Asia’s High Glaciers Protect Communities from Drought

A recent study in Nature by Hamish Pritchard, a glaciologist at Cambridge University and researcher for the British Antarctic Survey, shows that the high mountains of Asia, including the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush, and Karakoram, are being greatly affected by global warming. In some areas of the Himalayan region, for example, temperatures have risen faster than the global average. From 1982 to 2006, the average annual mean temperature in the region increased by 1.5 °C, with an average increase of .06 °C per year, according to UNEP. Even though studies on the high mountains of Asia are incomplete, it is believed that the mountains will lose half of their ice in the next 30 years.

Farmers in Pakistan are shifting from wheat to cope with the droughts (Source: Muhammad Darjat/Google Images).

This glacial loss has consequences for Asia as the glaciers provide an important ecosystem service to 800 million people by acting as a regional buffer against drought and providing summer meltwater to rivers and aquifers. If the glaciers in the eastern and central Himalayas disappear by 2035, the ecosystem service protecting against drought would be lost. Despite the fact that glaciers can promote drought resiliency, the surrounding areas would be particularly vulnerable to water scarcity because the glaciers will not supply enough meltwater to maintain the rivers and streams at adequate levels.

Lack of water could lead to devastating food shortages and malnutrition, further impacting the economy and public health. Based on a projected estimate of glacier area in 2050, it is thought that declining water availability will eventually threaten some 70 million people with food insecurity. Droughts in the Himalayan region have already resulted in more than 6 million deaths over the past century. Glacier loss would only add to drought-related water stress in the region, impacting a surrounding 136 million people.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Pritchard explained, “Without these glaciers, particularly in the Indus and Aral, droughts would be substantially worse in summer than they are now, and that could be enough to drive conflict and migration, which becomes a regional and potentially global issue. It could result in social instability, conflict, and migrations of populations.”

According to Pritchard’s research, the high mountains of Asia supply 23 cubic kilometers of water downstream every summer. If the glaciers were to vanish, the amount of water during the summer would decrease by 38 percent in the upper Indus basin on average and up to 58 percent in drought conditions. The loss of summer meltwater would have its greatest effects on the municipal and industrial needs of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, with water stress being classified as medium to extremely high. For example, the Indus River, which has one of the world’s largest irrigation networks, is Pakistan’s primary source of freshwater. About 90 percent of Pakistan’s agriculture depends on the river and much of the world’s cotton comes from the Indus River Valley. Additionally, decreased meltwater would further affect upstream countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Nepal that rely on hydropower. The Toktogul hydropower plant and four smaller plants downstream produce almost 80 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s electricity.

An irrigation system in the Indus basin in Pakistan (Source: GRID Arendal/Creative Commons).

Pritchard presents data that show how much the glacier meltwater contributes to different regions within Asia during drought. Some areas, such as the Aral Sea, rely exclusively on the glacier water during the drought months. The glaciers provide meltwater when rainfall is minimal or nonexistent under drought conditions because glaciers store precipitation for decades to centuries as ice, which then flows to lower altitudes when melting in the summer. Twila Moon, a postdoctoral research associate at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder, Colorado, recently discussed the consequences of global glacier volume loss on populations worldwide in Science magazine. “Rising seas, to which melting ice is a key contributor, are expected to displace millions of people within the lifetime of many of today’s children,” she stated. “This loss of Earth’s land ice is of international concern.”

As temperatures continue to rise, the surrounding regions will begin to lose their source of water for food, agriculture and survival. Due to inadequate scientific studies and evidence, the trends and status of glaciers in the Himalayas and other ranges are not being sufficiently observed and recorded. A lack of adequate monitoring of the glaciers means political action to adapt to the foreseen changes will be limited. More communication between the scientific community and policymakers is needed to relay knowledge about the impacts of changes in glaciers on the region’s hydrology, environment and livelihoods.

An Interview with Mattias Borg, Author of Andean Waterways

The Danish anthropologist Mattias Borg Rasmussen has recently published a book, Andean Waterways: Resource Politics in Highland Peru (University of Washington Press, 2015), which addresses the economic, political, social and culture dynamics of a community that is facing glacier retreat and water scarcity.

The book shows how environmental change and institutional politics are intertwined in struggles over water. It presents vivid descriptions of daily life in the provincial municipality of Recuay  in the highlands of Ancash in northern Peru. It links these descriptions with a richly textured account of the village’s history and shows how water is always the site of intense political, economic and social struggles.

In this context of climate change, the book explores how the inhabitants of an Andean town manage fickle waterways, lobby an unresponsive central government, and adjust to receding glaciers and capricious rains. The villagers create, maintain and defend the flows of water that are essential to their livelihoods. And through these efforts, the villagers confront both climate change and rural abandonment, and navigate the possibilities and restraints that influence life in the high mountains. A short video presents additional information about the book. 

