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Floods from the Roof of the World: Protection thanks to applied research

Climate change has raised temperatures to the point where glaciers in the Hindu Kush-Himalayas are now dwindling. The resulting snowmelt gathers in increasingly large glacial lakes, which could eventually burst and flood low-lying areas. The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) plays an important role in the region, carrying out the fundamental research needed to better understand this phenomenon and identify the appropriate counter measures to be taken.

Rising waters from glacial melt can form a lake held back by the end moraine. Composed of little more than till, the end moraine forms an unstable dam at best. If there is breach in the moraine dam, e.g. caused by the tremors of an earthquake or periods of heavy rainfall, the result is catastrophic flooding of the valleys below. This is what happened in Nepal in 1998 when a massive wave of water and alluvium poured down from Tam Pokhari, burying people and infrastructures.

Climate change is causing temperatures worldwide to rise quickly. However, according to measurements taken by ICIMOD, temperature build-up in the Hindu Kush Himalayas exceeds the global average. The risk of devastating Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs) has therefore increased substantially: While potentially calamitous outburst floods used to occur in the region every 200 to 300 years, ICIMOD reports that they now occur every 2-3 years.

Since 1999, ICIMOD has been working with various partners such as the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to reign in this dangerous situation. Thanks to fundamental research, the countries of Nepal, Bhutan, India, Pakistan and China/Tibet now have an inventory of glaciers and glacier lakes as well as a GLOF monitoring system.  The data gathered is used as the basis for early warning systems. This enables priorities to be set and corresponding action to be taken. The database is also used to determine the amount of total available water resources the region will have in the future.

Specifically, the data enables the pinpointing of geographical areas most likely to be affected by a GLOF. Further steps are needed to enable the population to benefit from this fundamental research. ICIMOD therefore works with national agencies in their efforts to train the necessary specialists. To further strengthen its negotiating position, ICIMOD shares its research findings with relevant regional organizations. This approach has proven successful: Tsho Rolpa, Nepal’s largest and probably its most dangerous glacier lake, has been equipped with sensors that will set alarm sirens blaring downstream the instant an outburst flood occurs. A lot more work still needs to be done. Switzerland makes an annual untargeted contribution of USD 500,000 to ICIMOD in support of its projects.

blank The project in brief

Regional Cooperation

Nepal, Bhutan, India, Pakistan, China/Tibet
Implementing Organization: International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development ICIMOD
background information

Climate change is causing glaciers to recede. The resulting snowmelt forms unstable glacier lakes that can cause Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs).
Project target
Protect the civilian population and infrastructure from the hazards of GLOFs. This target is achieved by conducting research on the GLOF phenomenon, applying the knowledge gained and lending technical support to national agencies.
Target group
Millions of people living in mountainous regions and lowland areas located downstream of dangerous glacier lakes
Financial framework
From 1999 to 2007: Total project budget of USD 400,000
New project phase began in 2008

1999 – 2007
2008 – 2012 
SDC, South Asia Division