Himalayas: The climate change fight of the century11 min read . Updated: 14 Feb 2019, 11:49 AM IST
Nearly a third of the Himalayan glaciers could vanish by 2100. What does it mean for 300 million Indians who rely on it for water?
New Delhi: Rinchen Namgail, 27, is a sepoy in the Ladakh Scouts regiment of the Indian Army. On a short winter leave in the middle of January, he’s back at his home in Ulley village, situated at about 4,200m in a steep valley in the Ladakh Range. He looks out over at the snow-covered upper reaches of the valley and points at a series of canals zig-zagging down from the head of the valley down to its lower reaches. “These are what we use for water through the year, for irrigation and for drinking," he says. Dependent upon winter snowfall and glacial run-off, such canals form the traditional backbone of the Ladakhi way of life. Namgail’s only worry, as he squints in the dazzling midday sun, is that despite appearances, it has not been snowing too much. “We need really good winter snowfall for enough water through the year," he says. “But every year, it has been snowing less and less."
Ironically, in some of India’s coldest outposts, lack of adequate snow is increasingly becoming a concern. And men like Namgail are beginning to seriously worry about water. A first-of-its-kind scientific report released last week has now come to the same conclusion that mountain people like Namgail have reached the experience of past winters.
The 627-page assessment report prepared by the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), an intergovernmental organization set up by the eight countries of the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region, makes for grim reading. The HKH region has lost 15% of its glaciers since the 1970s, and in a best-case scenario, will lose another 15-20% by 2100. But if global action against climate risks falters, as much as 90% of snow in the region may disappear. Increased glacial melting means that flooding disasters will escalate over the next fifty years, and this will be followed by drastically reduced flows in rivers like the Ganga and the Indus, leading to acute water stress, large scale migration, and conflict.
While bitingly cold winter mornings may still make an appearance, on average, winter snowfall is decreasing and winter days are shrinking too. In the past five to six decades, the number of cold nights per year has been declining by one night per decade, while the number of warm nights is increasing by 1.7 nights per decade. The South-East monsoon is slated to strengthen considerably over the next century, causing heavy, unpredictable and potentially ruinous downpour. The crux of the matter is that climate change has already hit the Himalaya hard, and things are only going to get worse.
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of," said Philippus Wester, chief scientist at ICIMOD, who warned that many glacier-covered peaks could turn into bare rocks in less than a century. “Nearly 240 million people live up there in the mountains. So, that’s a quarter of a billion people which, somehow, not all that many people are aware of. They’re like ‘Oh, there are a few people up there in the hills’. But it’s a lot of people," he added.
When the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had published its highly anticipated fourth assessment report in 2007, one claim in the report about the Himalayas had made waves. This was that the region will be utterly devoid of glaciers by 2035. This was later found to be an anecdotal remark which had not been verified. A source of embarrassment for the IPCC, the Himalayan “Third Pole" has not received as much importance in subsequent IPCC reports, including the fifth assessment report of 2013-14, possibly due to a lack of available research. The ICIMOD report, which seeks to plug this information gap, is the work of 210 scientists, which was in turn peer reviewed by another 135.
This rigour helps the report make a watertight case for the region and clears up many questions on whether Himalayan glaciers are in retreat or not. According to its findings, if the global average temperature is indeed kept to a 1.5°C rise over pre-industrial levels (as agreed upon at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference), this will mean a 2.1°C rise in the HKH region due to elevation-dependent warming. In such a scenario, the region will lose 36% of its glaciers by 2100.
To Chandra Bhushan, deputy director general of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), this is an alarming finding. “We have lost 15% of our glaciers since the 1970s. This is a massive decline— absolutely shocking. I don’t think people are being able to understand the enormity of this number," he said.
“The best that the world is thinking of is a 1.5 °C rise. And the best is not going to be good enough for Himalayan glaciers. We’re going to lose one-third of our glaciers," he added.
However, as of now, the glacier retreat is not uniform since the report does highlight an anomaly where some glaciers in the Karakoram Range, eastern Pamir, and western Kunlun have been observed to be growing, and not diminishing. The report concludes that this is a result of intensifying westerly disturbances, a winter weather pattern, and this rise is limited only to that area.
Glaciologist Anna Sinisalo, who studies glacier dynamics and works with ICIMOD but wasn’t involved in the report, says: “The glaciers’ response to climate is influenced by their individual geographic setting."
The planet had warmed by 1.11°C over pre-industrial levels in 2016, which also happens to be the hottest year on record. According to the UK Met office, global mean temperatures could touch a 1.5°C rise by as early as 2023. In such a scenario, it isn’t outside the realm of possibility to envisage a 3°C or more rise by 2100. According to the ICIMOD report, that would be catastrophic for the HKH, and the region would stand to lose over 75% of its glaciers.
Photographer and writer Sujoy Das, 58, has been trekking in the Himalaya for over three decades now. He remembers a famed glacial lake at the Zemu glacier in the shadow of the Kanchenjunga. “When I first went there in 1986, Green Lake was locally renowned, not least for seeing Kanchenjunga reflected in its waters," he says, “however, I went there again in 2014 and it had completely disappeared." And it’s not an isolated occurrence. “These days, if you trek to the Everest Base Camp, you’ll find that the Khumbu Glacier has retreated to the icefall. The base camp is now just rubble and debris," says Das.
