The Ayoloco glacier was once 200 meters thick, an icy colossus dragging rocks through its slow path down the slope. When you ascend to the 4,700-meter point of the Iztaccíhuatl volcano in central Mexico today, all that remains are the deep grooves it carved and a wall of old ice. The awesome force of its weight, dating back millennia, is gone.
Two researchers from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) are now trying to affix a metal plate into one of those ancient grooves. They coat it with glue and secure it with screws. They don’t want it to fall down in the next storm. “This plaque is in memory of Ayoloco, to remind us it was here,” explains glaciologist Hugo Delgado. “And that it receded until it disappeared in 2018 because of climate change linked to human activity.”
The disappearance of this key water source cannot be reversed, and soon ice-free slopes and stones scattered like bones are all that will be left of Mexico’s once plentiful glaciers
This geologist has dedicated his career to studying Mexican glaciers, and says that measures should have been taken much earlier to prevent Ayoloco’s fate. The disappearance of this key water source cannot be reversed, and soon ice-free slopes and stones scattered like bones are all that will be left of Mexico’s once plentiful glaciers.
Delgado came to Iztaccíhuatl in 1974 to learn to walk on snow. He climbed the magnificent Ayoloco glacier with a hammer and ice ax, and lived here for two weeks in 1979 to prepare an expedition to the Himalayas. He lost his best friend on that mission. He has crossed this mountain so many times that he does not know the exact figure, and knows it like the back of his hand. “Our ice is heroic,” he says. “It is resisting as long as it can”.
Iztaccíhuatl is Mexico’s third-highest peak at 5,230 meters. Back in 1958, 11 glaciers were counted here in a national survey. Now only three remain: the Pecho, the Panza and the Suroriental glaciers. Between them, they barely cover 0.2 square kilometers, but in 1850 they stretched over 6.23 square kilometers, during the tail-end of the so-called “Little Ice Age”. In 170 years, the mountain has lost 95% of its glacier mass.
Mexico’s last five glaciers have a grim prognosis. Delgado predicts that in the next five years the three on Iztaccíhuatl will have disappeared
In the rest of Mexico, only two other permanent masses of ice remain: “El Norte” (North) Glacier and the small “Noroeste” (Northwestern) Glacier, totalling little more than 0.6 square kilometers. They are found in the Pico de Orizaba, also known as Citlaltépetl, on the border of the Mexican states of Puebla and Veracruz. The Pico de Orizaba is the highest mountain in the country, at 5,675 meters, and the third-highest in North America. Four glaciers have disappeared from its slopes over the last sixty years. El Norte, the geologists’ last hope, has lost its “tongues” – ridges or protrusions that snaked up the mountain. “The rock is showing through,” explains Delgado, “the ice layer is minimal”.
Remnants of the masses of ice that still survive in Iztaccíhuatl. On the video, the ascent to the former glacier of Ayoloco (Spanish language).
Mexico’s last five glaciers have a grim prognosis. Delgado predicts that in the next five years the three on Iztaccíhuatl will have disappeared. He gives those on Pico de Orizaba two decades. In any case, he says: “In 2050 there will be no glaciers in Mexico”.
Delgado also represents his country in the international glacier research group, and for years he has endured the jokes of Latin American colleagues, proud of the magnificent glaciers of Ecuador or Peru. “‘Soon you won’t even need to show up,’” they used to say, laughing at me… They have gone from making fun of the size of my glaciers to worrying about their own as they watch the ice vanish,” he explains.
The continuing disappearance of glaciers is a mirror held up to the world we are heading for: warmer, drier, worn out.
This fast-accelerating extinction is happening to ice masses simultaneously around the world. From Ok in Iceland to Pizol in Austria, the funerals are happening in quick succession, with requiems for Spanish glaciers and new lakes forming in the Himalayas. No one, no matter where they are, can escape global warming. Glaciers are a sensor for climate change: the more the planet’s temperature rises, the faster they retreat. Their continuing disappearance is a mirror held up to the world we are heading for: warmer, drier, worn out.
You can hear crunching footsteps on the earth, the heavy breathing and the bristling zacatones, plants that cover the slopes of Iztaccíhuatl like a blanket. In a clearing, before reaching the snow, crosses commemorate Luis Rosas, a mountaineer who died in 1971, and Daniel Peralta, who lost his life in 2013. These plaques in homage to mountain lovers inspired the farewell to Ayoloco.
