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In the high-altitude region of Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan, local villagers have devised a novel solution ...
2020-07-23 09:00:00

A Marriage of Glaciers
Water Conservation in the Mountains

Batura Sar and glaciers, Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan. Photo by Imran Shah / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A Marriage of Glaciers
A Marriage of Glaciers

The mountains of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltisan region give way to exquisite beauty – as well as villages where water is in scarce supply. Unperturbed, the inhabitants of such villages have devised a novel way to provide water for their communities: through the craft of glacier grafting.

Read in 18 minutes

In the high-altitude region of Gilgit-Baltistan – also known as Little Tibet and formerly as the Northern Areas in Pakistan – people have learnt to adapt to the harsh local conditions. The picturesque valleys guarded by the majestic Himalayas, the extreme Karakorum and the unforgiving Hindu Kush are now accessible by the Karakorum Highway. Yet for centuries they were cut off for much of the year, meaning that local people had to learn to be self-sustainable and deal with their problems – such as water scarcity – on their own. Their villages might have been out of reach, but they were not left alone – well, this happens when you live on imperial borderlands. According to legend, when the people of Baltistan learnt of the Mongol army advancing towards them from the north in the early 13th century, they came up with an ingenious way to stop them. As the inhabited valleys were only accessible through narrow passes, they decided to block the entry way by building a glacier. This successfully prevented the Mongol invasion and, crucially, it also solved the locals’ other big problem: water scarcity.

Historical mist

The legend has many versions. According to a version narrated by the village elder from Kundus (and told to me by the local documentary maker Liaqat Ali), in days gone by, when the local people were still Buddhists, they suffered from frequent raids by the neighbouring Tibetans. It so happened that a religious scholar from Persia visited the area and the villagers challenged him to show the strength of his religion by finding a way to protect them against the invaders. The scholar was Qabir Syed Ali Hamdani, and it was he who instructed the local people on how to build a glacier. And so the Kundus glacier was built – the first and the largest glacier grafted by men in Baltistan. Ali Hamdani also warned the villagers not to come back from the grafting site straight to the village, as the glacier would follow their footsteps and could endanger the settlement. But the men did not follow the instructions, and that is why the Kundus glacier expanded towards the village. The villagers, now Shia Muslims, created a special prayer for stopping the glacier from growing towards village, which they performed every year on the 13th day of the Islamic month of Muharram. But they are not praying anymore. In the past six years, the glacier has receded by about two kilometres. Their prayers have been answered.

In another version, it was a woman from Saltoro Nallah, near a mountain pass connecting Baltistan to Kashgar (China), who started the practice of glacier growing by accident. She was a widow whose husband was killed by the Uighurs from Kashgar. One day, she went up to the mountain and, out of forgetfulness, left some gourd bottles filled with water among the boulders. Within a few years, a glacier developed at the site, soon becoming so large that it blocked the passage from Kashgar to Baltistan, effectively stopping the invasions. The glacier started inadvertently by a Balti woman is the same Kundus glacier that sits there today. It is now on the Pakistani side of the disputed region of Greater Kashmir, not far from the Chinese border.

Traditional ecological knowledge

A travelling saint? A widow? Or a local genius? It is not known who started the practice of glacier grafting, but according to oral history it is as old as the local communities. Engineer Sher Khan – who works for the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP), an NGO involved in glacier grafting projects – suggests that the technique was developed as a result of the local people’s deep understanding of local environmental processes. “Although those people were not educated or scientific, they were very resourceful and ingenious; they might have thought it out,” he says. Khan’s theory follows Fikret Berkes’ model of development of traditional ecological knowledge: the environmental understanding model, based on incremental learning and the subsequent development of value systems and institutions to support the accumulated knowledge.

Sher Khan is so convinced of the indigenous techniques’ efficacy that he tries to translate them into the language of science. Myths, legends and superstitions are ways of knowing. We in the West might dismiss them as fables, but they are meaningful to those who operate in different thought systems. We don’t understand them, but if they are translated for us into the language of science, we would get the point – and we could learn a lot. As Berkes write in Sacred Ecology: “There has been a remarkable growth of international interest in traditional ecological knowledge, and more broadly in indigenous knowledge, since the early 1990s. This trend is reflected in the growth and diversification of the scholarly literature. Indigenous knowledge has been transformed from an esoteric idea in WCED (1987) into a concept taken seriously enough to be mainstreamed in two large international initiatives, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment.”