Manu Hiyunri, 38, from Dharamsala, belongs to the Gaddi transhumant community that lives on either side of the Dhauladhar Range in the Kangra and Chamba valleys of Himachal Pradesh. According to him, in the past 15 years, he’s seen the Dhauladhar’s glaciers and ice-falls reduce dramatically. “When I used to accompany my father with our sheep and goats across the Dhauladhar, I remember the Lahesh glacier would extend all the way from Indrahar pass to the camping ground of Laka Got. It used to be perennial. In the past 12-15 years, every year, the glacier melts a little early. These days, it is entirely gone by June," he says.
According to him, the same is true for freshwater springs. There used to be a perennial spring near the popular camping ground of Triund (at 3,000m). “All the shepherds and trekkers used to depend on it for water," says Hiyunri, “but these days it’s very difficult because the spring dries up for long months." The unheralded crisis with Himalayan groundwater and the drying up of perennial springs is another aspect of climate change exacerbating an already fragile ecosystem.
“One finding that we hope we have emphasized enough in the report is the drying up of springs," says water expert Aditi Mukherji, one of the editors of the report. “I think in India this is a very big issue," she adds.
A part of the problem is that in India there have been no surveys of springs, as till recently, mountains weren’t mapped for groundwater data.
“The central groundwater board, which does a reasonably good assessment of India’s groundwater never looked at the mountains because their definition said that land that has a slope of over 20 degrees is not considered suitable for groundwater. This definition has just been revised," she says. Mukherji reckons that there are at least three to five million springs across the HKH region. “One of the recommendations is that central agencies like the central groundwater board and the environment ministry have to launch a systematic assessment of springs."
Dams, data, cooperation
When it comes to river basins, the HKH assessment report establishes that just the Indus, Ganga and the Brahmaputra basins between them support 916 million people. Of these, 580 million people depend on the Ganga basin alone. Higher glacial melts due to warming, according to the report, will cause these rivers to see continuously increased flow till 2050-60.
This will exacerbate chances of flooding and glacial-lake burst disasters, such as in Uttarakhand in 2013.
Towards the end of the century, pre-monsoon water-flow levels in these rivers will drastically reduce, affecting agricultural output as well as non-consumptive use such as hydropower generation. The report warns that a lack of adequate action now with regards to dams, the equitable sharing of hydropower benefits with mountain people, and the lack of robust transboundary cooperation for international rivers can lead to a deepening of social inequities and heighten the chances of conflict.
Responses to hydropower is varied among the HKH countries, according to Mukherji. While in India, the consensus is shifting away from hydropower and dams, especially with the entry of renewable energy, in countries like Nepal and Pakistan, dams are still desired. In the former, the governmental focus is more on how to share the financial benefits of hydropower projects through local governance. “In India, dams are increasingly being seen as economically no longer feasible. Anyway, hydropower [project] is beset with problems of environment," says Mukherji.
For Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator, South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP), hydropower dams are not just unviable, they will exacerbate environmental catastrophes. “Hydropower project construction and operation greatly increases the disaster potential of the area," he says. According to Thakkar, heightened glacial melt and stronger monsoon pose catastrophic dangers that dams could worsen. He points to the 2018 Kerala floods. “What happened in Kerala, for example… the operational issues of dams worsened the disaster situation," he says. In the wake of the Uttarakhand floods of 2013, the Supreme Court directed the government to set up a panel to investigate the role played by hydro projects in heightening the disaster. “That report went in depth into this and gave a number of instances and said that a number of projects have worsened the disaster," he says.
More importantly, Thakkar and everyone else that Mint spoke to for this story were unanimous on the need for better data, and systems that make it imperative for the eight HKH countries to share data. “Our data gathering is so bad," says Thakkar. “Do we know how much snowfall occurs in India? Can we even find out how much is the annual average snowfall say in Uttarakhand or in Himachal or Kashmir? If you look at monsoon data, you’ll find that the Indian Meteorological Department doesn’t know how much rainfall has occurred in 30-40 districts in this region."
Despite these obvious gaps, we know enough to take action, says Wester. But he says there is a need for more targeted research which can offer insight on the right course of action.
“I hope that there will be an intergovernmental body set up by all these eight countries of the HKH region to share data, to do joint research, and to look at a common action plan," Bhushan says. He also feels that every government should now develop national action plans for the Himalayan region to address ecology, biodiversity, and water resources.
Going forward, ICIMOD will make formal presentations of the report to each of the member countries. “Our aim is to use this report," says Eklabya Sharma, deputy director general, ICIMOD. “Now, we go to each of these countries and we have developed the HKH eight Call to Actions."
A lot rides on whether the governments of the eight countries in the region sit up and take notice. Men like Namgail who search for snow in the Ladakhi winter and the unborn children who will grow up to inhabit the Ganga basin in the years to come depend on the governments to come up with the right response.
The Himalayan region has already lost 15% of its glaciers since the 1970s and will lose another 15-20% by 2100. But if global action against climate risks falters, as much as 90% of snow in the region may disappear.
Though the effects of global warming are far more significant at higher altitudes, the Himalayan “Third Pole" has not received much importance despite being home to nearly 240 million people.
Higher glacial melts could affect around 916 mn people as it will cause the Indus and Ganga to see continuously increased flow till 2050-60. This will worsen glacial-lake burst disasters, such as Uttarakhand in 2013.