The silence on the path suddenly shifts to a low, constant rumble. “Can you hear that? It’s a gas leak, with a lot of pressure. There are sometimes some explosions. It’s Popocatépetl,” says Robin Campion, a volcanologist from UNAM who accompanies Delgado on his expeditions to the glaciers. From the foothills of Iztaccíhuatl, the smoke of the other volcano is clearly outlined in the clear May sky, as a constant reminder of its presence.
Popocatépetl also had glaciers until 2000, when a strong eruption buried them. “There is still some ice left, but it does not function as a glacier because it has no movement or feeding process. In fact, those ice masses are ironically being preserved by the volcano’s ashes,” explains Delgado. If one day Popocatépetl falls dormant and the temperature increase has not melted the ice, the glacier could be regenerated.
A thick blanket of clouds accompanies the mountaineers on their ascent until it covers their feet, knees and the belly of Iztaccíhuatl. The hollow that occupied the Atzintli glacier until around 2012 appears on the western slope, on the route to Ayoloco. Now lizards hide among the rock piles and lichen at 4,500 meters above sea level. For centuries both glaciers were an important source of water during the dry season. Their names in Nahuatl, “heart of water” and “my water”, spell out the link with the people who lived here.
The two glaciers disappeared when the temperature increased and remained below the so-called “equilibrium line”. Geologists define this as the area in the mountains where the average annual temperature is zero degrees or less. Above this line, snow, blizzards or hail accumulate and feed the glacier. “As it feeds, it moves downslope due to gravity. When it exceeds the equilibrium line, it reaches what we call the ablation zone,” Delgado explains. This is where the temperature is higher than zero degrees and where everything begins to melt. “Glaciers have this dynamic of feeding and loss and there is a balance that allows them to conserve mass or lose it,” he adds.
This line of equilibrium has moved naturally over time. All the mountains of the Valley of Mexico taller than 3,500 meters were once covered with ice: the Ajusco, the Sierra de la Cruces, the Nevado de Toluca or the mountains of the Sierra Nevada all harbored glaciers. The temperature increase means that the level of the line is ever higher up. In 1958, it could be found in Mexico at 4,500 meters; now it is at 5,250 meters.
In addition to global warming, Mexican glaciers are trying to survive while surrounded by the industrial zones of the Valley of Mexico and Puebla state, and densely populated areas like Mexico City and Nezahualcoyotl
All of Iztaccíhuatl’s glaciers are already below the equilibrium line. “This means that solid precipitation has no hope of staying put,” Delgado explains. While the researchers secure the Ayoloco plate, the snow is falling heavily on the belly of the mountain. The rainy season has just begun and at this altitude the storm is shedding snowflakes relentlessly, but they do not cover all of the exposed rock. “The snow doesn’t last more than a few days, maybe a few weeks with luck. But it doesn’t stick, it can’t feed the glaciers.” The trio that remain on Iztaccíhuatl remain couched inside the craters, as the hollow protects the body of ice. “They are being maintained by the conditions on the surface, but the hope that they will stay is practically nil.”
Things are different at Pico de Orizaba. The summit and its glaciers are still 120 meters above the equilibrium line. But geologists have detected a lack of synchronization when it snows in the rainy season, which in Mexico coincides with summer. The high temperatures prevent the snow from sticking, and when it gets cold enough, there is no precipitation. “If things continue with the same temperature records, in a couple of decades they will disappear,” Delgado predicts.
In addition to global warming, Mexican glaciers are trying to survive while surrounded by the industrial zones of the Valley of Mexico and Puebla state, and densely populated areas like Mexico City and Nezahualcoyotl. As the glacial ice melts, outcrops of dark mountain rock start to appear which absorb instead of reflect solar radiation, causing additional warming.
A monitoring station on the Pico de Orizaba also corroborates that Mexico’s ice is “hot ice”, with a temperature so close to zero degrees that the ice melts easily with just a small rise in temperature. In addition, in the dry seasons the glaciers suffer from the sun’s rays due to their altitude and orientation, and although temperatures are low the ice turns from a solid state into gas and evaporates.
