South Asian Perspectives on News of Rapid Himalayan Glacier Melt

The “Third Pole” glaciers of the Himalayas feed into the major rivers of South Asia, providing vital freshwater. This resources is essential to the development of national and local communities and economies. 

With global warming, the Himalayas, along with several other glaciated regions across the planet, are expected to experience a drastic reduction in ice mass and rapidly retreat. A new study tracing Himalayan glacier melt from 1975 to 2016 found that the melt rate has actually doubled since the turn of the century, suggesting a heightened risk of flooding for vulnerable regions. 

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, was conducted by Columbia University Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Ph.D candidate Joshua Maurer. Maurer and fellow researchers from Columbia University and the University of Utah examined satellite images to detect changes from the periods of 1975-2000 and 2000-2016. 

This new study received international recognition and gained media attention across several South Asian countries, including Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is a riverine country where three of the major rivers in the region—the Ganges, Meghna, and Brahmaputra—converge and fan out to the Bay of Bengal. These rivers which feed off of Himalayan meltwater provide much-needed freshwater for irrigation, drinking, and other needs.

How might this news impacts the country’s water system?

A view of the Himalayas taken during a trek in Nepal (Source: Treks Himalaya/Flickr)

Bangladeshi perceptions of the study

An AFP article published in The Daily Star, one of the leading English-language Bangladeshi news outlets, asserts that the rapid retreat outlined in the new study threatens the water supply of hundreds of millions of people living downstream across South Asia. It mentions additional contributions to melt aside from temperature, which the study emphasizes as the leading cause of the region’s glacier melt. “Other factors the researchers blamed were changes in rainfall, with reductions tending to reduce ice cover, and the burning of fossil fuels which lead to soot that lands on snowy glacier surfaces, absorbing sunlight and hastening melting,” AFP reported.

UNB and bdnews24 also covered the study. Joseph Shea, a glacial geographer from the University of Northern British Columbia, told bdnews24 that the melting will lead to changes of timing and magnitude of stream flow in a heavily populated region. 

UNB highlighted the study team’s ability to fill critical data gaps by utilizing US spy satellite images to calculate Himalayan ice mass in previous decades. NASA climate scientist John Willis commented that the study’s models provided confirmation of what scientists suspected, which was that warming was the main culprit to extensive melt.

A photo of the Brahmaputra river, the longest river passing through Bangladesh, taken in Mymensingh, Bangladesh (Source: Topu Saha/Flickr)

Glacier contribution to Bangladesh hydrology

GlacierHub interviewed Saleemul Huq, renowned Bangladeshi climate scientist, IPCC author, and director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD). Huq provided some general views on the recent news and spoke about the relevance to Bangladesh’s water systems.

“Bangladesh’s Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna river basin is highly complex,” Huq said. “Glacier melt makes an important contribution to rivers in dry areas where there is very little rainfall. However, as soon as the monsoon starts, glacier ice melt becomes incomparable to the contribution by heavy monsoon rains.” 

He added that the loss of the glacier overall will impact Bangladesh in the future, yet the immediate increased glacier outflow into the rivers does not heavily effect the hydrology, particularly for the downstream regions. 

Huq said Bangladesh is currently working on some techniques to improve water availability and security for dry seasons, which are expected to become longer with climate change. Some methods include creating barrages, river dredging, and rainwater harvesting. 

The monsoon season (typically June to October) brings nationwide flooding to Bangladesh (Source: Martien van Asseldonk)

Other regions of South Asia

Pakistan media sources, including the Daily Times PK and The Express Tribune, among others, also covered the news. One story published by The Nation PK mentions that, in the long term, millions of people who depend on glacier water during drought years will experience difficulties. In addition, scientists say that the rapid melting of the Himalayas can also result in flooding. This flooding will be exacerbated by heavy monsoon rains. 

Business World India connects the news about the Himalayas with drying taps in Chennai. The greatest impact is said to be in the Indus River system, which is comprised of the Indus, Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers and is shared by India and Pakistan. The Indus river itself receives about 40 percent of its flow from glacier melt

Already India is suffering from water management issues, and the taps and reservoirs of Chennai are all dried up. In addition to the current weak monsoon and excessive groundwater extraction, future loss of the Himalayas will make the country even more water-stressed. 

Check out this video by The Quint, a popular news website in India, which emphasizes the impacts of Himalayan glacier melt in Asia.

Read more on GlacierHub:

Ancient Humans of Glaciated Western China Consumed High-Potency Cannabis

Roundup: Alaska’s Heat Wave, Black Carbon in Tibet, and Artwork at The Met

Photo Friday: Totten Glacier Twitter Feed is Pun-derful

Please follow, share and like us:
error

Climate Risk Adaptation for Flooding in the Indian Himalayas

The emergence of the term “climate risk” to describe regions and people negatively impacted by the effects of climate change is now informing adaptation planning in highland areas. A recent study from Environmental Science and Policy reviews a pilot program in the Indian Himalayas that considers climate risk for glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) and other weather-related flooding to create an adaptation plan specific to the region. The research finds that a climate risk assessment framework can contribute to sustainable adaptation planning for communities.

