors like black carbon, dust deposition, and changes in precipitation patterns also need to be investigated to understand the complete picture.

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Irfan added that the data also revealed that the retreat of the Machoi Glacier is consistent with the trend of glacier retreat observed in other parts of the Himalayas’.

Current climate much warmer

Sonam Lotus, the Director of the Meteorological Department in Jammu and Kashmir, speaking to Groundreport.in said, that climate change is significantly impacting the environment in the region, just like other parts of the world.

He explains that the current climate is much warmer than it was three to four decades ago, leading to extreme weather events such as prolonged dry spells and frequent, abnormally high temperatures, which have affected the glaciers.

He added, ‘Many studies have also shown that glaciers have retreated significantly, especially since the 1980s, which he attributes to the warmer temperatures’.

The study identified several factors that are likely contributing to the retreat of the Machoi Glacier, including rising temperatures and decreasing snowfall in the region.

Changes in atmospheric circulation

Study notes that the average annual temperature in the region has increased by approximately 1.5 degrees Celsius since the 1970s, which is consistent with the global trend of rising temperatures.

The study also found that there has been a decrease in snowfall in the region, which has impacted the glacier’s mass balance. The study notes that decreased snowfall is likely due to changes in atmospheric circulation patterns, which are also associated with climate change.

The Jammu and Kashmir Rivers Report states that over the last 51 years, the glacier area in the Jhelum basin has reduced from 46.09 square kilometres in 1962 to 33.43 square kilometres in 2013, indicating a decline of 27.47%. Similarly, the glacier area of the Chenab river has also decreased by 21%.

Impact on local population

Glaciers are an important source of water for communities living in mountain regions, as they often serve as a natural reservoir that releases water slowly over time.

The Three Sisters (Kashmir) are formed from the Sonamarg area, which is also home to some of the largest Himalayan glaciers in the Kashmir Valley, including the Kolhoi Glacier and Machoi Glacier. Additionally, the region contains peaks that exceed an elevation of 5000 meters, such as Sirbal Peak, Kolhoi Peak, Amarnath Peak, and Machoi Peak. Photo Credit: Wahid Bhat/Ground Report

The melting of the Machoi glacier has had a significant impact on Sindh river, which it feeds. The glacier has been shrinking rapidly in recent years due to global warming, and this has led to a reduction in the river’s water flow and quality.

Speaking to Groundreport.in, Shabir Ahmad a local resident of Drass said that they have noticed changes in the weather patterns, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of floods and landslides in the area, which they attribute to the glacier melting.

He added, ‘the weather patterns have changed drastically in the past few years. We are experiencing heavy rains and floods, which were not common before.’

Fear of severe water crisis in future

Another local, Farzi Jan a 90-year-old woman, expressed her concern about the impact of the melting glacier on agriculture and domestic water supply.

She said ‘in my entire lifetime, I have never seen the glacier melt so rapidly. It is a matter of great concern for us, as we rely on the water from the glacier for our daily needs. The river that flows through our village is fed by the glacier, and we use this water for drinking, cooking, and irrigation. If the glacier continues to melt at this rate, we fear that we will face a severe water crisis in the future.’

Farzi Jan’s deep concern that the locals have about the rapid melting of the Machoi glacier. The glacier is a critical source of water for the surrounding communities, and the reduction in water availability due to glacier melting can have severe consequences on their daily lives.

As a 90-year-old woman who has seen the changes in the environment over several decades, her words underscore the urgency of the situation and the need for immediate action to protect the environment and the livelihoods of the people.

The stunning glaciers in Kashmir are disappearing at an alarming rate, leaving behind a trail of devastation. The rapid glacial retreat due to climate change is affecting the local water resources and putting the lives and livelihoods of thousands of people at risk. Photo Credit: Wahid Bhat/Ground Report

Increase in glacial lake outburst floods

Additionally, the melting of the glacier has led to an increase in glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), which have caused damage to infrastructure and loss of life in the surrounding areas. Therefore, the melting of the Machoi glacier has had far-reaching consequences on the Sindh river and the communities that depend on it.

