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25 Jun 2018 | SERVIR-HKH

Capacity building on Earth observation leads to Afghanistan’s first glacier inventory

Glaciers are a key indicator of climate change. Understanding past and present glacier behavior and analyzing possible changes help us understand the impacts of climate change on water resources. Cryosphere research across the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) indicates that most glaciers are shrinking and retreating. Only a few of the 50,000 glaciers in the HKH are consistently monitored. Inaccessibility and physically challenging terrain make field investigations and the mapping and monitoring of glaciers and glacial lakes impractical.

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

In Afghanistan, glaciers serve as the headwaters of the Amu Darya River Basin and contribute to the Indus River Basin. A lack of baseline data makes it difficult to observe periodic changes in glaciers and to understand its impact on water resources.

The SERVIR Hindu Kush Himalaya (SERVIR-HKH) initiative at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) is collaborating with the Ministry of Energy and Water (MEW), Afghanistan to develop an inventory of glaciers and glacial lakes in Afghanistan. The inventory is possibly the first of its kind. ICIMOD is also working to train staff at MEW in using remotely sensed data to map and monitor glaciers. The data generated will serve as a baseline for reliable scientific information to support on water resource management in Afghanistan.

Daud Qazizada, Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister of Energy and Water, says that mapping and monitoring glaciers in Afghanistan using geographic information system (GIS) and remote sensing (RS) techniques has been a breakthrough in terms of collecting reliable data. “Prior to ICIMOD’s study, we only had some historical data and were not aware of changing glacier trends in Afghanistan. Today, we have an exact number and an estimated volume of glacier reserves,” he says.

To further support the inventory process and change analysis, ICIMOD has organized multiple on-the-job trainings for MEW staff at its headquarters in Kathmandu, Nepal. Experts at ICIMOD take MEW trainees through the process of mapping and monitoring glaciers using GIS tools and remote sensing techniques, and carry out quality assurance for the generated datasets. In addition, four Afghan research assistants work closely with MEW staff in Afghanistan to develop the inventory. The team is developing a database of glaciers from the years 1990, 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015 to study decadal changes in glaciated areas.

The Afghan Ministry of Energy and Water is now equipped better to map and monitor glaciers. Once completed, the data will be freely accessible to researchers, planners, and decision makers through an online system. Ali Ahmad Usmani, the Afghan Minister of Energy and Water, says that he is elated to see young professionals engaged in technology. He adds, “GIS and RS are essential to assessing and monitoring glaciers, to understanding water availability and forecasting disasters, and to improving awareness and increasing access to information.”

SERVIR-HKH is a joint initiative of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). SERVIR-HKH has prioritized its activities on the themes of Agriculture and Food Security; Water Resources and Hydro-climatic Disasters; Land Cover, Land Use Change, and Ecosystems; and Weather and Climate Services with focused initiatives in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.

SERVIR-HKH in Afghanistan aims to support the Government of Afghanistan’s efforts in capacity development, data accessibility and availability, and enhancement of provisions of user-tailored data and tools for informed decision-making.

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