While some consider the glacier grafting an obvious thing – they grew up witnessing it being done, like Sher Khan, the son of an expert glacier grafter – for others, it was a half-forgotten legend that is now being successfully revived. Liaqat Ali of Skardu says that he first heard from a friend the story of male and female glacier union that resulted in a new glacier. “It was interesting, but hard to believe. When I asked my father about this he said: Yes, this is true, there are such glaciers. Then I thought, no-one knows about this beautiful technology and the success stories. I started meeting people, communities where glaciers were grafted, and the community was benefiting from it. I collected data from people, but at that time there was not any ongoing grafting project, and I thought people were starting to forget this technology. That’s why I made pictures and videos of the process, just so I could tell the world that if glaciers are receding then there is a technology we can use to rebuild them.”

The marriage ceremony

The glaciers that people help to grow are the fruit of the sacred union between a mother glacier and a father glacier. They get married and have offspring. The baby glaciers also turn out to be either male or female. That’s an obvious fact. Everybody in Baltistan knows that glaciers, rivers and water are all either male or female. Some, like Sher Khan, believe that the denomination of ice gender is only metaphorical. But many other people in the region believe that the gender of ice is an indisputable phenomenon that is yet to be proven and explained scientifically. Tehzeeb Bano, a researcher from the National University of Science and Technology in Pakistan, confirms that her institute is researching it. You cannot argue with that. If you don’t get it, you just accept it. After all, a new glacier will not grow if a female or male element is missing.

It is relatively easy to discern the gender of the glacier. The female glaciers – mo gang in the Balti language – are usually white or blue, they give plenty of water and grow fast. The male glaciers – po gang – give little water and are often covered by stones and soil, giving them a black appearance. Water from a female glacier is female water (mo shu), while water from a male glacier is male water (po shu). In rivers, we usually find a mixture of both, especially in big rivers such as the Indus, known locally as River Sindh. It is the water of the River Sindh that is usually placed at the site of the glacier grafting.

The decision that a new glacier is needed is taken by the village community during their regular meetings about water management. In water scarcity areas, Sher Khan explains to me, every household has their designated day of water supply, so that everyone gets fair access to it. Communities gather to discuss water distribution and water-related problems, such as shortages or potential flooding. Harvesting, animal pastures and day-to-day affairs are also discussed during these meetings. Glacier grafting is a well-known and widely accepted solution to water scarcity. It is not a quick fix, though. It takes years for the new glacier to develop and give water. But it is a sustainable solution. Building glaciers does not disturb the natural water cycle, nor does it have a negative impact on the local environment – it is a glacial environment, after all, and a successful grafting is likely to provide water for many years. According to Sher Khan, the grafted glacier is also less likely than a natural glacier to cause flooding.

The selection of an appropriate site for glacier grafting is of utmost importance, and a suitable spot must fulfil a list of conditions. It should be located at an altitude of at least 4000 or 5000 metres above sea level; it should be on a gentle slope, where it should have minimal exposure to sunlight, thus a north-facing mountain side is preferable. For most of the expert glacier grafters, the presence of permafrost or ice on the site is another key requirement. Permafrost is considered a barren glacier, but sometimes, upon digging, a male glacier is discovered on the site. A suitable site is often surveyed in the summer. The men of the village take their livestock to the alpine pastures during the summer months and scout possible glacier growing sites nearby. Sher Khan shared with me his fond memories of expeditions to the upper pastures, which he took part in as a boy during summer holidays. He recalled the festive atmosphere surrounding the trips to the glacier grafted by his village folk. They knew the spots and they knew how to get there. But even for them, mountain people, it was not an easy stroll – the climb often caused altitude sickness. Still, it was not an occasion to be missed – a full day out in the high mountains, with bread, butter and cheese packed for picnic lunch.

Once a suitable spot is selected, the expedition can be planned. The bride and the groom – the female and the male glacier, preferably from different villages – are chosen and the marriage can be planned. The glacier grafting usually takes place in November, when the local temperatures oscillate around zero. A 12-man party carries the pieces of female ice in woven baskets, another 12 men carry the male ice, the water drawn from the Indus river is carried traditionally in 12 gourd bottles, but sometimes clay pots or goatskins are also required, as well as charcoal and wheat husks or sawdust, which act as insulators for the ice. The last ingredient is salt, which, according to some glacier grafters, helps protect the new glacier from impurities.