Landscape in Ancash, Peru (source: MBR)
Landscape in Ancash, Peru (source: MBR)

GH: What led you to select Recuay as the site of your research?

MBR: Late in 2008, I began thinking about doing field work, and in the summer of 2009 I joined  the Waterworlds project, headed by Kirsten Hastrup, at the University of Copenhagen, where I found a supportive group of colleagues. I was looking for a place with glaciers and due to my background working in Peru I wanted it to take place there. I was more familiar with the eastern lowlands of Peru, and I was curious to learn more about the highlands. I began searching the internet and came across a document which intrigued me. It was a signed declaration by peasant organizations and other groups. It included a statement which directly linked climate change to ‘irresponsible’ government policies. They were talking about an imminent future of water scarcity, about the uneven distribution of causes and effects, and about their own moral obligation to act against this knowledge that they have due to their prolonged settlement in the area. That document led me to Recuay.

 

GH: What was one of the biggest surprises that occurred to you during your fieldwork?

MBR: Initially, the document which had drawn me to the area turned out to be of no relevance as I followed the peasants in their everyday efforts to obtain water. Before I left for the field, I had spent a great deal of time thinking about cosmologies and worldviews. In other parts of the world, peasant farmers think of sentient beings—you could call them spirits, or local deities—who play a critical role in assuring flows of water. I was expecting characters or agents pertaining to the non-human world to be central to the question of water. But I found that concepts belonging to the bureaucratic ordering of water to be of much larger importance. This became central in my work, and the book has a lot to say about the ways in which the peasants try to engage in different kinds of state bureaucracies in order to secure their water. In these encounters, climate change may be used to frame or contextualize the claim to water, but the sites of struggles are always between different kinds of institutions who may secure water rights by defining proper uses and users. In the final chapter I describe how the document I had found on the internet suddenly became of relevance, as peasant communities in this region mobilized against a proposed mining installation in the headwaters of the Río Santa, the main river in the valley. Suddenly, the links between an uneven global political economy of minerals and pollution became entangled with local livelihoods and water in a very specific way.

 

Peasant farmer, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Peasant farmer, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)

GH: Your fieldwork took place where the world’s largest area of tropical glaciers is found, and where these glaciers are melting rapidly. Do you think that the concept of “climate change” has relevance to the communities that you lived in?

MBR: The short answer to that is yes. Climate change is unquestionably  visible through the receding glaciers, and it is something which is felt on directly on the human bodies as temperatures become more intense, rains fall differently and winds shift direction. The local farmers talk about their children getting bronchitis, their animals dying, species such as particular amphibians and insects disappearing and the glaciers vanishing. But climate change is not the lens through which you can understand all things going on there. While it has relevance, it is not all encompassing. That is why I am a little bit cautious about using notions such as adaptation, which seem to establish a direct relationship between an ‘action’ and a ‘phenomenon’. By a play of words, I write that rather than adaptation to climate change I am more interested in how climate change is adopted to human lives – that is, how the changes that I describe above are made meaningful, talked about and acted upon. That shifts the center of the analysis. But yes, climate change is definitely part of the local vocabulary and shaping local realities in ways that are astonishing.

 

Irrigation canal, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Irrigation canal, Recuay, Peru (source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

GH: Did your experience in Recuay give you optimism for the future, pessimism, or a bit of both? In what ways?

MBR: I must admit that I feel mostly pessimism. First of all, the people whose lives and struggles I describe here lead hard and troubled lives. Many of them feel somewhat caught in a limbo between the rural and the urban, a want for progress but a sense of haven been left behind. This is not a very attracting place for international donors and, as I describe in the book, the communities do not exactly feel well catered by state institutions. On top of this comes the sense of urgency introduced by climate change in a material sense of places with less water. But more importantly, it brings forward images of a brutal future and possibly – especially in Christian interpretations – the end of the World. This is the Apocalypse and people fear for their children and grandchildren. The Ancash regional government  has had a relatively large budget (it receives payments from local mines), but in spite of some investment in the irrigation sector, the needs far exceed the payments that come to support irrigation. In the last year or two, the revenues are shrinking, since prices for minerals have been falling, so the public coffers are emptying. The Ancash region and Peru as a whole are facing the challenge of creating institutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change on water availability in an effective, fair manner. So far, the experience in Recuay and the region shows that there is a long way to go.

 

Peasant homestead, Recuay, Peru (source: MBR)
Peasant homestead, Recuay, Peru (source: Mattias Borg Rasmussen)

GH: Having completed your research, and having written this book, you are now moving forward with other projects. How has your experience in Recuay shaped your current focus?

MBR: I have continued working in the area, but have shifted my site a little bit towards the south where there is a much larger peasant community (comunidad campesina). I have become increasingly interested in the role of these social organizations in conflicts over the use of resources – and actually, the very definition of what constitutes an element of the environment as a resource. The work in Recuay showed how water is subject to struggles between different kinds of institutions which claim authority over its use. By moving to a larger and historically more consolidated comunidad campesina I have been able to examine further the importance of these collectively owned productive enterprises – which number around 6000 across the Peruvian highland – in the struggle for the control over resources in relation to state agencies, in this case particularly a national park as well as local municipalities.