How the integrative concept of climate risk was operationalized for the assessment of flood risk in Himachal Pradesh, Northern India (Source: Environmental Science and Policy).

The research was a collaborative effort under the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation and the government of India’s Indian Himalayas Climate Adaptation Programme (IHCAP), an initiative based on the country’s National Action Plan on Climate Change. IHCAP “aims to enhance the resilience of vulnerable communities in the Indian Himalayas through strengthening the capacities of Indian institutions in climate science, with a specific focus on glaciology and related areas, as well as institutional capacities of Himalayan states in India on adaptation planning, implementation and policy.” With this in mind, a statewide assessment was done of Himachal Pradesh, an Indian state in the Himalayas, followed by a more focused assessment of the Kullu District, one of the state’s identified hot spots for climate risk.

Located in the north-west of Himachal Pradesh, Kullu District is home to over 437,000 people and sits along the valley of the Beas River, with many floodplains running throughout. According to the study, floods are considered a major threat and the potential for GLOFs— events caused by glacier melting and lake expansion— is increasing significantly, with “enhanced risk extending far downstream from where the potentially dangerous lakes originate,” according to the research.

Integrated GLOF risk assessment for the tehsils of Himachal Pradesh (Source: Environmental Science and Policy).

“Adaptation strategies need to be underpinned by robust science,” Simon Allen, one of the study’s researchers from the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva, told GlacierHub. Otherwise, he says, the worst-case scenario is that strategies such as Early Warning Systems could be installed in the wrong locations or may not be adequate for the magnitude of the event expected. This point supported the study’s analysis of climate risk into the categories of hazard, vulnerability, and exposure during the initial scientific assessment. An integrated risk assessment was then undertaken.

Considering components of climate risk combines aspects of disaster risk management and climate adaptation planning to create a comprehensive approach for the management of flood risk. It originates from the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as an integrative approach to managing vulnerability in the face of climate change, and has been since utilized by the C40 Cities network to increase resilience in cities such as Toronto and Amsterdam. It offers a framework for approaching adaptation that emphasizes locating and managing hot-spots of climate risk.

With a solid scientific risk assessment as a foundation, the Kullu District’s adaptation planning was approached with an emphasis on local participation. “The strategies and the underlying science need to be strongly supported by the local stakeholders, and this support and trust takes time to build,” noted Allen. The element of trust is important as it increases the likelihood of a successful project and allows the sharing of vital local knowledge. To build this trust, the locals were involved from the beginning with repeated consultations during the climate risk study and maintained control over the final decisions on adaptation options.

Multiple adaptation plans were discussed during several community workshops and meetings to address both the GLOF and monsoonal flood risks. This allowed the locals to utilize their unique knowledge of the area to determine what would be most beneficial according to their community’s concerns, goals, and institutional capacity. In the study, the support of the district’s disaster management authority was crucial in the political context of the area.

The River Beas and River Parvati in Bhuntar, Kullu (Source: Biswarup Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons).

This resulted in the final adaptation proposal involving two components: glacial lake development monitoring and an instrumental monsoon flood early warning system (EWS) in the Parvati Valley, which proved to be a risk hot-spot. EWSs have been used successfully in nearby countries such as Nepal, where their remote data collection system alerted local authorities of rising water levels due to monsoonal rains.

“This strategy recognized that monsoon floods are the very real and frequently observed threat to lives and property in Parvati Valley,” according to the study. It was also able to acknowledge the local interest in preparing for a potential GLOF threat.

The study placed an emphasis on low-regret options when working with local authorities. These options include continued knowledge exchange between the Swiss and Indian partners or incorporating training for local decision-makers to ensure successful flood preparation and response. It aims to strengthen local capacities to deal with flood emergencies, which will bring immediate benefits, but also intends to help in the long-term by dealing with the rapidly evolving and uncertain future GLOF threat, according to Allen. “I don’t see it as a barrier, but rather an additional motivation and opportunity to deal with the very real and existing flood threat from seasonal monsoon rainfalls, while also keeping one eye on the rapidly evolving GLOF threat,” he said.

The pilot study is one of the few to thoroughly and successfully integrate climate risk into the assessment framework of the adaptation planning process. The ultimate goal is to utilize the strategies developed during the project in the Kullu District and upscale them to other areas of the Indian Himalayan region. This expansion will ideally be done with one of the study’s core concepts at the forefront: “While science should closely inform the decision-making process, only those actions that are strongly desired and supported by local stakeholders will prove sustainable in the long-term.”

Please follow, share and like us:
error