New Delhi: The lives and livelihoods of 1.65 billion people living in downstream river basins will be impacted as at least a third of the glaciers in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) ranges will melt by 2100 due to climate change, a new report has claimed. That is the best-case scenario, in case global emissions are cut and global warming is restricted to 1.5º C above pre-industrial levels – the most ambitious target under the 2015 Paris Agreement.
If, however, emissions are not cut and the world continues on its current warming trajectory, two-thirds of all glaciers in the HKH could be gone by the end of the century. About 15% of the glaciers have already disappeared.
The per capita carbon dioxide emission of the HKH region is just one-sixth of the global average, but it will have to bear significantly higher impacts.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of,” said Philippus Wester of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) and lead author of 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.”
Melting of glaciers also results in the formation of glacial lakes – which are a potential hazard. Floods as a result of glacial lake outbursts can cause considerable damage to life and property. There are almost 9,000 glacial lakes in the HKH, of which 203 are potentially dangerous.
The HKH Assessment report is the combined effort of researchers and policy experts from 22 countries and has been compiled by ICIMOD, based in Kathmandu.
The Wire had already reported a similar conclusion reached by researchers from ICIMOD, among other institutions in 2017.
It is important to consider the HKH together as it is essentially one entity, Arun Bhakta Shrestha, a senior scientist at ICIMOD and one of the authors of the reports, had told The Wire in a 2018 interview. “You can divide these into sub-regions but basically it’s one entity formed due to one process, within South and Central Asia. So there have a lot in common and the drivers are also quite common, starting from the climate itself,” Shrestha had said.
The HKH are spread over 3,500 kilometres from Afghanistan in the west to Myanmar in the east. They are home to about 250 million people, and some 1.65 billion people rely on the rivers that originate in them. The HKH is often called the world’s ‘third pole’ as it contains the most ice outside of the Antarctic and Arctic regions.
“The massive size and global significance of the Hindu Kush Himalaya region is indisputable, yet this is the first report to lay down in definitive detail the region’s critical importance to the well-being of billions and its alarming vulnerability, especially in the face of climate change,” said David Molden, the director general of ICIMOD.
The report also concluded that the HKH, much like the two poles, are warming faster than the global average. “Even if global warming is limited to 1.5˚C, warming will likely be at least 0.3˚C higher in the HKH, and at least 0.7˚C higher in the northwest Himalaya and Karakoram.”
Due to the warming, the western disturbances (WD), which are the primary source of winter rain in the region, are likely to see increased variability. Precipitation due to WDs is crucial to the growing of winter crops such as wheat in Pakistan and north western India.
Water availability will also likely be impacted in the region owing to climate change. The report estimates that until 2050, there will be an increase in streamflow in the basins of the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra. Thereafter, there will be decrease in pre-monsoon flow.
Springs, which are a crucial resource in the mountains as the populations are directly dependent on them, are increasingly threatened. In addition to the receding glaciers, human intervention from changes in land use and soil erosion have resulted in the drying up of springs. Last year the NITI Aayog said in a report that 30% of springs in the Indian Himalaya have dried up.
The HKH region is also crucial as it controls the monsoon system – which South Asia relies on for most of its rainfall. Shrestha explained to us in December the significance of the HKH for the monsoon, “It (the mountains) heats up so significantly that – like a pump – it sucks moisture from the ocean and that is what we know as the monsoons.”
According to the report, shifting monsoon patterns will lead to intense precipitation which would increase the risk of floods, landslides and soil erosion.
The climate induced changes will affect the underprivileged the most, the report said. “About one-third of the 250 million HKH mountain people live on less than $1.90 a day; more than 30% of the region’s population doesn’t have enough to eat, and around 50% face some form of malnutrition, with women and children suffering the most.”
Owing to the risks that the eight countries that contain the HKH face, the ICIMOD called for greater cooperation.
“Because many of the disasters and sudden changes will play out across country borders, conflict among the region’s countries could easily flare up. But the future doesn’t have to be bleak if governments work together to turn the tide against melting glaciers and the myriad impacts they unleash,” said Eklabya Sharma, deputy director general of ICIMOD.