The loss of the Mexican glaciers means losing a sensor for climate change, but it also means losing a water source. In an increasingly populated and drier country – the average temperature in Mexico has risen 2ºC in the last 34 years – glaciers are an additional contribution to drinking water in the dry season for communities living near the mountains. They contribute about 5% of the region’s water, in runoff or by feeding into aquifers. “It’s very little, but even that will still cease to exist,” Delgado notes. All the signs – receding glaciers, melting poles, emptying dams – point in the same direction: “There will no longer be as much water available. Our society will be under water stress. It is a problem that is already here, but the magnitude of it is not yet clear. The real challenge now is how we are going to adapt.”
There is no hope for these frozen masses fading slowly away on Mexico’s mountain tops, but we can try to slow down the process. Reducing greenhouse gases, saving water, avoiding deforestation and investing in environmental education are all necessary today. Delgado, who finds hope in the upcoming generation, concludes: “This is not to protect the planet, but the environment that allows us to survive as a species. We are risking our own existence.”
‘The Taliban killed a midwife who refused to leave a woman in labour’ | Afghanistan
When Afghanistan’s first midwife-led birth centre opened in the impoverished district of Dasht-e-Barchi in western Kabul this year it was a symbol of hope and defiance.
It began receiving expectant mothers in June, just over a year after a devastating attack by gunmen on the maternity wing at the local hospital left 24 people dead, including 16 mothers, a midwife and two young children.
For Zahra Mirzaei, its launch – along with a second birth centre in the east of the capital – marked the culmination of a decade advocating for women’s birth rights.
As president of the Afghan Midwives Association (AMA), Mirzaei was instrumental in establishing the midwife-led units promoting an ethos of respectful, bespoke care away from an over-medicalised setting.
“In our country this approach to pregnant women is groundbreaking and there was a great feeling of hope when we opened our doors,” she says.
“Women who had previously experienced undignified, low quality care in poorly staffed hospitals were pleasantly surprised to discover there is another way of doing things.”
The units in Dasht-e-Barchi and Arzan Qimat were established with technical support and training from the Europe-based Midwifery Unit Network (MUNet) and funding from two NGOs which we cannot name for security reasons.
In the initial weeks the centres, staffed with a total of 75 midwives, were each welcoming 10 to 13 newborns a day. But as word spread, increasing numbers arrived and this soon climbed to 25 to 30.
By late July, Mirzaei was preoccupied with how to manage the rise in cases. But her work was overshadowed by a growing awareness of the Taliban’s military offensive, which had gathered unexpected pace.
News of the Afghan government’s imminent collapse amid the withdrawal of US troops was, to Mirzaei, personally and professionally shattering.
“Suddenly everything I had worked tirelessly for was under threat,” she says. As a Hazara Shia and a longstanding campaigner for women’s rights, the 33-year-old knew she and her three children were at risk.
“Previous Taliban governments have killed thousands of Hazara people without any reason. Also I knew my feminist work and belief in women’s equality would never be accepted by the Taliban regime,” says Mirzaei, who in 2020 was named one of 100 outstanding female nurses, midwives and leaders providing health services in difficult times by Women in Global Health.
As the US and its coalition partners scrambled to airlift thousands of people from the country, warnings were filtering through from Mirzaei’s home town that she was a potential Taliban target.
On the day Kabul fell, plunging the country into turmoil, she left her office for the last time, fleeing in such a hurry she was unable to collect her shoes. “We didn’t expect the situation to escalate so fast,” she says.
Later that night she was woken by the sound of her eight-year-old daughter sobbing: “I went to her and she said: ‘Mummy, I’m scared that when I’m 12 the Taliban will come and take me to get married and I won’t be able to go to school.’ That was so painful to hear that I promised there and then to get us out.”
After calling every contact she could think of, she heard from a friend in the US who could help. Mirzaei left home with her family at 1am on 23 August, still wearing the flimsy slippers in which she’d fled her office.
They spent a harrowing 12 hours waiting in a sewer near the airport before being rescued by US troops and airlifted to Qatar. From there they were transferred to a refugee camp in southern Spain.
Speaking from the Spanish naval base in Rota, Mirzaei explains how leaving Afghanistan also meant, regrettably, stepping down as president of the AMA.
While she was heartbroken to give up the role, she remains a member of the advisory board and is working remotely to support the organisation including her successor – a woman from a different ethnic group who is more likely to be accepted by the regime.
As the eighth girl of 10 siblings, Mirzaei understood from a young age that boys and girls were not seen as equal. “I had two brothers but my father wanted more boys and it made me sad girls were not allowed to reach their full potential in our community.”
