At least one third of Himalayan glaciers to melt this century despite government action?

An assessment report has found that climate change will cause more than a third of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Himalayan (HKH) mountains to melt by 2100. Even with strict government action aimed at reducing carbon emissions, the HKH region is facing tremendous loss in ice cover—a concerning development because the HKH is known as the “third pole” as it is the largest ice-covered area outside of the Arctic and Antarctic.

Details of the study

Authored by over 200 scientists and peer-reviewed by 125 experts, The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment: Mountains, Climate Change, Sustainability and People is the flagship publication of the Hindu Kush Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme (HIMAP), a science-policy initiative lead by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The Assessment studies the ecosystems in the 3,500 km long HKH region in the context of rapid climate change and sustainable initiatives. The Assessment provides accessible knowledge from different perspectives and allows fruitful collaborations between individuals and various governmental organisations working to reduce climate change. Beyond that, the assessment aims to “answer a range of policy-oriented questions we all grapple with.”

Findings of the study

The 2015 Paris Agreement, signed by 195 countries, set a historic goal of keeping the temperature rise “well below 2 degrees Celsius and to drive efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.”

However, the Assessment alarmingly found that despite the government’s efforts to achieve the “ambitious target” set by the 2015 Paris Agreement, glaciers in the extended Hindu Kush and Himalayan regions stand to lose more than one-third of their volume. It also said that the eastern Himalayan region is facing a loss of more than half its glacier ice. The report adds that if carbon emissions and greenhouse gases are not reduced, two-third of the glaciers in the HKH regions will melt.

Philippus Wester, overall coordinator of ICIMOD, told The Guardian, “This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of… In the best possible of worlds, if we get really ambitious [in tackingling climate change], even then we will lose one-third of the glaciers and be in trouble.”

Consequences of this finding

The HKH region is a vital water source for the 240 million people in eight different countries that share the land and for the 1.65 billion people in downstream river basins.

Currently, the report says that the melting glaciers will cause flooding of high-altitude lakes between 2050 and 2060, impacting the Indus and central Asian areas the most. The hydrodams that provide electricity to the region will suffer outages and there will be an increase in river run off, landslides, and soil erosion. The report also cites a significant 80-87% loss of original habitat by 2100 and possible loss of a quarter of the region’s endemic species.

Wester tells the Guardian that the monsoon is becoming more and more unpredictable, a sign of trouble for farmers and cultivators. “One-in-100 year floods are starting to happen every 50 years,” he said. People will also start to feel water stress as rivers in the Yangtze, Mekong, Indus, and Ganges get disrupted.

Political tension

Deputy Director General of ICIMOD Eklabya Sharma said, “Because many of the disasters and sudden changes will play out across country borders, conflict among the region’s countries could easily flare up.” In the HKH region, there could likely be infighting among regional and local groups who feel anxious because of the financial burden caused by the inaccessibility of water.

India and Pakistan are already in the process of navigating disputes related to water sharing. In 2018, the two countries met to negotiate their differences over two dam constructions on the Chenab. Despite having signed the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, “India had in 2016 said it would review the treaty after 19 Indian soldiers were killed in disputed Kashmir region that is claimed by both sides. Pakistan has repeatedly raised issue with India’s plans to build dams on rivers,” says Livemint. The six rivers—Ravi, Beas, Sutlej, Indus, Jhelum, and Chenab—are already a source of tension between these two countries.

India and China have dealt with conflicts over water, as well. Although the two countries have agreements that require China to share hydrological data of the upstream Brahmaputra, Indian authorities claimed in 2017 that they had not been receiving any. Bangladesh, however, was. India and China have even had standoffs over territory in Doklam, a disputed Himalayan territory.

Moving forward, migration and resource sharing and allocation are pegged to be important political issues between them and the others who share the HKH region, namely, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Myanmar: all of whom already have unpredictable political relationships.

Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius

Climate ChangeGlaciersGlobal WarmingHimalayasInternational relationsPoliticsRivers