Not Alarmed by Climate Change and Water Scarcity? Scientists Warn Himalaya to Lose A Third of Ice by 2100
As South Asia, including Pakistan, faces water shortage amid climate change and unbridled population growth, scientists have warned that at least a third of the ice in the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush will thaw this century as temperatures rise, disrupting river flows vital for growing crops from China to India.
Vast glaciers make the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region – which is home to the world’s highest peaks topped by Mount Everest and K2 – a “third pole” behind Antarctica and the Arctic region, says a report prepared by 210 authors.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” said Philippus Wester, who led the report.
“Global warming is on track to transform the frigid, glacier-covered mountain peaks of the HKH cutting across eight countries to bare rocks in a little less than a century,” said Wester of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).
The report says more than a third of the ice in the region will melt by 2100 even if governments take tough action to limit global warming under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
And two-thirds of the ice could vanish if governments fail to rein in greenhouse gas emissions this century. “To me this is the biggest worrying thing,” Wester said.
Glaciers have thinned and retreated across most parts of the region since the 1970s. Ice in the Hindu Kush Himalaya region would push up sea levels by 1.5 metres if it all melted, Eklabya Sharma, deputy director general of ICIMOD, said.
The region stretches 3,500 km across Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan.
The study said the thaw will disrupt rivers including the Yangtze, Mekong, Indus and Ganges, where farmers rely on glacier melt water in the dry season. About 250 million people live in the mountains and 1.65 billion people in river valleys below.
Changes in river flows could also harm hydropower production and cause more erosion and landslides in the mountains.
But more research is needed to gauge exactly how glaciers affect distant crops, said Wouter Buytaert, of Imperial College in London, who was not involved in the study.
“While glacier meltwater propagates downstream, it mixes with water from other sources such as direct rainfall, wetlands, and groundwater, up to a point where the impact of glacier melting may become negligible,” he said.
The authors said that people living in small island states were often viewed as the most vulnerable to climate change because of rising sea levels.
“It’s not just occupants of the world’s islands that are suffering,” said Dasho Rinzin Dorji, an ICIMOD board member from Bhutan. He said in a statement that mountain regions were also extremely vulnerable as “climate hotspots”.
This situation is very alarming and needs coordinated efforts at the state level. In an earlier article published in The Diplomat, the writers, Farwa Aamer and Jace White, say national governments and regional policy makers must address the incessant politicization of water resource management in South Asia.
Amid the rising demand for fresh water, they argue that trans-boundary water resources have become a distinctly politicized element within intraregional relations of South Asia, with countries treating this limited shared resource as a zero-sum issue of sovereignty and pursuing water governance policies that only best serve supposed national interests.
“This has resulted in an unfortunate ‘tragedy of the commons’ scenario, with competition supplanting regional cooperation. The stakes are high, and incompetent and inequitable water sharing agreements will exacerbate an already dire situation, and further fuel distress in terms of economic shocks, as well as environmental and humanitarian costs.”
“In sum and substance, addressing existing vulnerabilities and averting future water crises will require practical and clear strategies on all fronts. Such an undertaking will have positive spill-over effects on overall regional welfare given the potential of hydro-political cooperation to serve as a mainstay of stability and trust-building between neighbouring nations.”