To order Andean Waterways at a 30% discount, call Hopkins Fulfillment Service at 1-800-537-5487.

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Glaciers Shape Lives in Upper Hunza

Glacier and river dynamics shaped irrigation systems and land use practices in Pakistan since the late 1700’s, according to a new paper by Sitara Parveen and his colleagues. These systems and practices can still be observed hundreds of years later, but they face severe challenges from glacier retreat.

The glaciers in Karakoram. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Maria Ly.
The glaciers in Karakoram. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Maria Ly.

Upper Hunza is located in the western Karakoram, Pakistan. The Hunza River flows north to south, and is joined by the Shimshal River from the northeast, and by the Batura, Passu, Ghulkin and Gulmit glaciers from the west. The melt runoff from the four glaciers supports approximately 20,000 people in Upper Hunza, and nurtures crops and orchards cultivated by villagers.

Steady and stable agricultural production requires constant and sufficient melt-water supply from glaciers and snowfields. The interactions between hydrological conditions and human communities in Upper Hunza are characterized by various aspects, including the arid environment of human settlements at lower altitudes, the dynamics of snow and ice cover at higher altitudes, the flexible water use practices, and diverse socio-economic conditions.

Upper Hunza is well known for its sophisticated irrigation systems. The earliest recorded irrigation channels in the valley date back to at least 1780 and diverted water from the Batura Glacier. To study the impacts of environmental and socio-economic dynamics on irrigation systems, Parveen and his colleagues examined the irrigation systems in three villages—Passu, Borith, Ghulkin—which are fed by different water sources.

The view across the valley  at Passu. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Goth Phill.
The view across the valley at Passu. Source: Flickr. Photo credit: Goth Phill.

In Passu Village, the largest settlement is located on three fluvial terraces at an elevation of about 2500m above sea level. Over the past 400 years, natural disasters have driven villagers to higher ground. They have also made several attempts to recover and rehabilitate barren land for crop cultivation. In 1983, a project to expand irrigable land was implemented by sourcing water from the Batura Glacier, however, the operation of this project was disturbed by the ups and downs in the volume of melt-water. Despite that, each household received one field on each terrace and 53% of the project area is transformed to irrigated fields.

In Borith, the main water sources are the Passu and Ghulkin glaciers. The community has made efforts to secure access to water due to frequent water crisis caused by glacier retreat since the 1950s. The northern part of Borith used to be served by Lake Ghyper Zhui, which began to shrink in the 1940s as the Passu Glacier started to become thinner with melting. Several attempts were then made to conserve the melt water flow into the lake, with the expansion of natural irrigation channels through daily excavation works. However, all the efforts turned futile as soon as the glacial runoff proved to be insufficient and the land returned to a barren state.

The Lake Ghyper Zhui fed by Passu Glacier via a number of channels (red arrows). The channels are desiccated due to limited glacier melt. (Photo credit: Sitira Parveen)
The Lake Ghyper Zhui fed by Passu Glacier via a number of channels (red arrows). The channels are desiccated due to limited glacier melt. (Photo credit: Sitira Parveen)

Lower Borith sources all of its water from Ghulkin Glacier. Since 1960, many channels have been constructed, adjusted and constantly maintained to divert water in response to the continuous thinning of the glacier, which is highly labor-intensive. As the majority of households migrated from the community due to ongoing declining water resources, an increasing number of fields have gone idle. New pipelines were installed in 2013, but the problem of shifting water sources still remains.

Ghulkin is located between two glaciers—Ghulkin and Gulmit. The village is also facing water shortage due to increasing glacier down-wasting. The problem is even more aggravated by the dispute over water use rights between the original inhabitants and the relatively new immigrants. A water management committee was thus established, but does not function well because the original settlers upstream often ignore the arrangement, leaving the downstream people helpless. Some villages constructed new irrigation channels and cultivated different, drought-tolerant crops.

The dynamics of glaciers and rivers in Upper Hunza have a considerable impact on local adaptation practices and land use patterns. The fluctuation in water supply is one of the major constraints in local communities. Glacier related natural disasters further contribute to the vulnerability of local irrigation systems and livelihoods as well. To make it even worse, the villages lack a sufficient work force to maintain the irrigation systems and manage the problems brought by glacier dynamics, such as equitable water distribution.

Communities of Upper Hunza have experienced substantial external interventions over the past century, and the impacts of glaciers and rivers will extend into the future. The study conducted by Parveen et al. sheds light on irrigation construction and improvement, especially for high mountain areas. Other high mountain communities can also learn from the lessons of Upper Hunza when coping with the effects of climate change.