Satellite Data Helps Launch Afghanistan's First Glacier Inventory

Published: Jun 11 2018

Glaciers are a key indicator of climate change, the proverbial canaries in the coal mine. Studying past and present behavior of glaciers and analyzing possible long-term changes help governments to better understand the impacts of climate change on water resources. Across the Hindu Kush Himalaya region – an area that extends over eight countries from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east – scientists have observed that most glaciers are melting faster than in the past, creating new challenges in managing local and regional water resources, natural hazards, and geopolitical stability.

 USGS Landsat8 image of Wakhan Valley
Glaciated area in the Wakhan valley, Landsat 8 satellite image -
false-color (653), acquired 2015 (Source: USGS)  

In a region where water is already a scarce commodity, the retreat of glaciers is affecting millions of people, but the scale of this impact is not precisely known. For example, in Afghanistan, where a majority of glaciers are found in the narrow northeastern Wakhan Panhandle of the country – wedged between Pakistan, China, and Tajikistan – glaciers serve as the headwaters of the Amu Darya River basin and also contribute to the Indus River basin. However, the lack of historical data makes it difficult to understand how changes in glaciers over time impact water resources, and even more difficult to quantify how communities and their livelihoods are affected today. With accurate data, government officials will be able to make better informed decisions on water management, changes in agricultural land use, and education for long-term planning.

Out of more than 50,000 glaciers in the region, only a few are consistently monitored. Physically challenging terrain and inaccessibility make field-based investigations to map and monitor glaciers and glacial lakes impractical.

To address this data gap, SERVIR-Hindu Kush Himalaya (SERVIR-HKH) at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is collaborating with the Afghanistan Ministry of Energy and Water in the development of the first-of-its-kind inventory of glaciers and glacial lakes using remote sensing data from satellites to map and monitor glaciers. This collaboration is important because data generated will serve as a baseline for reliable scientific information to support water resource management in Afghanistan, which will help the country prepare for its future, both agriculturally and industrially.

“Mapping and monitoring of glaciers in Afghanistan using GIS (Geographic Information System) and remote sensing techniques have been a breakthrough for us to collect reliable data. Prior to ICIMOD’s study, we only had some historical data and we were not aware about glaciers and their trends in Afghanistan. Today, we have an exact number and an estimated volume of glacier water reserves,” said Daud Qazizada, Deputy Minister of Energy and Water.

 Group using laptops for on the job training
On-the-job training to the staff of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Environment
and Water at ICIMOD’s headquarters in Kathmandu, Nepal.
(Photo: ICIMOD/Jitendra Bajracharya)  

In addition, four Afghanistan-based ICIMOD research assistants are working closely with ministry staff to develop and analyze the glacial inventory and are building a database of glaciers from the years 1990, 2000, 2005, 2010, and 2015 to study decadal changes in glaciated areas. Once this inventory has been completed, the findings will be freely accessible to researchers, planners, and decision makers through an online system. With SERVIR’s support, the ministry is now better equipped to map and monitor glaciers with these new datasets, which will help officials make better informed decisions on how to manage water resources.

The Minister of Energy and Water, Ali Ahmad Usmani, states that he is pleased to see ministry staff trained in cutting-edge technology. He adds, “GIS and remote sensing are important tools for assessing and monitoring glaciers to understand water availability, forecasting disasters, and also improving awareness and increasing access to information.”

Written by Shristi Rajbhandari of SERVIR-HKH/ICIMOD.

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