Growing up in the province of Sar-e Pol, where poverty was widespread and literacy rates were poor, 16-year-old Mirzaei found education opportunities were limited.
An encounter at the local hospital set her on the path to becoming a midwife. In the waiting room she witnessed a woman desperately searching for a midwife only to be abused by a health worker.
“This incident really affected me – the way they treated her was shameful. When I saw the doctor I asked her what a midwife was and why it was so important.
“I liked the sound of midwifery – it spoke to the feminist in me. That kind doctor changed my life by explaining how I could enrol on a community education midwife programme.”
A year later Mirzaei graduated with a diploma having already joined the AMA as a student. “I was inspired by its plans for improving the profession. For me the most important thing was for women to receive evidence-based, respectful maternity care.”
But starting out as a hospital midwife in 2006 she was concerned by what she saw.
“There would be 150 deliveries a day in a hospital with only four or five midwives. Women would be left to give birth in the corner or in the toilet. The most painful thing was seeing how exhausted the midwives were – they couldn’t support pregnant women emotionally and there was even physical abuse.”
While women in remote areas typically give birth without medical assistance, or sometimes with a midwife, childbirth in urban hospital settings is highly medicalised.
“These facilities are staffed by doctors who don’t seem to know their job description because they are overrun dealing with straightforward births,” says Mirzaei. “The care is dehumanised and the use of hormone drips and episiotomies is routine practice.”
Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, although the number of women dying in childbirth has slowed from 1,450 per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 638 in 2017, according to UN data.
In 2012 Mirzaei became a provincial director for the AMA and later moved to Kabul to coordinate a midwives’ mentorship programme for the organisation.
She joined a small but growing cohort to achieve a BA in midwifery after graduating from Zawul Institute of Higher Education in 2016. Two years later she was elected president of the AMA and made it her mission to establish midwife-led units.
The model would move away from medical interventions towards a focus on active birth, skin-to-skin contact and early breastfeeding.
In 2003 there were just 467 midwives operating in Afghanistan – the severe shortage brought about by the Taliban’s ban on educating girls and women during the preceding years. This figure has since grown to 6,376 currently in clinical practice.
A 2018 Afghanistan Health Survey found just a fifth of pregnant women had received the recommended four antenatal care visits and fewer than 60% of births were overseen by a skilled healthcare professional.
There were 119 attacks by terrorist groups on healthcare facilities in Afghanistan in 2019, according to the World Health Organization. Then in May 2020 came the massacre at the maternity ward of the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital.
Among the dead was a midwife colleague of Mirzaei, Maryam Noorzad. “She was killed because she refused to leave a woman alone in labour. The baby was coming and after it was born a gunman entered and killed all three of them.”
Not only was the attack a horrific crime against pregnant women, babies and hospital staff – it was also a devastating assault on decades of work to reduce maternal and newborn mortality in Afghanistan.
Despite the security fears, the AMA wanted to establish one of the midwife-led units in the same district to plug the gap left by the attack on the hospital, where there had been 16,000 babies born in 2019. Many of the midwives who survived the 2020 attack were among the highly trained staff taken on by the AMA to run the new centres.
The success of the centres relies on one-to-one care and requires numbers to be kept at a manageable level. To meet the demand it was Mirzaei’s ambition to open more units across Kabul and beyond.
But for now, at best, her dream is on hold. The centres closed after the Taliban takeover and while one has recently reopened many staff remain too fearful to go to work. Some midwives have already been interrogated by the Taliban for moving around without a chaperone.
The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) has estimated that without immediate support there could be 51,000 additional maternal deaths between now and 2025.
In Spain, Mirzaei is preparing to fly to the US to start the next chapter of her life. Her immediate future is uncertain but she has accepted an offer to study global maternal health at City, University of London, which she’s had to defer until she can arrange a visa.
“Every day I open my phone and look at photos that were taken at our birth centres. It gives me hope. Their immediate success rests on the wider political situation but we will not cease our efforts to do everything we can for girls and women in Afghanistan.”
Many midwives who have campaigned for women’s rights in Afghanistan now find themselves targeted by the Taliban and have been forced into hiding, while others are at risk because of their ethnicity. The Association of Radical Midwives is raising funds to help those seeking to settle in the UK. To donate please visit this crowdfunding page.