The bride and groom party walk from different sites and meet in a certain spot to climb together to the glacier growing site, but no greetings are exchanged, as the people involved in the ceremony must remain silent until the ice is deposited in its new home. They walk continuously without having a break, but if the distance is too much and rest is required, they do not put their loads on the ground, instead hanging the baskets on trees, or on walking sticks if nothing else is available. Each man has to carry around 15 to 25 kilograms of ice, walking in cold air, silently up the mountains, for a day or more.

Once they reach the glacier growing site, they deposit their valuable loads. The ice lumps and water bottles are placed in between the boulders, or in a small cave, or sometimes in a specially dug pit, and covered with layers of salt, charcoal and sawdust. The silence is broken as religious leaders recite verses of the Quran and say prayers for the success of the glacier marriage and for protection from the djinns. Once the male and female glaciers are placed in their new home and covered, a man from the party of glacier grafters stands up and offers his life for the success of the process. His symbolic sacrifice is matched by the actual sacrifice of a goat – its meat is distributed to a charity, because prayers are more likely to be answered if accompanied by an act of charity.

It’s time to come back to the village. Remembering the lesson of the first Kundus glacier expansion, people do not go directly to their homes, but climb up the slope first to ensure that the glacier following their footsteps will grow up, not posing danger to their houses and fields. It is believed that “glaciers are like dogs sniffing the footsteps and following them,” says Zakir Hussain Zakir. The villagers do not cast looks back towards the grafting site. They will not visit the place for at least three years, so as not to disturb the glacier. It is said that a person who disturbs the glacier before its maturation will die. The celebrations continue in the village with traditional songs and prayers, alongside festive food and the joy of the accomplished mission.

Consummate success

In the fourth year after the glacier marriage, the monitoring process starts. The villagers go up to the grafting site to check if there is ice build-up. The lifting of the boulders at the site is considered a sign of the glacier taking root; a sign of success. So is the emergence of small springs up in the mountains spotted by hunters. With no scientific means to measure the growth of the glacier, people in earlier times used to rely on the intensity of water flow to assess the success of the grafting process. In the village of Hanuchal Haramush, where Sher Khan comes from, there used to be a water mill. Some 50 or 60 years ago, it was barely running due to water shortage, but after a successful grafting, the villagers were able to install a bigger water mill, as the amount of available water increased.

Increased water flow is easily observed by people for whom water is the most treasured resource. It is the amount of water available that determines the extension of agricultural works. And it is the management and control of water that is the organizing principle of communities. That is why the society of Baltistan, similarly to communities in other water-scarce regions, is considered a hydraulic society – a society organized by water.

Tehzeeb Bano, who has researched glacier grafting and its impact on people, says that mature glaciers significantly increase the water availability in the villages where the glaciers are grafted. More water means a lesser burden on women, who are principally responsible for domestic work, but also work in the fields. While previously they might have had to walk significant distances to obtain water, the glacial water channelled to the villages allows them easy access to the precious resource.

So how does it work? Is there a scientific explanation for the growth of a man-made glacier? According to Ingvar Tveiten, a researcher from Norway, the account of the glacier development process presented by a glacier grafter from Balghar bears a strong resemblance to the definition of the formation of rock glaciers. According to a description by a Balghar local: “First the ice slips down into the rocks where it grows roots. Then it starts to break the rocks bringing them up. Then the glacier comes forward. This has happened where they did the glacier growing.” Tveiten, who conducted field research in Baltistan, concludes that “glacier growing is typically performed […] in a terrain that is conducive to the accumulation of snow by avalanching and snow slips. The presence of permafrost at these locations is likely to contribute to ice accumulating […] Thus, glacier growing is conducted at locations which are already very prone to ice accumulation, and may explain why glacier growing is perceived to work.” Here it is, traditional knowledge translated into the language of science.

Zakir Hussain, from Baltistan University, offers another explanation: “Scientifically, when we place a certain critical mass of ice at permafrost level, it is likely to remain around the year […] Where hard ice mass exists, it starts accumulation by solidifying rainfall, humidity in clouds and snow in winter. When the rate of accumulation becomes greater than the rate of ablation i.e. melting and sublimation, the ice mass starts growing in size.”

