Conference Brings Attention to Himalayan Climate Threat

Anna da Costa

Scientists, policymakers, and community representatives from across South Asia met earlier this month to discuss the many threats that climate change poses to the continent's Greater Himalayan region.

insects Across Nepal and Tibet, average temperatures have been up to six times warmer in the mountains than in the plains, triggering changes in regional weather patterns.

These changes have been accompanied by increases in pest and disease populations, losses in local biodiversity, and more than 3,500 forest fires in the Himalayas this spring alone.

"Accelerated melting of glaciers in the Himalayas is...posing a catastrophic threat to the 1.3 billion people in [the region's] river basins," said Uday Sharma, secretary of Nepal's Ministry of Environment, who attended the meeting in Kathmandu in early September.

Unseasonal weather, including floods, droughts, and late frosts, has also prompted crop failures from Tajikistan to northern India, according to Brian Peniston, Nepal and India country director with the Mountain Institute

The unprecedented changes led leaders in the mountainous region to seek closer collaboration to address their shared climate challenge. The Kathmandu-to-Copenhagen conference, the first formal meeting of Himalayan nations on climate change, provided an opportunity for delegates to discuss joint development opportunities in the region and to develop a common statement to the international community on the region's climate challenges.

glaciersParticipants at the event called on climate change negotiators gathering in Copenhagen, Denmark, this December to give greater attention to the plight of the Himalayan region as they finalize a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol.

So far, they said, the international community has paid little attention to the impacts of climate change in the Himalayas, compared to the significant coverage given to low-lying coastal countries such as Bangladesh and the Maldives.

"[During the 2007 climate summit] in Bali, climate change was seen exclusively for island states and coastal areas, but we have to see mountain states as highly sensitive and fragile also," said Andreas Schild, director general of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD). 

The Greater Himalayan region is home to the world's highest mountain peaks and spans more than 7 million square kilometers in eight Asian countries. Its more than 112,000 square kilometers of snow and ice feed 10 major rivers that flow far into surrounding lowland plains, including the Ganges, Mekong, Tarim, and Yangtze. This immense hydrological system, together with rain deposited by regional weather patterns, supplies water to an estimated 35 percent of the global population.

Mounting impacts

himalayas At the Kathmandu summit, more than 30 high-profile speakers spoke about the many changes being observed across this ecologically dynamic region.

Pradeep K. Mool, an ice-and-water remote-sensing specialist with ICIMOD, observed that "mosquito nets are now needed in Lhasa," Tibet's administrative capital. Residents of the city, located 3,490 meters above sea level, have reported seeing mosquitoes for the first time ever.

There are similar reports of flies at Mt. Everest base camp in Nepal. The presence of these insects suggests the possible spread of vector-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, to areas where cooler temperatures previously protected people from these threats.

The region's tremendous expanse of snow and ice has also experienced major changes. According to local researchers, permafrost is melting in high-elevation areas of China, causing houses to crumble, railway tracks to buckle, and roads to pucker. Snow lines have receded to higher altitudes, revealing plains that are now being degraded by rats in some areas. Lower-altitude glaciers are showing signs of rapid melt as well.

"Most of the glaciers are shrinking in mass at low and mid altitudes in the Himalayas and elsewhere, but very few are being scientifically monitored," Mool said.

Ang Tshering Sherpa, president of the Union of Asian Alpine Associations (UAAA), observed that in 1960, Nepal was home to more than 3,000 glaciers and no high-altitude lakes. But today, "almost every glacier is melting, and we have between 2,000 and 3,000 lakes," he said. Studies suggest that if the present trend continues, most valley-glacier trunks (where smaller tributary glaciers join to form a larger glacial system) and smaller glaciers will disappear by 2050.

gangotri Glacial melt provides as much as 70 percent of the summer flow for the region's 10 major river systems, supplying a large share of the water needs for an estimated 3-4 billion people downstream.

With seven of the rivers spanning more than one country, delegates expressed concern that regional resource conflicts may develop if there are long-term decreases in river flow. Government officials and scientists said that mitigating this threat will require international and regional collaboration on data sharing and analysis, water management, and adaptation measures.

Glacial lake outburst floods

Glacial lakes are a relatively recent phenomenon in the Himalayan region and a source of great concern for local populations. As the water from melting glaciers builds up, these lakes can burst from their rock or ice barriers and cause rapid flash floods, known as "glacial lake outburst floods," that inundate surrounding areas with water, boulders, and sediment.

"When they burst, many infrastructures, livelihoods, and innocent lives are washed away in a minute," said the UAAA's Sherpa. "They can affect the whole region, even down to Bangladesh."

The influx of sediment and boulders can also affect agricultural productivity, making it difficult for farmers to graze herds or grow crops.

More than 30 glacial lake outbursts have been reported in the Himalayan region since 1964.

Nepal alone has witnessed more than 13 of the disasters. Today, another 20 lakes in the region are "potentially dangerous" and six are "critical," according to ICIMOD's Mool.

gangtse The largest Himalayan outburst on record occurred in 1954, when China's Sangwang Cuo lake, located at 5,250 meters, released 300 million cubic meters of water into the Brahmaputra River basin.