EU to open new mission in Kabul
The EU foreign service is to open a mission in Kabul by the end of November, the FT reported Sunday, citing sources. The representation would not be an embassy, as the EU has not recognised the Taliban government. The EU office is also to be used by member states’ diplomats. “There’s only so much you can do from Doha,” a source said. China, Russia, and Turkey never closed their embassies.
‘Countdown to catastrophe’: half of Afghans face hunger this winter – UN | Hunger
More than half of Afghanistan’s population is facing acute hunger as the country has been thrown into one of the world’s largest food crises.
Almost 23 million Afghans will be hungry due to conflict, drought and an economic downturn that is severely affecting livelihoods and people’s access to food as a harsh winter looms, the UN has warned; an increase of nearly 35% compared with last year.
“Afghanistan is now among the world’s worst humanitarian crises – if not the worst – and food security has all but collapsed. This winter, millions of Afghans will be forced to choose between migration and starvation,” the World Food Programme’s executive director David Beasley said, adding that “we are on a countdown to catastrophe”.
The Taliban takeover in August has contributed to the economic upheaval as billions of dollars in foreign aid payments – 40% of the country’s gross domestic product – have ceased and almost $10bn (£7.3bn) of Afghan central bank assets have been frozen.
Half of all Afghans will be facing crisis or emergency levels of acute food insecurity between this November and March next year, the UN report said.
As desperation grows, the number of beggars throughout Afghanistan’s major cities – including children – has risen as urban residents, for the first time, suffer similar rates of food insecurity to rural communities; a shifting pattern of hunger in the country.
In the southern city of Kandahar, a traditional Taliban heartland, the malnutrition ward at Mirwais hospital was packed with women and children, most of them sharing beds with several others. The ward was stuffy and crammed. Mothers sat with their children while fathers or other male relatives – usually not allowed to enter – waited outside. Although the hospital is the biggest health facility in southern Afghanistan, it is poorly equipped.
“We have more than 70 children here and numbers are increasing,” said paediatrician Zainullah Zermal, adding that although malnutrition cases usually rise with the approach of winter, this year’s cases were alarming and the hospital was struggling to cope.
Many families had travelled significant distances to reach Kandahar, unable to access adequate healthcare nearer home. More than 2,000 clinics across the country have closed due to lack of funds.
Eighteen-month-old Memala shared her bed with another patient at Mirwais hospital, her body thin and frail, her gaze absent.
“We have travelled from Kandahar’s Zhari district,” her mother, who didn’t want to give her name, said; about an hour’s drive away. Zermal explained that, so far, most children had a good chance of survival, but he was worried about the coming weeks.
“We’re now seeing more families arriving from far away. Some of them travel for days to seek medical care as there are no hospitals near them. Winter is coming and that’s when malnutrition usually spikes.”
In Kabul’s Indira Gandhi children’s hospital, the biggest paediatric clinic in the country, doctors said about a dozen children were arriving each day, even though the city’s markets were still stocked with food.
“We don’t have money to afford it,” said Fereshta, a 30-year-old mother. Her six-month-old daughter Zahaba was underweight. Fereshta, who has five children, said that between worrying about money and not having enough to eat, she hadn’t been able to breastfeed her daughter properly.
Only 5% of households have enough to eat every day, the UN said. Many families who fled fighting before the Taliban takeover can’t afford to go back home, instead remaining in makeshift camps with no source of income. About 3.5 million people remain displaced within the country.
During the Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001, millions of Afghans lived in poverty and on the brink of starvation, and fears are mounting that a similar situation could arise.
The “Islamic Emirate” on Sunday launched a wheat-for-work scheme, saying it would employ 40,000 casual labourers in Kabul who would be paid in wheat instead of cash. During the initiative, set to last for two months, the Taliban pledged to distribute 11,600 tonnes of wheat in the capital.
Cash is largely unavailable, and many government employees are waiting for unpaid salaries.
In Kabul, beggars are visible on almost every street corner. In the city centre, small children chase after shoppers, hoping for a piece of bread.
Setara Amiri, 43, has been begging for the past month. Her husband, who worked as a driver for the previous government, is unemployed. “My children are begging too,” she said, sitting on a busy Kabul pavement. The family used to get by, she said, but not now.
“Each morning I wake up, I worry that we won’t have food at night. I’m begging so my children won’t starve.”
‘The Taliban killed a midwife who refused to leave a woman in labour’ | Afghanistan
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