Himalayas melting faster than the global average

The melting of Himalayan glaciers has been a bone of contention between international environmentalists and the Government of India. The government believes that some perceptions of the international environmentalists are alarmist. Now a new global report has sought to set aside that controversy by measuring the rate at which the Himalayan glaciers are melting. (The report enclosed below)

The Himalayan glaciers are melting faster than the global average and the rate of change is higher at higher altitudes, says the scientific study by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), and the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO). The study says that the warming of the Himalayas appears to be happening at the rate of 0.6 degree centigrade per decade which is much faster than the global average of 0.74 degree centigrade over the last century.

The study says that the Glaciers are generally receding in the Hindu-Kush Himalayas, some 40-80% have been projected to be lost by the end of the century, with the exception of the Karakoram, where the glaciers have been more stable.

Released on 11 December, 2009 at the UN climate convention meeting in Copenhagen by the study is titled “Local Responses to Too Much and Too Little Water in the Greater Himalayan region” shows that hundreds of millions of people in the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region and in the river basins downstream are being forced to adapt to a new reality: climate change.

The studies looked at situations where people are responding to too much water (floods, water logging) or too little water (drought, water stress) in regions spread across the greater Himalayas: in the dry mountain valleys of Chitral in Pakistan, the middle hills in Nepal and flood plains of Bihar, India in the Koshi basin, the flood plains of Brahmaputra in Assam in India, and the hill areas of Yunnan, China.

In Assam and Bihar in India, embankments built to contain the Koshi River have led to water logging, and even worse, cause catastrophic floods when they suddenly burst as a result of improper construction and inadequate maintenance. People who have settled closest to the embankments are the most vulnerable and take the heaviest toll. In both Assam and Bihar, infrastructure has also adversely affected people’s traditional mobility and natural river flows, further increasing their vulnerability to floods.

Climate change is increasing uncertainty and the risk for extreme droughts interspersed with extreme floods that are challenging food security, housing, infrastructure, business and even survival. Even hardy mountain populations, adapted for centuries to survival in extreme environments, are undergoing events so unprecedented that their traditional coping strategies are being overwhelmed by the events unfolding.

The findings are based on five field teams in China, India, Pakistan and Nepal who took part in this unique collaborative pilot study to look at the realities facing mountain populations and hundreds of millions people downstream.

Key Findings from the Report and Statistics on the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region:

• Extreme climate events are destroying crops, depleting water resources, causing losses in livestock, cropland, and agricultural productivity, and destroying the meagre infrastructure present, thus reducing market access and access to public services.

• Rainwater harvesting and revival of traditional and new water storage systems are crucial for water storage but must be adapted to the more extreme water events.

• Improved government policies must be developed to support and facilitate local adaptation strategies and to increase long-term resilience, not just disaster management.

• Increased efficiency of irrigation and water use is urgently needed - a new Blue Revolution in Asia could increase water availability for crop production.

• Livelihood diversification increases resilience to extreme events as much as income level and should be supported through investments.

• Government policies must support and strengthen social capital and networks.

Some regional statistics:

• The warming in the Himalayas appears to be much faster than the global average, for example, 0.6 degrees Centigrade per decade in Nepal compared with the global average of 0.74 degrees Centigrade over the last 100 years. The rate of change is higher at higher altitudes.

• Glaciers are generally receding in the Hindu-Kush Himalayas, some 40-80% have been projected to be lost by the end of the century, with the exception of the Karakoram, where the glaciers have been more stable.

• The proportion of glacial melt in rivers varies from 2-50%, with mountain snow and ice being critical for much larger shares of the flow in some rivers.

• Irrigation water from rivers sustains nearly 55% of Asia's cereal production and around 25% of the world cereal production, feeding over 2.5 billion people in Asia. Another UN report, "The Environmental Food Crisis", warned that the melting glaciers and snow could jeopardize world food security and drive prices to unprecedented levels.

• The most serious short-term changes are probably related to the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events, such as high intense rainfall leading to flash floods, landslides, and debris flows, as well as extreme drought.

• The hydrological role of snow and ice from the mountains is particularly high for the Tarim, Syr Darya, Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Huang He (Yellow) rivers.

• Over 1.3 billion people live directly in watersheds critically dependent upon glacier melt, snowmelt and water from the Hindu Kush-Himalayas.

• An estimated 516 million people in China, 526 million people in India and Bangladesh, 178 million people in Pakistan and northern India, and 49 million people in Central Asia, including Xinjiang in China, are thought to be at risk from water shortages. 

• Floods impact several million people every year in the region, and lead to thousands of casualties.

• The risk of glacial lake outburst floods ('GLOFS'), the sudden bursting of natural dammed melt lakes at the mouth of glaciers, is increasing as glaciers continue to retreat; with a potential to destroy lives, livelihoods, and infrastructure up to 100 kilometers downstream.

Further readings




Climate change threatening survival of Himalayan communities: UN report , The United Nations, 11 December, 2009,

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