A decrease in the river’s flow could lead to water scarcity for communities downstream, particularly during the dry season. This could have significant impacts on agriculture and other industries that rely on water.

GLOFs can be extremely destructive, causing widespread flooding and landslides that can damage infrastructure and harm local communities.

The findings of the study highlight the urgent need for action to address climate change and its impact on glaciers and water resources in the Himalayas. The retreat of glaciers in the region has significant implications for water resources, agriculture, and hydropower generation, and it is essential to develop strategies to adapt to these changes.

Shrinking giants

In 2020, a study was conducted to analyze 147 glaciers in the Kashmir region from 1980 to 2018, taking into account factors such as topography, morphology, and climate.

The report revealed that during this period, the glaciers in the region had shrunk by 28.82%, with a considerably larger loss compared to other Himalayan areas.

The Kolahoi glacier in Kashmir, which is the largest glacier in the Himalayas, has lost almost 23% of its area since 1962 and has fragmented into smaller sections.

A local resident Shameem Ahmad of Aru village of Anantnag district, said that ‘the melting of Kolahoi glacier is a matter of great concern for us. The glacier is an important source of water for the surrounding communities, and the melting has already started to affect our water supply’.

He said, ‘we rely on the water from the glacier for drinking, cooking, and irrigation, and if the glacier continues to melt at this rate, we fear that we will face a severe water crisis in the future’.

The Sind River, which is a significant tributary of the Jhelum River, has its source at an altitude of 4800 meters in the Machoi Glacier. It stretches for 108 kilometers and is a vital river in the Kashmir region, hosting the sole operational hydro-electric plant in the area. Photo Credit: Wahid Bhat/Ground Report

Shameem is worried as the melting glacier has also increased the risk of floods and landslides, which pose a threat to lives and livelihoods in the surrounding areas.’

‘I have seen Kolahoi glacier melting’

Mohammad Shahban Bhat 85, sharing his experience said ‘I have lived in this region for many decades, and I have seen the Kolahoi and other glaciers melting at an alarming rate.

‘I remember a time when the glacier was much larger, and the water in the rivers was abundant. But now, with the glacier melting rapidly, we are facing a severe water crisis, he added’.

In addition, several smaller adjacent glaciers have completely disappeared. Over the past 40 years, the Kolahoi glacier has reduced in size from approximately 13 square kilometres to about 11.5 square kilometres.

Kolahoi is located between Sonamarg, approximately 15 kilometres to the south, and Pahalgam’s Aru, about 21 kilometres to the north.

The melting of the Kolahoi glacier is vital in making the Kashmir valley fertile for producing cereal crops, fruit that is then dried, saffron, and apples. This glacier feeds two major tributaries of the Jhelum River, and its rapid recession directly endangers the livelihoods of millions of people living downstream.

Disaster follows glacier loss

Glacier loss can lead to disastrous consequences. As glaciers shrink or disappear, they release meltwater into rivers, increasing the risk of flooding in downstream areas. Additionally, many communities rely on glacier meltwater as a critical source of freshwater for agriculture, drinking, and other essential needs.

The loss of this vital resource can have severe consequences, including food and water scarcity, economic instability, and social unrest. Furthermore, glacier loss can affect the overall climate of the region, with potential impacts on weather patterns, air quality, and other environmental factors.

Therefore, the continued loss of glaciers in the Himalayas is a matter of significant concern, requiring urgent action to mitigate the impacts of climate change and protect the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on this region’s glaciers.

The melting of glaciers has been linked to various disasters, such as landslides, avalanches, and glacial lake outburst floods.

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Wahid Bhat

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Wahid Bhat is an accomplished environmental journalist with a passion for covering climate change and environmental issues. He holds a degree from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication and has served as the Media Fellow for NFI India and Thomson Reuters Foundation. Wahid's reporting has been published in a range of respected outlets including Earth Journalism, Global Village Space, The Quint, Youth Ki Awaaz, Devdiscourse, and Kashmir Observer. With an extensive background in the field, Wahid has established himself as a trusted voice in environmental journalism, and his work serves as an important contribution to the conversation around climate change and sustainability. You can follow Wahid on Twitter at @Wahidbhat32.

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