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In Pakistan, residents are returning to ancient practices to deal with melting glaciers

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

In the highlands of Pakistan, glaciers are life. Residents rely on them for water, and many believe a Sufi saint taught their ancestors how to create new glaciers by mating them. The practice faded decades ago, but it's getting a second look as a warming planet causes glaciers to melt more rapidly. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Pakistan's far north.

YASIN MALIK: (Singing in non-English language).

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Yasin Malik sings as he takes us up the mountain, looming over his village, Chunda. It whiles the time as we walk for hours to a cavern that residents believe is inhabited by ice-dwelling ghosts and fairies which protect a baby glacier that Malik and his friends made by following an ancient tradition. They hope it will grow to replace the glaciers the village has long relied on, glaciers that are melting away.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANIMAL BLEATING)

HADID: As shepherds pass, Malik tells me glacier mating is done by mixing white glaciers, which they believe are female, with male glaciers, which are brown, the color formed by debris.

MALIK: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Two years ago in winter, Malik climbed K2, the world's second-highest mountain, to get chunks of the best female glaciers. Others trekked for days away to get the finest female glacier specimens. They took those chunks up Chunda mountain. They placed them in a shaded crevice. And they blanketed them with coal and chaff. They asked for God's blessings and sacrificed a goat. This is the first time they've returned since. Malik is hoping the glacier baby has grown.

MALIK: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: The future water supply of his village could depend on it. We scramble over boulders. Malik's friend, Saeed Baltistani, shows us the crevice where there's a car-sized block of ice - the glacier baby. In the falling rain, I ask...

Do you think that she's growing?

SAEED BALTISTANI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He says, "Yeah. Look. The glacier is spreading under the rocks." But will it grow into something large enough to supply this village with water? Residents of other villages say they tried this method with mixed results. Across the border in India, Suryanarayanan Balasubramanian is an expert on artificial ice reservoirs. He says the point of glacier mating could be the ritual itself.

SURYANARAYANAN BALASUBRAMANIAN: So maybe the point was never to make baby glaciers. It was more to have the value of glaciers in, you know, in the society.

HADID: A ritual that drives home the importance of glaciers. And perhaps what the ritual underscores now is how desperate people are to find ways to adapt to climate change. But other scientists say the process is sound. This is mountain hydrologist Jakob Steiner.

JACKOB STEINER: Ice grafting works. You take that ice, put it into caves. And there, it's much colder. It's going to rain on top, as well, so it's going to freeze so that ice actually grows.

HADID: But Steiner says to be clear, the residents aren't creating glaciers. They're growing ice. Amid this debate, Chunda's residents have a prominent backer, the United Nations Development Programme. It helps people adapt to climate change in Pakistan. They provided a few hundred dollars for the glacier mating ritual. Knut Ostby is the Pakistan representative.

KNUT OSTBY: We should not underestimate the power of the ingenuity of people themselves.

HADID: And they do have ingenuity. People in Baltistan are teaching themselves another way to curb water shortages by building ice stupas - basically a frozen fountain that melts in spring. It's a technique pioneered in neighboring India and migrated here through YouTube videos. So hours from where residents are trying to make glaciers, we drive to the village of Pari, where there's a more visibly successful endeavor.

BASHIR HAIDARI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: We meet Bashir Haidari near the village stream that he says was once drying up for lack of snowfall.

HAIDARI: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Then five years ago, he watched a video about ice stupas and figured out how to build one. He takes us up the local mountain with his friends to show us what he made. Haidari's friends chant in praise as they see it.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in non-English language).

HADID: Haidari created this ice stupa by piping water downstream to a gorge. The water rushed down and was forced up through nozzles. It spread out like mist. It froze through the winter. On the day we arrive, it's a truck-sized pile of ice. For months, it's been melting water into the village stream. One friend, Yasir Parvi, says villagers thought Haidari was crazy when he began.

YASIR PARVI: He's mentally upset. He's doing something that is impossible.

HADID: Now he's a star. One woman, Nargis, tells us, before the stupa, she couldn't grow food for her kids.

NARGIS: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: She tears up and says, "Thank God for this man." Hours away in the village of Machulo, Residents are also resolving water shortages in a more traditional way. As evening falls, they gather by the village stream.

ZAHRA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: One woman, Zahra, says, "We've come to steal water."

ZAHRA: (Laughter).

HADID: She laughs, but it's dire. As night falls, Zahra uses her shovel to divert water into her irrigation canal. Machulo villagers are meant to take it in turns to use the stream water. And it's not Zahra's turn. But she says she's desperate. If she can't grow food, her family goes hungry. One elder tells me he hopes to try and build an ice stupa this fall. NPR News, Machulo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.