Threat from Himalayan Glaciers Larger Than Expected

By Jingchao Wang and Xuefei Miao

Impacts of climate change in river systems are likely to have considerable social, economic, ecological and political implications, according to a new study published in the journal of Regional Environmental Change.

In order to understand governance mechanisms for climate adaptation in the region, a systematic review methodology was applied to 33 different papers that describe adaptation projects to examine adaptation responses in the riparian countries of three Himalayan river basins at three different levels—policy objectives, institutions and practice. The authors found that most studies focus on the Ganges River Basin. Since 2011 to 2012, the number of studies about climate change adaptation in the region have significantly increased.

The icefall of Khumbu glacier, in the Nepali Himalayas (Source: Nature)

Himalayan glaciers are the source of numerous large Asian river systems, which support rich ecosystems and irrigate millions of hectares of fields, thereby supporting more than one billion people who live in their catchments. The three major Himalayan river basins—Brahmaputra,Ganges and Indus—are spread over six countries in South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan).

The region is home to around 1.3 billion people, predominately those of low economic status, living in the three basins that cover more than 2.20 million square kilometers. India’s National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA) estimates that more than half of India’s poor communities live on the main stem of the Ganges and that by 2050, this population is expected to rise to approximately 720 million from an estimated 500 million in 2001.

Given the large geographical spread of the three river basins along with the huge number of poor people living in the region, adaptation to the anticipated adverse impacts of climate change is soon expected to feature dominantly in the mainstream policy discourse of the concerned countries, the authors wrote. Though each country in the region faces major threats, very few cross-country adaptation projects have been achieved, the new study shows.

A review of adaptation projects found that existing projects tend to focus on livelihood security, rather than water availability, which is a major concern for communities in the region. Already communities are vulnerable to droughts and floods and glacier melt excpected to exacerbate coastal and inland flooding, especially in Bangladesh.

Researchers went to Himalayas to collect ice cores(Source: NASA)

With climate change amplifying current levels of variability, more lives are at risk and global projects to alleviate local poverty face greater uncertainty and even failure. Large-scale population migration could add to global social instability as millions of people are forced to leave their homes. Considering the different levels of development among countries, difficulties exist in order to conduct large-scale projects, the authors said.

But a number of challenges make international projects difficult to implement. Most countries make their domestic interests a top priority, but climate change knows no national boundaries.

In addition, local cultures vary and some communities consider their cultural heritage as more valuable than economical benefits they could gain from adapting to climate change. A large number of religious sites and structures in the Indian Himalayas, where Buddhism was born, are threatened by climate change. Moreover, due to Himalayan plateau region’s unique environment, distinct biodiversity has formed. Climate change can destroy this heritage and may cause a lot of serious ecological problems, but the review showed that 30 percent of studies on climate adaptation indicate a gap in local awareness about the threats posed by climate change, which will impact peoples’ ability to respond to the challenges presented by climate change.

In order to operationalize adaptive practice effectively, scientists should widen the knowledge base, promote national and regional initiatives to conduct research, develop knowledge and data sharing and establish a cooperative framework to advance an agenda for the exchange of experience and better practices, the authors concluded. As many of the rivers in the region share trans-boundary systems, cross-country cooperation and dialogue among and within jurisdictions should be a priority. However, without clear climate policy objectives and without successful cross-country collaborations, it will not be easy to develop effective adaptation to climate change.

From a policy perspective, it is not merely necessary but urgent to build functional institutional mechanisms at both national and regional levels for addressing and responding to climate change through adaptation measures.

“Apart from India and Bangladesh, there is still ambiguity in goal setting which may constrain policy implementation,” the authors wrote. “At the institutional level, the observation that most of countries are in the process or have already designed structures for knowledge generation and management reflects the capacity for operationalizing the policy mandate of strengthening the scientific base for informed decisions.”

3 Responses to “Threat from Himalayan Glaciers Larger Than Expected”

  1. Avatar
    Latha Anantha

    It is time the common threat of Climate Change faced by the Trans Himalayan countries is approached and strategies are evolved collectively at multi lateral level. The era of bilateralism is over. If Climate change cannot bring us together nothing else will. Climate Change has no boundaries …

  2. Avatar
    Madhavan Namboodiri

    We are weary of such studies. We are also skeptical because such ‘studies’ are nothing but mere intellectual exercises based on review of yet some other ‘studies’. We are also concerned because, there is an increasing trend of replacing wisdom (acquired through a continuous iterative process of observing impacts of spatio-temporal variations in global phenomenon on life on earth and adapting) with the so called ‘Knowledge Base’, which is virtually acquired through print or electronic media. This trend becomes more challenging to the future of humanity, because these ‘knowledge bases’ are increasingly influencing global perspectives and policies. No one (including the ones ‘refusing’ to adapt as complained by the authors) is oblivious to the manifestations of climate change. But wise people were capable of distinguishing between manmade and natural causes of climate changes. In the corrective measures, they stopped human activities that caused climate change and adapted to the natural calamities through an empirical iterative process. These adaptation processes are influenced by multiples of spatio-temporally changing factors (social, cultural, political, geographical etc.). In the mid seventies and eighties, we had many successful examples of development concepts such as ‘Live with the Flood’ and ‘Live with the Drought’ in the flood prone and drought prone areas respectively. These programmes were developed and implemented with/by the local communities as alternatives to the World Bank initiated Flood Prone Area Development Programme and Drought Prone Area Development Programme. So the question of resorting to adaptation measures is ‘what’ and ‘how’ rather than ‘whether’. Also while talking about corrective measures to climate change please highlight the preventive measures rather than the adaptation measures.

    • GlacierHub

      Weariness in the face of so much talk about climate change: entirely understandable. Let us hope that the outcomes of the Paris COP will bring action to address both mitigation and adaptation.

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