But is every glacier grafting project successful? Apart from the many ceremonial conditions, it is also necessary that natural phenomena, such as snow-avalanching, permafrost, wind and temperature patterns, are optimal for the process. That is why it is so important to choose a site where the natural conditions are most favourable. According to Sher Khan, in his village of Hanuchal Haramush the glacier grafting was attempted at six sites before it was successfully grown on the seventh attempt. Recent projects led by AKRSP are monitored more closely and are likely to provide more reliable information on the success rate. When it comes to past projects, there is only anecdotal evidence available.

Glacial grafting is always a communal project meant for public benefit, but it turns out that not every community is happy with it. Tehzeeb Bano tells me that when she researched recent glacier grafting projects led by AKRSP, she came across one case – out of 18 – in which people purposefully destroyed the grafted glacier, justifying their action by fear of future flooding from the glacier. It is also believed that the glacier will stop growing if people contaminate the site with impurities. According to the glacier growers of Kwardo, the glacier they grafted stopped growing in its fourth year, “because people from the upper village had put impurities there.” The assumed reason for them wanting to stop the glacier from growing was fear that it would advance onto their land. This is also why certain communities keep their glacier growing projects a secret, to prevent others from disrupting the process.

Glaciers across the border

The glacier marriage is unique for the Northern Areas of Pakistan, but in India, people have also sought solutions to water shortage by building glaciers. Ladakh, just across the border from Gilgit-Baltistan, is a cold desert in which the only source of water is melted ice from the glaciers that naturally occur at certain times of the year. The water shortage is a seasonal problem there, but a Ladakh local, retired engineer Chewang Norphel, came up with a brilliant solution: storing the water for the dry season in the form of glacier. It was a simple observation that inspired Norphel. In winter, the water taps would be kept fully open so that the water would run continuously and not freeze. “While there was such a shortage of water at the start of the growing season, I saw a lot of water just running off and getting wasted in winter. And it was then that it occurred to me: why not try and make artificial glaciers, thereby storing the water for farmers in such a manner that would give them a head start by providing a supply of water at the start of the growing season when most needed,” says Norphel, also known as the Ice Man of India. Based on Norphel’s design, artificial pools limited by stone embankments were built, and river water is channelled into those pools during winter. The water is further channelled into ponds built on the hillsides, where a huge reserve of ice accumulates, becoming an artificial glacier. As the temperature rises, the glacier-ponds at varying elevations melt in sequence, providing a water source for irrigation in early spring, when it is most scarce, and continuing until late summer, when water from natural glaciers becomes available.

Yet another ice storage innovation was developed by engineer Sonham Wangchuk, also a local of Ladakh. Inspired by Norphel, Wangchuk came up with a way to create small artificial glaciers (better known as ice stupas) by freezing stream water during winter in the form of ice towers up to 50 metres high. While Norphel’s artificial glaciers are created at heights of 4000 metres and above, Wangchuk’s ice stupas store water close to the villages. Ice stupas are also considerably cheaper and easier to build. Wangchuk’s ice stupas earned him The Rolex Award for Innovation in 2016.

Time melts away

“When you walk on a big glacier in summer, it feels alive with sounds and movement,” says Sher Khan. “Glaciers are the most beautiful sites.” The people of Baltistan and other mountainous regions revere glaciers. It is glaciers that provide them with life-supporting water. But it is also glaciers that can bring death, flooding the villages and creating glacial lakes. The rapid change in glacier behaviour over the last few decades has caused concern among the locals. Glacier grafting is a sustainable solution for ensuring water supply in high altitude settlements, but the locals of Baltistan will not be able to rebuild all the glaciers lost due to global warming, or stop the natural glaciers from melting rapidly and flooding their homes. In a world ruled by an unsustainable economy, small-scale sustainable projects will not suffice. Even though the Gilgit-Baltistan people have a minimal negative impact on climate change, they will be affected the worst by it, and possible the soonest.

According to scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth observatory, the melting of Himalayan glaciers has doubled in the last 20 years, and more than a quarter of all ice has been lost over the last four decades. If melting persists at such rate or accelerates, the local communities are doomed. In the words of Joerg Schaefer, part of the Columbia team: “For the wellbeing of the people there, our results are of course the worst possible. But it is what it is, and now we have to prepare for that scenario. We have to worry a lot, because so many people are affected. To stop the temperature rises, we have to cool the planet. We have to not only slow down greenhouse gas emissions, we have to reverse them. That is the challenge for the next twenty years.”


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