The flood discharged some 10,000 cubic meters of water per second and inundated the town of Gyantze, 120 kilometers downstream, depositing three-to-five meters of rock, sand, and boulders.

"No world structures can withstand this kind of pressure," Mool said.

Significant knowledge gaps

Long-term studies of glaciers around the world suggest a rapid decline in ice mass, particularly for the Himalayan (black line) and Tian Shan (blue dashes) glaciers. Data from Dyurgerav and Meier 2005.
Around the world, water from melting glaciers is contributing to sea-level rise and threatening the world's coastal regions, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 assessment report. But the report identified the Himalayan region as a "white spot," indicating a lack of consistent, long-term data on the scale and impacts of climate change on the region.

"There is a huge data gap," Schild said. "To date, much of the information we have is either anecdotal or not scientifically robust. Although it is clear what is happening, there is a significant lack of concrete information, and we need to reduce uncertainty."

Remote-sensing analyses carried out in Nepal indicate that ice melt is currently "not" occurring above 5,400 meters. But reports from local farmers and mountaineers suggest that this may be changing.

remote sensing "Above 5,000 meters, it didn't use to melt in the old days," said the UAAA's Sherpa. "Now it is melting more and more every year. We can clearly observe the vast melting when we visit the mountain regions."

According to the IPCC's 2007 assessment, nearly 67 percent of glaciers in the Himalayan and Tien Shan mountain ranges have retreated in the past decade. An ICIMOD report released that same year concluded that some 90 percent of glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau are retreating.

But scientists contend that the retreat or advance of a glacier is not in itself an accurate way to measure glacial loss, since this does not necessarily imply a change in mass. ICIMOD's Schild noted that long-term studies of changing glacial mass, spanning 30 years or more, are needed to observe actual ice loss, but few of these have been conducted in the Himalayas.

"Regular long-term mass balance observations have only been carried out for a single glacier in China," he said. "Recent activities in China, India, Pakistan, and Nepal have been initiated, but these are to date largely punctual and not comprehensive."

The few existing, long-term glacial mass studies suggest that Himalayan glacial retreat is among the fastest in the world.

"The only thing that's certain is that nothing is certain," said Vijay Sharma, secretary for India's Ministry of Environment and Forests. "Whatever is happening, it's faster than it's been before, and we don't have the machinery to cope."

Experts observed that additional studies are lacking in part because of the challenge of collecting data at high altitudes and in such harsh conditions. To date, Himalayan-region institutions and funding have been too weak to implement such long-term assessments, and countries have yet to agree on a common means of sharing data across borders, Sharma said.

Many speakers at the conference highlighted scientific uncertainty as a key reason why the region's climate crisis has not featured as prominently on the international stage. Schild, however, insisted that the lack of information should not be a reason for inactivity.

"Climate change in the Hindu Kush Himalayas deserves a priority in the discussions, and Copenhagen has to be that opportunity," he said.

Action needed at all levels

nepalese school kids The Greater Himalayan region is home to some of the world's poorest and most vulnerable populations. With progress at the international level slow, some local communities are taking matters into their own hands.

"Local populations weren't part of the problem, but they can be a part of the global solution," said the Mountain Institute's Peniston.

Community-level solutions for adapting to changing environmental conditions while also achieving wider development objectives include rainwater harvesting, the use of small-scale hydropower for electricity provision, and the establishment of community forests. These efforts, in combination with emissions-reducing strategies such as cleaner-burning stoves, can lead to the creation of sustainable, low-carbon livelihoods, Schild said.

"Already, [people in the region] are employing a growing array of mechanisms to build resilience to the changing conditions," he said. "These need to be shared, scaled-up, and further innovated upon to protect these populations."

Ajaya Dixit, a water expert with Nepal's Institute for Social and Environmental Transition, said that climate change should be seen as an opportunity, not just a problem. "Climate change is an opportunity for us to reflect on what we are, what we have done, and to re-imagine our future development," he said.

Delegates spoke of the need for Himalayan countries to collaborate more closely to support local adaptation, as well as to engage in joint research to reduce future risks. Collective activities proposed for the region included coordinated research and data collection, capacity building, disaster forecasting and management, and awareness-raising.

But speakers noted that all of these activities cost money and that some would require the use of new technologies. Installing early-warning systems for a single glacial lake, such as Nepal's Tsho Rolpa, would cost an estimated US$4 million, according to ICIMOD.

kathmandu ICIMOD is submitting a proposal to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to host a side event at the Copenhagen climate conference on "the Himalayan plight." The event would be a platform for Himalayan countries to raise awareness of both the impacts being experienced and the major adaptation efforts under way, and to highlight the need for greater international support.

In a statement released at the close of the Kathmandu gathering, delegates called on industrialized countries to provide financial support for both climate change mitigation technologies and adaptation. Several speakers also called on the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters to significantly reduce their own emissions.

"Ultimately, adaptation is no substitute for mitigation," said Saber Hossain Chowdhury, a member of Bangladesh's parliament. "Mitigation is the best form of adaptation."

This article was originally posted on the Worldwatch Institute Website.

Worldwatch Institute, Eye on Earth, www.worldwatch.org

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  • Posted on Sept. 18, 2009. Listed in:

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